Saturday 2 November 2013

Can I be that little bit better at ......using methods to make feedbackstick?

In my previous post I looked at reasons why feedback might not stick.  It focused on whether it was the way in which we as teachers approached it, or was it simply the way that students perceived feedback that was the issue.  Whatever or however we approach it, we probably have methods that we use on a regular basis with students.  These methods are used day in day out and vary from subject to subject, student to student.  In the same theme as my last post, is it the methods that we use with students that causes feedback not to stick?  If we look at what the key principles from the last post are, can we design strategies in our lessons that are efficient for teachers as well as effective for students?

What makes a good method?

Now this isn't a criteria or a magic tick list that we should use every time we give feedback.  In fact there are lots of things that I haven't covered such as it needs to be timely, works best if its formative, targeted and regular (but we know this already).  Instead it is a list of common themes or important points that have stood out to me when reflecting on the feedback process that I hadn't fully considered before.  The practical methods that follow after try in some way use all, most or at least one of the key components that makes feedback effective.  So when we plan to give feedback to students, can we use these points (and those from my last post) to make the process have more impact?

Have we got a plan? - Before we give students feedback, do we know why we are giving it?  Do we know how we are giving it?  Do we have a plan?  If we are just using it as a tick box exercise then I'd urge you to think again.  Maybe the following cycles or flow chart will help you make a more effective plan for the feedback process.  The method you use can be as you see fit, but the core principles stay the same:

From top left: Diagrams by Tom Sherrington, David Fawcett, Shaun Allsion and David Didau

Be less work for you and more for students - Whatever method you choose should make more work for students to act upon it than it does for you providing it.  As Wiliam (2011) states "feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor".  If you find that you're spending hours providing it for little or nothing to be done by students in return, I'd rethink the method you are using.

Feedback should cause thinking - Out of all of the reading, in all of the books, in all of the research papers and from all of the blog posts, the key message that has stuck with me about how I use feedback comes from Dylan Wiliam (2011):

"If I had to reduce all of the research on feedback into one simple overarching idea, at least for academic subjects in school, it would be this: feedback should cause thinking"

Now this is a simple and powerful message, but one I never thought of before.  For years I simply thought feedback was me telling students what they got wrong and what they should have done.  We know as adults how demoralising that must be if that is all we ever hear.  There were even times when I simply attached a grade or score, occasionally with a "check the marking criteria" added in for extra fun.  Now I have worked on my methods for a few years now in an effort to make them better.  But they still haven't involved students as best as they probably could.  And now with this simple Wiliam quote, I've probably been missing a trick.

When students receive feedback it should make them question or reflect about what they have just done.  It should force them to think about what they know and what gaps they still have.  It should force them to think about how to act upon the feedback in an effort to move their learning.  Did my previous comments and grade do that?  Definitely not.  So can future methods do this?  I'm confident they can.  So look at how you give feedback to your students.  If they can simply read it and dismiss it then it probably won't work.  If though it forces students to think, before taking future action, it is heading towards being a method that may just have a positive impact.

Do our methods answer the three questions - In Hattie and Timperley's paper titled  'The Power of Feedback', it was put forward that effective methods of feedback revolve around three key questions.  Now these three question crop up time and time again in other material.  But do I ever use them every time I give out feedback.  If you've never seen them before, the questions we should be addressing in feedback are:
  • Where am I going?
  • How am I going?
  • Where to next?
In a summary, they also addressed these as:
  • Feed up
  • Feedback
  • Feedforward

As Hattie points out in most of his literature, in an ideal environment, the comments we provide addresses these questions with the students.  The use of these questions in our structure ensures that we don't merely provide feedback, but instead link directly to the learning and then look forward in helping students make progress.

"Where am I going?" or feed up addresses the intention, goal or aim of the piece of work/learning.  As Black and Wiliam (1998) explained, “the provision of challenging assignments and extensive feedback lead to greater student engagement and higher achievement”.  It is therefore important for the feedback to have maximum effect, the goal is specific and challenging, with the task complexity low.  This goal may be the learning objective of the lesson, the core question of the task or even a target for which the student needs to work on (from previous feedback).  The important key component in this question though is we provide clear success criteria for meeting this aim.  Too often our comments are specific and accurate, but don't clearly link to the goal or learning taking place.  It is essential that we talk about this criteria so students can see where they are in the process and how far away they are from getting to the desired goal.

"How am I going?" or feedback provides reference to how that student is doing in relation to the goal or objective.  It's what we do most frequently and made up a lot of the comments I used to provide.  It is normally in this section that we highlight misconceptions or brilliant pieces of learning.  If we link it back to the previous question, this element can help show students where they are in their journey and what's been happening so far.

