This lesson will illustrate the importance of providing students written feedback and explain how to do this in the way that most impacts student achievement.
The Importance of Feedback
Imagine that you’re taking a cake decorating night class at a local community center. Even though it’s a beginning-level class, there is quite a range of experience and abilities among the students. First, the instructor shows you the basics on a cake of her own, then each student is given two cake sections to stack and decorate in the same way.
As the students work, the teacher walks around and observes the results, commending each student by saying, ‘Good job’.But looking around the room you notice that there is a wide spectrum of quality among these cakes. Some are almost professional quality, and others look messy and misshapen. As beginners, you and your classmates need feedback, guidance and specific input from the instructor about your work. Every student’s needs are different. Some need the instructor to take the icing bag, demonstrate again up close, and then coach them in doing it themselves.
Others might just need a few pointers to perfect their technique.’Good job’ is feedback, but it’s not effective feedback because it doesn’t give the students the information they need to improve. Students need to be informed how they are progressing toward their goal, in this case decorating a cake as beautifully as the instructor, and what can be improved upon to ensure they meet the goal.
What Makes Feedback Effective?
Information which helps students move closer to their educational goals can be considered effective feedback. As we saw earlier, not all feedback is effective.
Endless positive reinforcement, like saying, ‘Good job’ no matter the quality of the student’s work might cause warm fuzzies, but it won’t help students improve because it won’t give students information about their performance against class standards, not what can be done to improve that performance. Not to mention, it doesn’t exactly ring true when we compare our lumpy mess of a cake to a classmate’s masterpiece.So what kind of feedback is effective? How can we tell it apart from the ineffective kind? Well, as a general rule, effective feedback is feedback which has an impact on student achievement and not only gives students an idea of how their performance aligns with standards set by the teacher, but it gives them information about how to improve to better meet those standards.In the early 2000s, three educators, Robert Marzano, Debra Pickering and Jane Pollock, looked at decades of research done on providing feedback to students to figure out what makes feedback most effective. Marzano, Pickering and Pollock determined that there are four traits of effective feedback, and feedback which possesses those traits will be most beneficial to students.
First, effective feedback must be corrective.
The three educators saw that feedback has the most impact on student achievement when it communicates what students did correctly and incorrectly. That doesn’t just involve telling students which answers were right and wrong, which actually was shown to have a negative impact on their achievement. However, when teachers provided an explanation about why students got the answer right or wrong then encouraged them to keep at it, student achievement shot up.Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock gave an example of an elementary school math teacher and a student who’s having trouble with the order of operations. The student’s teacher can correct her homework, pointing out which answers are right or wrong, but that alone won’t help the student understand which parts of the process she’s doing incorrectly. The student is much more likely to improve if her teacher instead points out the problems with the student’s process, then encourages her to keep at it. ‘You’ve got the first three steps down,’ the teacher might say, ‘but you’re adding and subtracting before multiplying and dividing.
Keep at it, you’ve almost got it!
But being corrective is only one quarter of the effectiveness puzzle. Three other criteria must also be met. In order to help student achievement, feedback must also be timely. That is, it must be provided to the student shortly after the exercise about which the instructor is giving feedback. The rationale is simple. Students will be more receptive to corrective feedback if their performance is still in recent memory.
Effective feedback also needs to be criterion-referenced.
Now this one’s a little more complicated. When teachers assess how well or poorly a student is performing, they need a standard which they can measure students’ progress against. That standard informs the teacher whether the student is on track to meet expectations.
Often, a teacher’s instinct is to use norm-referenced feedback, which uses other students in the class as standards. But this is a bad idea for a lot of reasons. Much better is the use of criterion-referenced feedback, which uses the same standard or benchmark for every student.So instead of receiving feedback on how they’ve compare to Tammy or Linda, students receive feedback on their mastery of specific skills and activities, which every student is expected to achieve. Criterion-referenced feedback is most useful if the instructor sets goals or outcomes for the student before the lesson begins. Imagine a writing teacher helping his students compose an essay.
When the teacher sets goals and frameworks for students at the beginning of their essay, he can relate feedback to that goal, helping students monitor their progress towards it. ‘Does your opening paragraph score a 4 on our framework?’ he might ask the students. ‘What can you do to make it a 5?’ This gives the student a clear idea of how and where their work needs improvement.
Finally, in order for it to be effective, feedback must be student-facilitated as much as possible. Student-facilitated feedback is given by the student toward their own work. Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock observed that students are quite able to give themselves valuable feedback, provided the teacher gives them a structure to do so. There are many different structures that can help students develop feedback. Some examples could include charts for tracking speed and accuracy in solving multiplication tables, or using a rubric to evaluate the quality of their writing assignments. Student observations about their own work can help the teachers to give targeted feedback.
Marzano and his colleagues give an example of a student who struggles with math but self-assesses that he works through his problems too quickly and tends to skip steps. His teacher might suggest that the student write down the steps at the top of his worksheet. That’s actionable feedback, which the student can use to guide their improvement.
Rubrics can help teachers target their feedback to students’ exact strengths and weaknesses. A rubric is a document, usually a chart, which sets the expectations for student performance on a task.
Rubrics can help students understand the quality of work which corresponds with different letter grades and help them self-evaluate and improve their work.Here’s an example of a rubric which might be used in a classroom setting. Imagine how much easier it would make leaving comments on students’ graphing assessments. The expectations for the task are clear and grading the students’ assignments is simpler and more consistent. Written feedback which refers to a rubric is almost guaranteed to be corrective and criterion-referenced. And rubrics can be very useful in helping students view their own work objectively and pinpoint areas which need work.
All students rely on feedback to improve, but not all feedback is helpful or valuable. In order for feedback to be most beneficial, it must be effective feedback, feedback which directly impacts student achievement, usually by offering them specific suggestions or instructions for improvement. In the early 2000s, three educational researchers, named Marzano, Pickering and Pollock, studied patterns in feedback and outlined four and criteria for effective feedback.
They determined that effective feedback is corrective, informing students of the right and wrong parts of their performance. It’s timely, given to the students as soon as their work is submitted. It’s criterion-referenced, comparing their performance to a fixed standard and not the performance of other students. And, wherever possible, effective feedback is student-facilitated, allowing students the tools and opportunities to critique their own work. Rubrics are an important tool in leaving effective written feedback because they clarify expectations and help students track their own progress.