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Feedback: The key to better teaching and learning (Feedback series)

Nhi Nguyen
June 17, 2021

Table of Contents

1. What is feedback?

2. Mediators of feedback

            2.1. The three feedback questions

            2.2. The four levels of feedback

            2.3. Other mediators of feedback

3. Conclusion

The power of feedback in teaching and learning is undeniable as it is listed among the top 10 influencing factors on student achievement [3]. As course design moves towards building dialogue and interaction between teachers and students, feedback has become an even more integral part of curriculum design and facilitation. Therefore, it is essential that we have a thorough understanding of feedback and the factors that affect the feedback process.

In this very first article of our “Feedback series”, we will explore the concept of feedback, its benefits in teaching and learning, and the mediators for effective feedback.

What is feedback?

John Hattie, an influential educator and researcher, author of Visible learning - “the Holy Grail for teaching”, summarizes the definition of feedback as:

“ … the information provided by an agent (e.g., teacher, peer, book, parent, self, experience) regarding aspects of one's performance or understanding. Furthermore, this information should reduce the gap between the current performance and the desired outcomes.”  

Another excellent description of feedback is provided by Winne and Butler (1994):

"feedback is information with which a learner can confirm, add to, overwrite, tune, or restructure information in memory, whether that information is domain knowledge, meta-cognitive knowledge, beliefs about self and tasks, or cognitive tactics and strategies.”

Feedback can be manifested in multiple forms, from constructive comments and advice, to behavior, social interactions, and praise. Also, it is delivered via multiple channels: written text, verbal comments, audio recordings, images, and so forth.

By addressing the discrepancy between “what is known” and “what should be known”, feedback promotes effective teaching and learning in the sense that:

  • It helps students understand the subject being studied and gives them clear guidance on how to improve their learning.
  • It strengthens the classroom communication between teachers and students
  • Feedback can improve a student's confidence, self-awareness and enthusiasm for learning, leading to enhanced retention

Mediators of feedback

Indeed, the power of feedback in learning is undeniable; however, this impact can be either positive or negative. The way feedback is facilitated and monitored within classrooms very much determines its effectiveness. There are several “variables” that can influence the relationship between feedback and student achievement, which are as follows [3]

1 | The three feedback questions

Feedback is useful when it reduces the gap between where the student is and where they are meant to be. Feedback should therefore be useful when it helps students navigate this gap, by addressing 3 fundamental feedback questions including “Where am I going?”, “How am I going?”, and “Where to next?”

Where am I going? - The feedback should inform teachers and students about the attainment of learning goals.  

How am I going? - This entails feedback relative to student progress and is often expressed in relation to some expected standard, to prior performance, and/or to success or failure on a specific part of the task.

Where to next? - Feedback can assist learners in choosing the next most appropriate challenges, enabling more self-regulation over the learning process, as well as developing different strategies to work on the tasks.

2 | The four levels of feedback

Feedback operates at 4 different levels: Task/ Product, Processes, Self-regulation, and the Self.  

The first level - task and product - refers to the information-focused feedback. Feedback operating at this level often targets the tasks, indicating whether the performance is correct or not. (E.g., “You should add more details on the topic of X, Y, Z”)

At the second level, feedback is aimed at the process of working on or completing the final product. This can serve as a source of input for students to seek more effective approaches and strategies to finish the task. (E.g., “You need to edit this piece of writing by attending to the descriptors you have used so the reader is able to understand the flow of your argumentation”)

Feedback can also be produced at the self-regulation level, which helps students monitor their own progress and performance. By directing learners to monitor and self-regulate their own learning with feedback, teachers can critically enhance confidence, motivation, and engagement. (E.g., “You can make use of your knowledge and experience as a photographer to provide insights into this part of the essay”)

Finally, the fourth level of feedback is feedback to the self, which often appears in the form of personal praise, and compliments. Unlike the three other levels, such feedback is unrelated to the task and concerned more with the person. Though appraisal feedback can be a source of comfort and support for students, it does little in enhancing achievement or learning. (E.g., “You are doing amazing”)

It is argued that the first three feedback levels are the most effective as they promote deep processing and mastery of tasks. On the contrary, feedback at the forth level is considered of little effect and should be avoided. However, feedback in the forms of praise and compliments can still be beneficial as long as they are accompanied by clear explanations.