"Where to next?" or Feedforward - This last year was the biggest revelation in my teaching.  Why I hadn't used this word before I simply don't know.  As Hattie (2011) states "This feedforward question can have some of the most powerful impacts on learning".  A simple change in terminology with students can be a powerful thing.  When we talk about feedback, we are doing just that: looking back at what was.  This is a great starting point but students also need to know how to move forward.  This question ensures that we as teachers provide comments that help students take the next step in the learning process.  We've talked about the goal and where they are at, now we look at what is the next step to move this learning on.  It is vital here that we spend most of our time sharing this with students if we want them to progress.  As Sadler (1989) talks about in his work, it is this part of the feedback process that helps 'close the gap'.

So when we provide our comments to students, do we answer these three questions every time?  Maybe that is one of the reasons that it doesn't have the impact it should?

Less is more - As I talked about in my last post, sometimes the less we say has the most impact.  One thing that came up time and again in both literature and in my survey was that students struggle with a large amount of comments.  Too much feedback and the comments get ignored, give the impression the work must be bad or become too specific that the students doesn't know what to do with it.  Are our methods to much for our students to actually understand?

Will they do anything with it? - As I said in my last post, if students can't act upon the feedback to move the work or learning forward, you might not have bothered.  Students need the opportunity to both read and do something with your feedback.  It normally works best when students can act on it there and then.  Leave comments idle for lessons on end and the feedback loses its impact.  Two students in my survey specifically found that some teachers had given comments over 30 days ago and the students still hadn't improved that piece of work.  Now it's slipped from their memory and they can't remember the context it was in.  When giving feedback, ensure there is either an immediate opportunity for improvement, or one very soon.  Use a cycle as the basis for our methods is a really great reminder.  Do we always plan in time to do this?

Comments first! (Grades later) - Nothing more to really say on this.  As I detailed in my last post, as soon as we add grades or praise, the impact of feedback reduces and in some cases actually has a negative effect.  We need to break the grades culture or at least use them in a more constructive way.

Do our methods promote a Growth Mindset? - We need to ensure that the methods we use help students see that reading or listening to feedback is important, that mistakes are good for learning, that good habits can be learnt and should be repeated, and it's effort that is the key to making them improve.  John Tomsett has written a lovely post that encapsulates this message as a shift in culture here.  Some students really find feedback (and especially poor performance or mistakes) dents their self esteem and confidence.  So can we ensure we create a culture it our classroom that challenges these beliefs and make feedback an integral component of what happens in it?

Do what Ron does! - If you have never read 'An Ethic of Excellence' by Ron Berger, or have never seen one of his videos online, I would strongly urge you to do so.  Ron Berger's book explains how he gets students to create work of excellence using some very key principles.  I have blogged about it here.  What is fantastic about this is that everything that Ron does puts the role of feedback (in his method called critique) right at the heart of the learning in the classroom.  Students are set challenging tasks, break down examples of excellence, create success criteria together, use a drafting process, critique each others work (after being trained to do so) and seek this feedback from all sources automatically.  No one book has changed my thinking of the power of a feedback culture and its role in exceptional work.  Students are fully involved in the process and work continuously gets reviewed and improved.  The whole process of feedback becomes visible!  Do we create a culture in our classrooms using similar protocols that makes feedback and its power sing from every corner?  And neither have I yet (but I am seriously working on it!).

Key components from Berger. Do we create this?

The students do it all the time! - Another great book I would urge you to read is 'The Hidden Lives of Learners' by Graham Nuthall.  The book looks at learning from the perspectives of students and reveals a number of things we were probably unaware of.  One of the main points is that students receive 80% of the feedback they receive from their peers, and most of this is wrong.  So much peer feedback takes place beyond our control and we need to ensure that we train students up to give this effectively.  Unless all students work in silence for an entire lesson, they will always ask a friend or peer for help, advice, guidance or feedback.  We need to ensure that we involve students in the process and teach them exactly what high quality looks like and how to give it.  We also need to involve students in the process of feedback if they are to engage in it.  Too many times feedback can seem a one way process.  As Nuthall explains in his book, unless they are part of the process and it includes them throughout, we are more likely to get them to act upon feedback.  Do the methods we use train students to give high quality feedback?  Does it teach them to spot high quality feedback?  Do our methods involve students?

So what methods help feedback stick?

It's probably very important to say straight away that these methods are not my own.  They are ideas that have been discussed in department meetings, chatted about in the staffroom, read about on Twitter or seen mentioned in research/books.  Some were even suggested by students during my in-house survey.  They're purely on the list because they in some way attempt to bring together all three topics I've raised over the last two posts: the teacher, the student and the methods.  They aim to make the feedback we give stick and encourage the comments to be acted upon.  So can I get a little bit better at making feedback stick?

