“Improve drawing, C+”. This was a teacher’s comment on a picture of a lion which I had carefully drawn at age 7 and is a perfect example of poor feedback, with a meaningless grade with no information as to how I should improve.
There is a distinction made between formative assessment, or “Assessment for learning”, which involves checking learner progress and giving developmental feedback and summative assessment, which is usually more formal and may take place at the end of a course of study. There is universal agreement amongst researchers and teachers that giving feedback to learners is one of the most impactful teaching strategies which we can use. It is also one of the most difficult to get right and, in the case of written feedback, it is also potentially one of the most time-consuming activities teachers undertake.
Many learners entering further education will have been used to their work being graded. Dylan Wiliam describes the damaging effects of this, highlighting the emotional response a learner may have when their work is graded. He advises that teachers avoid grading and evaluative language as far as possible, focussing their feedback on informing learners what they have done correctly and stating exactly what they need to do to improve. This sits neatly with the current evolution of Carol Dweck's ideas on developing a ‘growth mindset’ in learners, communicating them our belief to them that they can improve.
So what makes for great feedback?
- Use language which is precise and as descriptive as possible.
- Encourage learners to compete with themselves.
- Give learners feedback whilst there is still time to improve.
- Give learners the opportunity to respond to the feedback during class time.
- Create a dialogue with learners, allow them to self-assess first before giving your own assessment.
- Be specific and limit the number of action points you set for learners.
- Be creative in how you give feedback. Recorded verbal feedback may be both quicker and more accessible for your learners.
- Plan your time carefully. If you know you are going to have a stack of assignments coming in at a particular point in the year, then block out some time for marking.
- Use undescriptive terms such as good or excellent. You are in effect grading learners work with these terms. If you have judged that a piece of work is “good” then the learner needs to know why.
- Compare learners with others in the class. Class ranking systems can be hugely demotivating for those learners towards the bottom and can encourage those at the top to “coast”.
- Wait to give feedback until after formal assessments.
- Expect learners to correct their work alone after class.
- Make feedback a monologue.
- Overwhelm learners with the quantity of feedback, particularly with written feedback which learners may struggle to interpret.
If you are struggling to manage or to deliver feedback then one of the most effective activities you can undertake is to either observe an experienced peer or mentor giving feedback or shadow marking alongside them as a standardisation and confidence building exercise. Giving feedback is one of the most sophisticated processes we undertake as teachers, so it’s worthwhile spending time on developing this skill.