In short, to make the feedback effective, teachers need to carefully consider and decide on when, how, and at what level to provide feedback and to which of the three questions it should be addressed.

For a more comprehensive understanding of the three feedback questions and four levels of feedback, refer to the diagram above (You can also refer to this great article written by John Hattie about the power of feedback).

3 | Other mediators of feedback

Besides answering these three questions and addressing four feedback levels, educators need to consider several other variables when facilitating feedback for a positive impact.  

Giving feedback vs receiving feedback

How feedback is received is equally important to how feedback is given. Teachers often focus on the latter while paying less attention to the former aspect, which is helping learners understand the feedback provided for them. Failing to understand or misunderstanding feedback can lead to learners’ inability to process and act on the comments. The importance of receiving feedback is highlighted by John Hattie in his interview on feedback with EducationWeek:

“I used to think giving more feedback and better feedback was the answer [to improving education], and it’s the exact opposite: How do teachers and students receive feedback? How do they interpret it?”

So what is the best solution to optimize how students perceive the feedback?

It is really simple - by listening. Aside from sharpening the feedback given to learners, teachers and instructors can devote more time to asking students “Do you understand my feedback?” and “What still confuses you regarding my feedback?”

Learner variability

Learner variability, or learner difference is manifested in various forms such as cultural background, financial status, religion, knowledge base, or learning styles. These variables can become major barriers to effective learning as they affect how teachers or students process and receive the feedback. To quote from Linda Lee, Director of Instructional Design at The Wharton School:

“As we've learned during this past pandemic year, many of our students are dealing with many challenges in their lives … The COVID-19 pandemic has raised awareness among everyone within higher education about how learner variability can affect the experiences of our students.”

The best solution is to build an inclusive learning environment, in which courses are accessible and easier for students to participate in. And a great way to cultivate inclusivity is through feedback that caters to different groups of learners.

Types of feedback

How and in what ways feedback is delivered does matter - a lot. Feedback can be written or spoken, visual or audio, formative or summative, a self reflection or peer evaluation. Each format would function best depending on students' learning styles, class settings, the subjects being taught, and such. Therefore, teachers should take into careful consideration the types and formats of feedback to be delivered that can maximize self-efficacy and active learning. This topic, again, will be elaborated in a future article of our “Feedback series”.

The power of peers

Peer feedback has been acknowledged as a powerful contributor to effective learning as it enhances collaboration, understanding, and students' motivation. However, the effect of peer feedback can be either positive or negative depending on how it is designed and facilitated [1]. That's why teachers should consider different factors when monitoring feedback among peers, such as anonymity, feedback criteria, free-riding, and so forth. We will explain how to facilitate these elements in the upcoming articles.

Conclusion

Feedback will forever remain relevant and important in classrooms due to its long lasting influence on the learning process. This impact; however, “can be both positive and negative" according to John Hattie [3]. And to ensure feedback is positive, it is crucial to consider its multidimensional nature. In other words, we need to take into account a number of variables:

  • focus of the feedback (the three feedback questions)
  • impact of the feedback (the four levels)
  • propensity of the feedback (learner variability)
  • types and formats of the feedback

“There is a lot known about feedback, but there is much more to know about how to optimize its powers in the classroom.”, noted Hattie. The more we can understand feedback, the better we are able to harness its power to enhance teaching and learning.

References

[1] Harelli, S., & Hess, U. (2008). When does feedback about success at school hurt? The role of causal attributions. Social Psychology in Education, 11, 259-272. Source

[2] Hattie, J.A.C. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of 800+ meta-analyses on achievement. Routledge, Oxford, UK. Source

[3] Hattie, J.A.C., & Timperley, H (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81-112. Source

[4] Sutton, R., Hornsey, M.J., & Douglas, K.M. (2011). Feedback: The communication of praise, criticism, and advice. Peter Lang Publishing: New York. Source

[5] Winne, P. H. & Butler, D. L. (1994). Student Cognition in learning from teaching. In T. Husen & T. Postlewaite (Eds.), International Encyclopedia of Education (2nd ed., pp.5738-5745). Oxford, UK: Pergamon. Source

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