Critique – “Drafting and crafting”.  My ultimate favourite method which we can draw key principles of effective feedback from.  Even if you don't do the full process, there are so many principles we can extract and adapt.  Here is a link to my post specifically on this method.

A process where students are trained to give very clear and concise feedback in order to create work of excellence.

As students are working towards a piece of work, they create a number of drafts versions of it.  These drafts are ‘critiqued’ by peers and the feedback that each piece is given is acted upon in the next draft.  The comments that are given must be kind, specific and helpful.  They must also be instructional and help make the work better.  The teacher usually focuses on one aspect of the work at a time to make the process as beneficial as possible.  The process of critique normally requires a full dedicated lesson and comes in the form of a public critique or gallery critique.  Students need to have the process modelled, and getting students to critique the critique in the early stages helps ensure that they comments they provide to peers are of a high enough standard.

Critique goes beyond typical peer assessment.  It is part of the process.  It very clearly shows students how to give specific feedback that the person receiving it can go away and act upon.  It addresses the "85% of the feedback...." issue identified by Nuthall.  By dedicating a whole lesson and using a drafting process, a culture of feedback develops within the classroom.  The use of drafts also help students see the progress that is being made from 1st draft to final piece.

DIRT time – Acting upon that feedback

First made aware to many teachers by the amazing Jackie Beere, this method gives allocated time to getting students to read their feedback and actually act upon it.

Plan time within lessons or schemes where students act upon the comments and feedback that they receive.  This can come in the form or a starter activity, end of a lesson task or a dedicated lesson during a scheme.  In this time, students revisit feedback that they have been given and have that time to actually act upon it with the help of peers, teachers and resources.

Providing feedback in books can easily be forgotten about or simply not acted upon.  By creating dedicated time in lessons where students have to act upon it, the gap between where they are and where they should be can be closed.

Find and Fix – Getting students to think about their work (A Dylan Wiliam idea)

Place a dot or mark in the margin of a piece of work near where a mistake is. Students have to locate the error independently.

When marking a piece of work, place a symbol, dot or mark in the margin next to where a mistake has taken place.  At the end of the work, explain that there are x number of mistakes.  Don't indicate what these mistakes may be.  Students then have to 'find' and 'fix' them.  You can add a focus to the process.  For example, you could explain that the feedback focus is on SPaG and ask students to find and fix the x number of mistakes in their work.

The process involves students thinking about the work they are doing.  This is ideal for minor issues which can easily be found and fixed.  The method also means that students can quickly amend work themselves.  It is also time efficient for teachers.

Closing the gap lessons – Moving from where you are to where you should be

A dedicated lesson or lessons at the start of a new unit that allow students to ‘tidy up their understanding’ from a previous unit.

This is used in our department a lot.  At the end of a unit we carry out a unit test.  The two lessons after this (and prior to the next unit), students analyse how their understanding (from test results, homework….) and revisit weak topics once more.  Whilst doing this they act upon any feedback that they were given, improve their notes, redraft any work that they underperformed in, create concept maps or revision resources, answer exam questions and so on.  The aim is to then make that topic an area of strength.  Students try and improve at least two weak areas in this time.

Too often we finish a unit and move onto the next without ensuring students are confident in it.  Providing this structured time with well thought out tasks allows students to close the gap from where they were, to where they should have been.  Learning is reinforced and improve.

            An example of a 'Closing the Gap' lesson from English

Burning questions/requests – Can you check this for me?

When students submit a piece of work, they have the opportunity to request a specific part is given closer inspection.

When a piece of work is handed in, the student very clearly highlights on it a part of it that they didn’t quite understand.  This is not related to the task, but instead to the content.  If for instance they are still unsure about the functions of the skeleton during a physiology unit, they simply highlight that section in their work.  The teacher can then mark the other parts using a marking key, and then give specific time to the piece of understanding that the student is struggling with.  This section gets constructive comments and suggestions for moving the learning forward and hopefully ‘close the gap’.

Giving students that sense of ownership and responsibility engages them in the process.  They are highlighting a part of your subject that they are still not quite clear on and requesting some help with moving it forward.  This involvement means that the comments you give will have a higher chance of being acted upon.

Feedback key – Focusing your feedback

A feedback key that all students are familiar with and used when marking pieces of work.

Create a marking key and give students a copy to stick in their books.  The codes on this key could include B.O.D (Benefit of doubt), T.V (Too vague) or double ticks for very well answered pieces.  When marking work, leave the codes throughout the work where needed.  Students then check the codes upon receiving their work back and know what needs work (lack of detail etc).  The code means that students will have to think about what needs improving, and it is this thinking which will help progress learning further.  If they need more clarity over why they have a code they can come and seek further feedback.

