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

Nhi Nguyen
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June 17, 2021
This ebook provides essential insights into feedback for learning and fool-proof strategies to elevate the feedback practice.
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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 below (You can also refer to this great article written by John Hattie about the power of feedback).

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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