Ask the expert: Formative feedback

In this ‘Ask the expert’, Jane Nicholas, Senior Research Manager at NFER and former teacher, answers some FAQs on giving formative feedback to pupils.

How does feedback differ from advice or praise?

Teachers often use praise to encourage and motivate learners but, however welcome, a simple ‘well done!’ or ‘great job!’ will not of itself help the learner to improve on their performance. Similarly, advice can be helpful but only if the learner understands why it is necessary. For example, telling a pupil to ‘make your story more exciting’ may be good advice but it is not feedback. Feedback is information which can be used by learners to improve their performance. However, in order to be effective the research suggests that feedback should be: clear, timely, actionable, user friendly and consistent. Your pupils will need to know to what extent a particular piece of work they have produced matches the learning objectives for that task. Formative feedback, giving clear and specific guidance on how to improve, can be delivered orally or in the form of comments on written work.

How often should I give formative feedback?

As a teacher you are routinely collecting information on your pupils’ learning, sometimes without even realising it. You observe such things as: how they set about tackling a given task, their interaction with others during an activity, their attention span, as well as how successfully they complete the task. Not all of this data can or should be formally recorded, but it is vital for you as it can inform the planning of next steps and the setting of learning objectives. Information related to those objectives is particularly valuable to your learners and so, where possible, it should be shared with them during or very soon after an activity.

Research indicates that well-delivered feedback can improve learning outcomes. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) Teaching and Learning Toolkit, for example, shows feedback as having the greatest impact of all initiatives scrutinised for among the lowest costs. Other research from Hattie and Clarke (2018) advocates the use of peer-to-peer and student-to-teacher feedback, which is brought to life through a series of short videos on the ‘Visible Learning’ website demonstrating the power of within-lesson feedback. You can view the videos here.

Does peer-to-peer feedback really work?

Teachers sometimes worry that allowing pupils to comment on the work of others in the class may cause anxiety and lead to disputes. Another concern is that the feedback may be biased or overly superficial. Such concerns can be alleviated by careful planning and scaffolding. You should share clear and understandable learning objectives with your pupils at the outset of the activity. They need to understand the criteria against which they are being asked to give feedback. It is a good idea for you to model how feedback should be delivered and, until pupils are familiar with the concept, you will need to monitor closely and mediate as necessary. Once pupils are clear on the ground rules, the purpose of giving feedback to others and have experience of how it can help them to improve their own work, it can become a very effective and time efficient tool.

How will I find time for giving feedback?

Including regular feedback in your lessons can be a very effective use of time. For example, a short feedback session at the end of an activity is an excellent way to reinforce the learning objectives and ensure that your pupils are ready to move on to the next stage. If they understand what they have done and why, they will be better able to apply their knowledge and associated skills to future activities. Time invested in reinforcing learning will increase your pupils’ understanding and boost their self-efficacy, leading to better learning outcomes.    

Written by Jane Nicholas, Senior Research Manager based at the NFER office in Llanelli:

Jane has previously worked as a teacher and teacher educator. She has extensive experience of assessment and test development and at NFER has worked on a variety of national and international assessment projects, including statutory tests in Wales and the PISA international surveys. Most recently she has worked on the development of the National Reading Tests for Welsh Government and reading assessments for STA. Jane has been involved in developing classroom materials and educational resources and has also contributed to numerous evaluation projects. Her particular interests include literacy, bilingualism and education outside the classroom.

Do you have a question on assessment that you’d like to put to one of our assessment team? Send it through to us at assessmenthub@nfer.ac.uk.

References:

Hattie, J. and Clarke, S. (2018). Visible Learning: Feedback. London. Taylor and Francis

Marzano, R., Pickering, D., & Pollock, J. (2001). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: ASCD

Wiggins, G. (2012). ‘Seven keys to effective feedback’. Educational Leadership, 70(1), 10–16

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