Student success: Feeding back, forward and up

Sarah Coleman

I am first and foremost a passionate educator, teaching and leading English in Tropical North Queensland, Australia. I have a passion for literature and ancient history, and aim to pass this love onto my students, via innovative and engaging classroom practice that changes to suit the needs of my students. Instagram: @theclassroomchameleon / email: [email protected].

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Image credit: Flickr // Elgin County Archives. Image credit: Flickr // Elgin County Archives.

If you are reading this, you are no doubt privy to the expectations heaped on teachers and school leaders about the importance of feedback in driving student success. If you hear the word “feedback”, and are haunted by images of lengthy, scribed comments that go ignored, much to your distress (how many hours of your life that you won’t get back?) and to the student’s peril, you are not alone.

Primarily a consequence of the work of pedagogical and educational academics, particularly that of John Hattie, the notion that feedback enhances student success has become somewhat of a truism. But what exactly does feedback mean, what does it look like, and how can we use in our classrooms in a manner that is purposeful, whilst not being an onerous and laborious task for teachers?

The what

Hattie and Timperley (2007) define feedback as information provided by an agent (eg teacher, peer, book, parent, self, experience) regarding aspects of one’s performance or understanding, and is fundamentally “Feedback without context is meaningless.”a consequence of performance (81). Feedback without context is meaningless. Creating a culture of feedback - not just from teacher to student, but between students, student to teacher, and metacognitively - is vital in ensuring feedback that is meaningful, and directed at improving teaching and learning at a variety of levels.

The why

The core function of feedback is to reduce the discrepancies between current understandings and performance and the ultimate goal in student learning. This outcome will vary from student to student, and goal-setting is most effective when the goal is specific and deliberate. It may be a focus on correct application of structures, such as with an essay, or of procedures, such as in a mathematical problem.

The how

Effective feedback must answer three major questions asked by a teacher and/or by a student:

1. Where am I going? (What are the goals?)
2. How am I going? (What progress is being made toward the goal?)
3. Where to next? (What activities need to be undertaken to make better progress?)

These questions, according to Hattie and Timperley (2007), correspond to notions of feed up, feed back, and feed forward.

Feeding Up - Where am I going?

Also taking flight in pedagogical scholarship is the concept of learning intentions and success criteria to bookend learning experiences. Whilst this concept applies to an individual lesson or experience, similar intentions and criterion can be applied to student goal-setting.

We have all, no doubt, set goals at different points in time that have had both successes and failures. The establishment of goals is fundamental in the provision of feedback, because “Effective feedback must answer three major questions."they provide specific strategies and guidance to inform student learning. A key component of goal-setting is student commitment to their goal, and actively engaging in processes to achieve it. Platforms such as OneNote or Google Docs are very effective tools to track student progress towards their target. Goals need to be set with the guidance and support of the teacher, to ensure that they are appropriate, manageable and realistic, which in turn, allows the teacher to provide the most effective feedback for their students.

Feeding Back - How am I going?

You only need to dip your toe into the waters of the World Wide Web to discover the range of strategies that exist to assess student understanding. Feeding back fundamentally involves the progress being made towards the goal - the goal usually being reflected in the form of formal assessment, whether school-based or externally assessed. Different strategies will target different goals.

Where the goal is content driven, exit tickets can be a very useful tool to understand the development of student knowledge. All tracking strategies are, however, irrelevant if there is an absence of significant ‘buy in’ from the students. A large part of the feedback process is student driven - those who blatantly ignore comments on draft essays or diagnostic tests have interminably frustrated us all. Students are often preoccupied with the final outcome - the test. “Will this be on the test, Sir/Miss?” Sound familiar? This is where the culture of feedback comes into play. Where a three-tiered culture of feedback becomes a core component of the school’s academic culture, success is far more likely.

Additionally, it is important to note that feedback should not be coming from the teachers alone. In an English paper, for example, I have my “Feedback is one of the most powerful weapons in our arsenal.”students peer-mark each other, using the marking rubric, three times before I see a draft of their work. The students need to be able to give each other specific advice, based on the standards addressed in the rubric, to enhance their work. Speaking to the standards against which they are assessed has proven to be very powerful in students understanding exactly what it is that they will be marked on, helping them to address their weaknesses accordingly. Additionally, formative assessment - what Dylan Wiliam refers to as “assessment of and for learning” - is equally powerful in this context. There are a milieu of strategies that can be employed to help students reflect on their learning at a metacognitive level - thinking about their thinking.

Teaching tools such as Socratic circles and discussion-based lessons can help students think critically about their ideas and processes which, in turn, provides important feedback to students about their understanding.

Feeding Up – Where to next?

Feeding back on summative / formal assessment alone - what Dylan Wiliam refers to as assessment of learning - is an exercise in futility. It would be about as much help as waiting until a football team loses the premiership before giving advice on their kicking technique; it is static, meaningless. That is not to say that feedback at this stage of student learning is irrelevant. However, when it is provided, it should be clear and specific, highlighting strengths and weaknesses of the student response, giving them clear direction for future tasks. It should also be used when students next complete a similar task. Feedback is fundamentally a cyclical process, and shouldn’t necessarily have a clear beginning and conclusion.

In my Year 10 English class, earlier this year, students were writing an analytical essay that assessed the effectiveness of aesthetic devices in a short story. Prior to commencing our revision of the genre, students were given a copy of a similar examination they had completed at the conclusion of Year 9. They used the teacher feedback from that task, in conjunction with the marking matrix, to make some judgements about their strengths and weaknesses last time they completed a task of this nature. This allowed them to set meaningful goals, and identify strategies to improve their writing - such as scaffolds for structure, activities that focussed on syntaxical variety, or those that focussed on using textual evidence - in a meaningful and purposeful manner. This highlights the ‘full circle’ that effective feedback can take.

By the conclusion of a unit of work, students should be able to identify their progress, and articulate how they got there. It can, however, also be a battle, because there usually is not a criteria for ‘hard work’ and some students can be disheartened if their progress was not as rapid as they would have liked. This is where rewarding students who have acted on feedback is beneficial, and can continue to build the culture of feedback in your school. Each assessment task, whether formative or summative, should be recognised and identified by students and parents as opportunities for improvement and academic growth. This should not only be the case with subject-specific content, but in the transferable skills of critical and creative thinking, reflectiveness and communication as well.

Feedback, when used as a tool of learning, is one of the most powerful weapons in our teaching arsenal. Effective feedback improves student outcomes, not just in reducing the discrepancies between what students should know, and the reality, but in terms of creating a culture of reflection and self-improvement, where students take responsibility for improving themselves as learners. Educational utopia, or a feasible reality? I say, reality.

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