This makes marking quicker on you as a teacher.  Also as Dylan Wiliam says, feedback should provoke thought.  This method highlights to the student areas where knowledge is competent, and areas where knowledge is lacking.  Students work out where the error is and can correct it.  The key is quick to use and provides you with time to actually write constructive comments where a student needs it most, rather than having to scribble all over a piece of work.  Less is more.

Feedback homework – DIRT time at home

Students collect a 'homework task' that is specific to a common misconception they have demonstrated in a piece of work.  

Although feedback should be specific to that individual, there are times when a few different common errors throughout the class have taken place.  For the first part of the homework, students have to act on feedback that was personalised and specific to them.  For the second part, students also have to collect a 'feedback homework' task sheet from you.  Each task is different and relates to one of the common errors demonstrated in the pieces of work.  Students simply pick up the relevant task in relation to their feedback.

As well as specific feedback for every child, there are also some common mistakes that come up.  This encourages students to work on this feedback task at home, addressing the error/gap and improving the work that they submitted.  It is also efficient for the teacher.

Feedback questions – Doing something with your comments?

A Dylan Wiliam idea - Give students questions as feedback to tackle misconceptions.

Read through students work and place numbers against misconceptions.  The number links to questions posed by the teacher at the end of the piece of work.  Students have to respond to the questions and demonstrate that they have understood the information.

By asking questions students have to think about the error that they made.  By using questions students have to engage with the feedback and act upon it.

Triple impact marking – You, me, you

Provide feedback to students.  They then provide feedback back to your comments.  You provide feedback again.

Read students work and provide feedback where necessary.  Students then read the comments, react to them by writing their own comment and course of action (how they will improve).  They then improve and you then feedback on the work again, seeing if they have undertaken the steps they had identified.

Engages in a dialogue of feedback where the students must act upon your comments, and plan steps to improve.

Feedforward as a starting point – Using feedback as in future learning 

Use previous feedback/feedforward as starting target for new work.

Very obvious but actively get students to write their previous feedforward targets on new work.  Students therefore have the deficit from the last piece of work visible and in their mind when working on their new piece.

Students can easily forget or ignore feedback.  The same mistakes seem to keep creeping up again and again, making you wonder whether they have read the comments at all.  By having them as the starting point of the next piece, it is a clear criteria for which students work towards in their new piece.

Using grades/data – Using summative assessment and quantitative data effectively

Using grades, test data and scores with students as a form of feedback to help close the gap.

Break down a piece of work, coursework or test.  Display the separate components of the work in the form of a spreadsheet on the board and get students to pick the areas that they have answered poorly and they must act upon those areas.  Combine it with a 'Closing the gap' lesson or DIRT time to make it have more impact.  Use mark schemes to support where necessary.

Giving grades or test scores can be detrimental to feedback.  Going through an exam paper question by question can be quite laborious.  This method gives students an overview of each question and each sub section of it in one quick image.  Topics are colour co-ordinated so spotting patterns in weaknesses is easy to do.  With a break down of the marks, students can also see how far away they were from achieving the correct response.  Promotes responsibility and ownership as students identify areas themselves.

Modelling and examples – Showing what to aim for

When providing feedback, use a model or example of excellence to help students reference what they need to be doing.

When you are going over the main misconceptions (or even positives) of a piece of work or learning, use a model or example of excellence with the students.  This helps them understand and visualise what quality their work should be aiming for.

Students find that they have great feedback from teachers but they can't translate that into a mental image of what their work/learning should be.  Showing an example helps scaffold what the next steps actually look like and are more likely to get students to act upon the feedback.

Now these methods should be adapted and tweaked to suit the needs of your students.  Ultimately though, they encourage feedback to be acted upon, and hit many of the concerns and issues with the teacher approaches, students perceptions and pitfalls in methods I have identified.  If you haven't done so already, I would really encourage you to read my previous post to understand the student and teacher factors in this process.  So, knowing all of this now, can we be that little bit better at providing feedback methods that stick?

This is being submitted as part of Octobers #blogsync. Read the other entries here:


My previous feedback posts:

Creating a culture of critique - My favorite method of providing feedback (also full of links)

My #TLT13 and ResearchEd presentation on making feedback stick

My #TMSoton Making Feedback Stick presentation

Some excellent articles from numerous bloggers on Feedback collated via Edssential

Some excellent articles from numerous bloggers on Marking collated via Edssential


  1. This is one of the best collections of practical ways to do feeback right that I've come across! Thanks so much for sharing!

  2. This is a great blog and I am so excited to be able to share this with the teachers at my school during this year! Thank you! I'll be an avid follower from now on!

  3. This is an excellent source of a wide variety of tools which I have had the opportunity to read on a single post. Thank you very much! #aismooc #givefeedback