Feedback has always been all the rage!
In all my years of teaching I think I know instinctively the things that make the difference to learning. Once such tipping points of learning for me has been those small, nearly unremembered, chats with students about their work. The subtle hint to change course; the exasperated plea to structure their writing; the nuanced tweak for an already well crafted piece of writing. It has been my ‘educated intuition‘ that those conversations made a difference for my students. It was an intuition that was broadly shared by my English colleagues. So much so, we enshrined such ‘one-to-one‘ feedback, to give it a rather more formal title, in our lessons and in our feedback policy.
We thought it worked. Our intuition and teacherly wisdom led us to create such oral feedback weeks in each term. We began in earnest last year. Our path as a department is well charted in these following posts:
A particular focus for the department has been not only to improve the quality of feedback, but to also make a concerted effort to improve the quality of student responses to feedback. For us it has culminated in an effort to embed DIRT in our English lessons: Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time. We have therefore been trialling DIRT strategies as a concerted departmental focus since last year. DIRT was therefore embedded into the core of our our feedback weeks.
It all sounds a flawless plan I think you’ll agree! Only, we found it wasn’t quite perfect!
We found our ‘One to one weeks’, where we endeavoured to have a feedback session with each individual student, were good opportunities for DIRT time, but that students needed lots of scaffolds, targeted support and modelling. More than we expected. Cue hasty replanning. Also, some groups were trickier to manage than others. It meant our feedback weeks weren’t all smooth sailing. Some of us found them untimely in terms of when the feedback week occurred and we needed to tweak them at the very least. Perhaps get rid altogether?
Our ‘educated intuition’ was tested. Frankly, we were unsure whether such ‘one to one’ conversations, one of the important cogs in our DIRT strategy, was making any impact. Could such a small unit of teaching make a worthwhile difference? Added to the complications of the new strategy, we needed to know whether the time invested was proving worth it.
Put simply, did it work?
Late last school year I was approached by my Head, John Tomsett, about the potential of doing some research (aided by the brilliantly helpful Jonathan Sharples). The opportunity was perfect timing. We could go some way to investigating whether our feedback weeks worked in our school- and in our context.
We had a question and we wanted some tangible evidence to challenge or support our intuition. We used the Education Endowment Fund guide to help us undertake a small, but precise matched trial that tested the impact of such feedback sessions. Let me take you through the steps:
We had a question we wanted to ask:
Here is the outline of the controlled trial:
Here is how we attempted to match the trial. We took similar groups and got two great teachers, Helen and Claire, to plan and deliver a writing unit, assessed with our own criteria. Crucially, our criteria is assessed for three writing strands: Writing 1 – for purpose, audience and style; Writing 2 – for structure of paragraphing and sentences; Writing 3 – for spelling, punctuation and grammar. We wanted to see if ‘one-to-one’ oral feedback impacted on any or all of these strands when students were asked to do equivalent review writing tasks.
One group, the ‘treatment group‘, was given the extra ten minute ‘one to one’ feedback to supplement and explain the written feedback. The ‘control group‘ were just given the written feedback. Both classes undertook the same DIRT strategies, and further supplementary tasks, during the feedback week:
Here is the evidence. On the right had side you can see the sub-level improvement for each writing strand. The conspicuously green column is Writing 1 – writing for purpose, audience and style:
And here is the summary of data (ably supported by our Subject leader of Maths, Mike Bruce):
So the ‘one-to-one’ oral feedback weeks did work. The particular focus for their success was not spelling, punctuation or grammar (as you would perhaps expect, given that these are long-term issues), but the significant success was focused in on how the teacher talk could illuminate for students how to write with a more fine-tuned style and crafting for the specific audience. It confirmed what was our educated intuition. One ten minute strategy, seemingly not too significant, added a huge amount of progress.
We were quietly pleased! We shared our findings and we endeavoured to continue with ‘one-to-one’ feedback, enshrining it in our practice, but with some tweaks. Gone are the timetabled weeks, fixed thought the year. Instead, we are retaining the ‘one-to-one’ feedback, with the recording of it in writing in their books etc., but we are more flexible about when we undertake the feedback. DIRT too is something we are honing and modifying as we teach. The matched trial gave us evidence, but coupled with the experience of actually delivering the feedback, we still needed to make adaptations. The classroom certainly isn’t a control room for experimentation!
The whole process of testing what works has been really illuminating – shining a critical light on our intuitions and testing our biases. The evidence and the research is far from flawless, but the learning is the thing. I would encourage anyone to trial the Education Endowment Fund Toolkit and test what works.
What we choose to teach and how we choose to teach matters. We should be mindful of what works in schools across the world and across our local region, but we should aim to reflect and test what works for our unique students in our unique school context.