Have We Got Feedback Backwards?

Pile of folders

Does a steepling pile of marking like this loom large in your nightmares?

The effect of good quality written feedback is one of those few constants that most teachers can agree has a positive impact on our students’ learning. With this universal truth acknowledged, we create assessment policies and armies of teachers scratch away in the books of their students, filling their waking hours with marking and feedback. Too often, our tough 9 to 5 is then followed by an evening stuffed with marking from 5 to 9. Is all this effort having the impact we desire? Is feedback indeed the gleaming holy grail of our practice it promises to be?

As an experienced teacher of over a decade, with some years in the bank as a subject leader of English who has conducted ample work scrutinies, I have seen my fair share of written feedback. I have seen teachers produce ample swathes of rich detail about what the student has done, and needs to do, in books and in folders. Spelling errors, praise, targets to improve. Time after time. Hour after hour of teacher time is ploughed into this worthy activity, but the issue is that too often the effort isn’t matched by the impact on learning.

One flaw in the whole feedback edifice is that the onus is too often on the teacher and not the student. What is masquerading as formative assessment, to help enlighten our students on how to get better, is rather an attempt to prove we are doing our job for school leaders weilding stringent accountability measures, or under the shadow of the dreaded OFSTED visit. Whole school policies that demand weekly or fortnightly feedback for every student attempt to beat students over the head with self-improvement, regardless of the actual needs of the student (or the wellbeing of the teacher). As David Didau has explored, sometimes feedback shouldn’t be given so that students improve (see David’s excellent blog post ‘Force-fed feedback – Is less More?‘). Certainly, for feedback to be timely and purposeful, setting arbitrary weekly or fortnightly deadlines is frankly a dumb notion.

We need to reframe the flawed view of written feedback as something that should fill the time of teachers into something that should fill the time of our students. I have written before about DIRT (Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time) – see here. The kernel of genius in DIRT is something ultimately very simple. We need to give students lots of time to respond to feedback. We also need to put the onus on them to makes changes and to engage in a feedback dialogue. Of course, if that dialogue is verbal, in the thick of their learning, then all the better.

In short, they should spend more time responding to feedback than we spend writing the feedback. We need to be precise and give students actions to respond to their feedback. If their vocabulary in English lacks punch, then circle their weak modal verbs and adjectives (note the specificity of the feedback) and then get them to use more effective synonyms, using a thesaurus or other apt DIRT tools. Give them time to do it and make feedback something that genuinely feeds forward.

The concept of ‘feeding forward’ is so crucial. So what do I mean by ‘feed forward’? If our feedback is a one off event that is never revisited then it is unlikely that the effort of giving the feedback will see the impact we desire on our students’ learning.

There are some specific strategies that can minimise our time taken on feedback whilst making sure that we have the maximum impact. Here are some tried and tested – time saving – strategies for effective assessment for learning that encourage the notion of feeding forward, putting the onus on students to engage meaningfully with our efforts:

Use symbols rather than comments. If half the class has made the same error then you are wasting time writing out comments, as you will have to address this issue in lesson time. Instead, preempt common issues and skim over some work to decide upon some general codes. A $, for example, can indicate that they lack evidence in an essay. It is a tiny time saver, but they all add up. Students are forced to interpret the symbols and really think about their feedback. Precious time is won.

Do a ‘Dot Round’. Do some quick and quality feedback in class. As they are working independently circulate the room and check their work. If they have made any mistakes or have got an answer wrong then simply mark it with a dot. This helps direct them to make improvements and reflect upon their work – really engaging rather than passively receiving an answer.

Assess in colour. Another way to avoid lengthy comments and to encourage self-assessment and real reflection is to colour code feedback. For example, rather than the typical comment based feedback, simply code their work into red, amber and green. Put their best elements into green boxes and work they need to improve into red boxes etc. They can work out why in DIRT time and make appropriate improvements.

Self-assessment then teacher assessment. Students can complain about self-assessment. It is seen as some sort of teacher cheat. We need to explain why it has learning value, but also be clever about using it. By getting students to fully self-assess their work, using the assessment criteria (which they clearly understand from your scaffolding), with you then assessing their assessment, you can halve your job. Writing a short comment in response to their detailed summative comment can make for precise and effective feedback. If they fully understand the assessment, they are better placed to move forward with that knowledge.

One-to-one time in class. Written feedback is seen as the gold standard, but we should ensure that students understand that oral feedback is just as effective, if not more so. If you collect in a set of coursework for example, plan a lesson where students can work largely independently, allowing you to have one-to-one feedback sessions. Get them to make notes so that the details are recorded. With one-to-one feedback you can iron out the misunderstandings that sometimes attend written feedback and you can ensure that they are fully engaging with their instructions to feed forward.

There is a great deal more to be said about effective feedback, but my attempt to summarise would be thus:

Effective written feedback is timely and students are given ample time to take the feedback forward. It is an active process and it is an on-going dialogue in writing. Indeed – good oral feedback it just as effective, if not more so. The best feedback puts the onus on students and gives them precise guidance to act effectively, in the present and in future. Effective written feedback is revisited like a good friend who imparts sage advice.


Related reading:

I have written extensively on written feedback, so take a look at my collection – see here.

Tom Sherrington has written an enduringly good post on feedback and ‘closing the gap’ – see here.

David Didau has written extensively on the topic of feedback, with a keen critical eye – see here.

Joe Kirby has written an excellent account of AfL that is really useful – see here.

Dan Brinton has written an excellent blog entitled ‘fast feedback’ which focuses upon time-effective feedback strategies – see here.



10 thoughts on “Have We Got Feedback Backwards?”

  1. Seems to me most of the strategies here would be far more effective using technology. Pupils submit work with self or peer assessment. Teacher logs in, the system says “There is new work from these pupils”. Teacher looks at the work and the self-assessments and either approves it or changes it and justifies the change. If the comment is the same or very similar for all pupils in the group, cut and paste and adjust comments. (or append to all) When the pupil logs back in, reads the feedback and takes appropriate action. Nothing to stop the comment being a sound sample really. No books to carry around, complete audit trail of all interactions. HOD can be alerted by e-mail if a department member has masses of unprocessed work stacking up. Easy to make links to point pupils in the right direction to find out more. All the facilities to do this exist now for free. With decent access devices for pupils now around £50 and likely to keep falling in cost, you will save that on file paper and books over a few years at the most. And when they leave school, how many are going to ever submit an extensive handwritten report on paper for someone else to respond in coloured pens and symbols? The way I’m providing feedback on this blog is a hint to why schools need to change and stop buying technology as a fashion accessory and actually use it improve efficiency and effectiveness in obvious day to day scenarios.

  2. Stephen Schwab

    Did not wholly agree with your text book ideas but do agree on these provoking ideas. Good job.

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