I’m in my ninth year of teaching middle school and I can confidently say that each day I spend in the classroom is a day where I positively impact the lives of my students. But that hasn’t always been the case. Just a few years ago, I would leave school frustrated more days than not. I was working unsustainable hours to design thoughtful and informed lessons for my students, but struggling to get them engaged with the learning process. After a lot of failed experiments and long conversations with my students and colleagues, I realized that they were missing agency over their learning, and that improving my feedback system might just be the solution. But how could I give feedback that students would engage with, without burning out? This question started me on a wild journey that’s led me to partner with like-minded educators, create my own feedback app, and engage in academic research on the subject of feedback. Don’t have years to puzzle through the complexities of effective classroom feedback?
To design a feedback system that actually works in your classroom, it’s important to start with a strong definition of feedback. In 2017, I interviewed a group of secondary teachers and a common theme appeared in the way they defined feedback. As one teacher put it:
“Feedback is info on how to improve. It tells students what they need to do to get where they need to be.”
This is a great start to a definition of feedback, but it’s also limiting. Instead, I like the definition of feedback used by education researchers like Henderson et al, who in 2018 defined feedback as:
“The process in which learners make sense of information about their performance and use it to enhance the quality of their work or learning strategies.”
Notice how this definition indicates that feedback is an ongoing process driven by the student more than the teacher.
When we use this more robust definition of feedback, we can start to understand how feedback can be a powerful driver of learning. In 2015, the Education Endowment Foundation compared hundreds of studies about the way students learn. They found that feedback is the number one driver of student learning. Soon after, Winstone & Nash (2017) found that simply getting feedback isn’t enough to produce meaningful outcomes. Students also need to learn how to understand feedback and how to use it to learn. The strategies we’ll go over today will help you build this powerful feedback system in a way that will support transformational changes to student learning and student agency.
For me, the hardest part of designing an effective feedback system was getting students to engage with the feedback I gave them. Through research, I discovered that this problem wasn’t isolated to my classroom and other teachers also needed help teaching something the research community calls feedback literacy.
Feedback literacy was a term first coined by researcher Paul Sutton in 2012. It has since evolved to refer to a set of skills that help students get the feedback they need, understand that feedback, and use their feedback to learn. Though the term feedback literacy is relatively new, we’ve known of the importance of learning these skills for quite a while. Hattie & Timperly (2007), in their seminal work “The Power of Feedback”, point out that the feedback process requires skill on the part of both the student and the teacher in order to be effective. Research into the development of feedback literacy has revealed a number of strategies that are effective for building students capacity to seek, understand, and use feedback.
Set students up to be emotionally open to feedback
Feedback is emotional, for all of us! Even as experienced adult learners, we often struggle to accept feedback on work that is important to us. You can support students in being emotionally open to feedback by first modeling openness to feedback yourself. Try seeking feedback from your students, processing it publically, and showing them how you use it to inform your pedagogy. Your students will in turn be more open to seeking feedback themselves. I like to do this using Google Forms to collect and display the feedback data in class, and then we talk through possible improvements together. My students love that they get to give me advise that I actually use!
Teach feedback processing strategies
By providing routines, protocols, and systems for processing their feedback, you teach your students how to make sense of their feedback once it comes in. Instead of just writing corrective comments on student work, I like to ask questions in my feedback and give time in class for my students to respond. I’ve also seen teachers use strategies like feedback portfolios, color-coding, and feedback journaling with great success.
Encourage students to use their feedback by incentivising iteration
Think for a minute about your assessment and grading system. How can you redesign pieces of it to reward iteration and growth? I like to delay grading until at least one round of feedback and iteration has been completed, and then I have my students assign themselves a grade based on their feedback. I also allow resubmits on completed work if students are dissatisfied with their progress.
For feedback to be actionable, it must be accessible, timely, and relevant. Students need:
- to know how to access the feedback– both logistically and cognitively.
- to receive feedback at a time when they have somewhere immediate to apply it.
- feedback to relate to the learning goals.
Making Feedback Accessible
To support students in cognitively accessing their feedback, they need to learn to interpret what the feedback is asking them to change or improve. I find that it helps for students to experience being on the giving side of the feedback process. Both peer feedback and self feedback activities help students develop a deeper understanding of assessment criteria and a sense of agency over the feedback process. To be effective, peer review and self-assessment processes need direct instruction and scaffolding. I recommend focusing your first few peer review sessions around a single criteria and using worked examples to teach students how to engage with assessment criteria.
Making Feedback Timely
or feedback to be actionable, students need a place to apply it that comes in time for the feedback to be meaningful. Try to structure your lessons to provide immediate places for students to apply their feedback. You can do this with sprints, micro-assignments, and revision policies:
- Assignment sprints are when three or more assignments happen in quick succession, and are focused on the same goals and criteria.
- Micro-assignments are a series of checkpoints that piece together to become a more complex assignment.
- A successful revision policy should allow students to improve their work in response to feedback and resubmit it for full credit.
Making Feedback Relevant
To improve the relevance of feedback to student learning, I find that it’s important to align your feedback with the learning goals. Whether you choose to use a rubric, spot-annotation, or a narrative feedback structure, you’ll want to make sure the feedback stays on target with the learning goals. A quick way to stay focused on the goals of the assignment is to develop a feedback template or a comment bank ahead of time and use it to deliver feedback. By curating resources for common misconceptions or learning needs, you can point your students towards relevant next-steps alongside your feedback.
The educational technology industry is saturated with products that claim to save you time and improve student learning. Many of those products are focused on helping teachers give faster feedback, but often at the expense of feedback effectiveness. Whether you’re using one of these tech products or building your system with paper and pen, ask yourself these questions to make sure it will really deliver the learning outcomes our students deserve:
- Is this system sustainable for me to use throughout the year?
- Is this system flexible enough to work in my existing classroom?
- Does this system help my students develop feedback literacy?
- Does this system help my students develop agency over their learning?
Floop is a company that I started along with a group of classroom teachers and educators who all understand the difficulty of designing an effective feedback system. We experienced first-hand how the practice of commenting on student work felt unsustainable and ineffective. We would spend days writing feedback to our students and then they’d throw it away without using it. So in 2016, we started developing a time-saving app and a curriculum for teaching feedback literacy. Check it out at www.FloopEdu.com.