Research to Practice: Feedback

The purpose of this post is to digest the research on feedback and explore results that I wish I had learned about earlier in my teaching career. This is not a formal research review; I am cherry-picking topics I find useful and ignoring areas where, from my perspective, researchers have had trouble agreeing or results have tenuous links to classroom practice. I’m also including my own extrapolations to how these ideas apply to my teaching. I’m not an expert in this field, so take things with a grain of salt.

By far the most useful source has been Valerie Shute’s review Focus on Formative Feedback. It is very readable and I highly recommend it. I’ve also learned a great deal from Kluger & DeNisi’s review, Dylan Wiliam’s chapter on feedback that moves learning forward in Embedding Formative Assessment, and John Hattie’s book Visible Learning. Collectively, these authors cite several thousand sources. My goal is not to provide an exhaustive bibliography, but to explore a small number of key ideas I find useful.

Use Feedback Sparingly 
One commonly cited result on feedback is that, in Kluger & DeNisi’s review of nearly a century of research, 38% of feedback interventions resulted in negative effects; that is, in 38% of experiments, feedback resulted in less learning than a control condition with no feedback. There’s reason to be skeptical of this number. It does not imply that 38% of teacher feedback is preventing student learning. Rather, it suggests that many things that a teacher might intuitively think could be useful feedback may be less useful than they think. My corollary here is that, in most cases, giving feedback takes a great deal of teacher time. There are lots of other things I can do in a day that I am fairly confident support student learning. I should consider alternatives before giving individual feedback and carefully evaluate what offers me the most value.

Sooner Isn’t Always Better
“Feedback should happen as soon as possible” is often treated as a truism in teaching. However, in a number of studies analyzed by Shute, research suggests that delayed feedback may be more effective than immediate feedback. It is difficult to sort through the various interactions here. One element is that feedback should not interrupt the learner during a task; this is one example of feedback that can be harmful for learning. A second is that, in some situations, immediate feedback causes the learner to rely on the feedback rather than their own thinking. Third, delayed feedback seems to be useful for simpler tasks. One possible mechanism is that, by revisiting a topic later through feedback and spacing learning, the student has an opportunity for more useful thinking than finishing a session with that feedback or relying on it rather than doing additional thinking. Immediate feedback seems more important for complex tasks. This is a tricky one, and there are no clear-cut answers, but it’s worth hesitating to consider the interaction between the learner and the feedback before giving it during or immediately after a task.

No matter how well feedback is articulated, it is only useful if the learner engages with it. Wiliam explores three triggers that may cause a learner to reject feedback. Each of these triggers is dependent on the learner’s perception of the feedback, rather than the intention of the teacher. In other words, no matter how thoughtful feedback is, and even if that same feedback was successful for another student, if a student perceives it in certain ways they are unlikely to learn. Truth triggers occur when a learner gets feedback that they perceive as incorrect or unfair. Relationship triggers occur when a learner gets feedback from an individual they don’t trust or don’t think has their best interests in mind. Identity triggers occur when a learner interprets feedback as saying something about who they are as a person rather than communicating concrete ideas about their thinking or their work. To consider the flip side of each of these triggers, feedback needs to consider the student’s perspective, needs to be built on authentic relationships, and needs to communicate concrete ideas about the student’s work rather than giving grades that are value-laden for many students. Building off of the last idea, research suggests that comments are much more useful than grades for promoting learning. What is more surprising is that, when comments and grades are given together, there is little difference for learning than if the grade was given alone; the grade acts as an identity trigger that causes the learner to focus on themselves rather than making use of the feedback in the comments.

Verification and Elaboration 
Shute writes that effective feedback often combines two elements: verification — communicating the extent to which student ideas are right or wrong; and elaboration — explanatory information communicating analysis of the work or areas for further thinking. Verification should avoid potential triggers by communicating about specific features of the task rather than using grades or similar value-laden information that can distract from specific features of student work.

Feedback Should Cause Thinking 
Dan Willingham writes that memory is the residue of thought. Wiliam explores this idea as well, writing that if feedback does not cause the learner to do additional thinking, it is unlikely to lead to learning. The central idea of this principle is that feedback should be concretely connected to some student action that involves future learning. This can happen in a variety of ways, for instance when the feedback is presented in a way that requires thoughtful interpretation by the student, leads to revision or reassessment, or sets up a classroom activity engaging with the ideas presented in the feedback. If the feedback is more work for the donor than the recipient, or if the feedback focuses more on the past than the future, it may present a missed opportunity for additional learning.

Shute notes that many of the experiments informing the research results above were conducted in laboratory settings where motivation was largely controlled for. This should cause classroom teachers to take research on feedback with healthy skepticism. While a certain feedback strategy might be research-based and well-intended, if students are unmotivated it is likely to be ineffective. This leads me to two ideas. I need to communicate to students that I care about the quality of their work. This can happen through feedback; it can also happen through other means like student work analysis or targeted review. But one useful function of feedback is to improve motivation by communicating that student work matters. Whether through feedback or other means, I need to find ways to let students know that their work matters regularly. Second, I need to clearly articulate to students the feedback strategies I am using and why I am using them, so they understand how feedback connects to their learning and the purpose behind my classroom decisions.

Looking Back 
Considering these principles of effective feedback, I think they are fairly limited in their utility. I don’t think there’s enough to go on to really design research-based classroom feedback strategies that will work across a variety of contexts. That said, I spent the first few years of teaching without any benchmarks for what effective feedback looked like; I did what seemed right at the time and leaned heavily on what teachers around me were doing and what I had experienced as a student. I think that the ideas above offer a useful lens to move beyond those anecdotal experiences to more purposeful strategies focused on maximizing student learning.

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