If teachers are going to have a significant impact with the feedback they give, it needs to lead to improved outcomes for students. I am increasingly convinced that feedback needs to be constituted less in terms of a review of what has gone before and more in terms of very specific actions that students should take in order to move forward.
I think that too much effort is wasted in describing the work students produce or in giving generic wishful evaluative feedback – along the lines of ‘you need to improve the structure of your paragraphs’ or ‘try to include more original ideas’. Some of the www/ebi feedback I have seen amounts to little more than telling students to ‘get the answers right’ or ‘try to produce better work’. Instead of running the risk of giving nebulous unactionable feedback, teachers should focus much more on allocating tasks to students that address their learning needs. A student should be able to read or hear their teacher’s feedback and then do something very specific and concrete that will improve their learning.
To keep this very simple – using only words beginning with R, because that’s how it started to fall out – I think there are broadly five main types of actions that students should be asked to take after their work has been evaluated:
1. Redraft or Re-do
Redraft this piece of work / this paragraph/ this graph…. by doing X, by adding Y, by correcting Z…
Re-do this piece of work but this time make sure you include X, you measure Y, you state Z correctly….
Redrafting is very powerful provided that the actions are very specific and the scale of the task is manageable for both teacher and student.
2. Rehearse or Repeat
This could have been called practise and drill – if I wasn’t using R words. As any musician will know, the feedback from most instrumental lessons is to practise something specific: some scales, sections of the piece, some finger exercises, a performance, each time paying attention to some very particular skill element for additional fluency. This could work for many subjects including Maths:
- Practise your number bonds to 100 with these questions…
- Practise factorising basic common expressions by doing these questions…
In French or English, you could practise writing certain type of sentence: Rehearse your use of future tense/dialogue markers/fronted adverbials/connectives – by re-writing these 20 statements adding the appropriate phrase, punctuation – or anything that can be done repeatedly.
Note, it is no good asking most students to simply ‘practise doing X’. They need to be given specific questions so that they are doing X at right level of difficulty and at the right pace and scale. It is also no good giving them lots of one-off questions. Students need to do lots of the same type of questions to consolidate their understanding before being challenged with a wider variety.
3. Revisit and Respond
Very simply, this means ‘do these questions’. It means, on the basis of what I’m seeing, you need more practice answering questions like this. It could mean going back over fundamentals or being given extension questions. Instead of a commentary on what students have done before, teachers simply issue new questions informed by their reading of student work or their test performances. This replaces a focus on retrospective marking with the proactive forward-looking approach of issuing questions or giving students work to do. Quite a big shift in emphasis but one that is likely to have much greater impact.
4. Re-learn and Re-test
This is very simply a case of specifying a set of knowledge and asking students to return to the routines of retrieval practice. They may need to re-visit previous learning too but mainly it is a case of self-quizzing repeatedly using a variety of memory techniques to ensure certain ideas, words, equations, facts, details, quotations – are learned. It’s a very specific form of feedback: You still don’t know all of these facts: go and learn them; prepare for a mini-test. That might be more productive as feedback for a history or geography essay than any number of comments on their paragraph structure.
5. Research and Record
Here, students may have some issues with the scope of their exposure to ideas and are showing the need to show deeper insight, wider references, more imagination. The solution to this could be more reading or more research of a different kind. However the instruction to ‘do some more research’ could be horribly unproductive or lead down too many blind alleys. Teachers could specify what reading should be done or where exactly students should research – but also require them to record their findings.
If you reconstitute all feedback so that any students can receive it and know precisely what they now need to do, in detail, then you’ve cracked it. This can replace any number of evaluative comments on previous work. Try it.