The art of giving feedback: how knowledge transfer isn't our job anymore

This Stile Book Club post is a follow-up of my earlier post on automated feedback but also relates to my series on the flipped classroom in Stile. It explores our roles as teachers and how we can best help our students achieve their goals. Our expertise is still highly valued, but in this post, I'll argue that we should spend our limited amount of time helping our students help themselves through effective feedback rather than by dispensing wisdom from up front.

Knowledge transfer dethroned

Not too long ago, content was king. As teachers, we were considered the primary source of knowledge in the classroom and second-guessing from students was not generally something we experienced, at least not directly. This has of course completely changed with the internet now constantly at our students' fingertips. So why do we even still have teachers? Shouldn't the near-infinite amount of lessons freely available on YouTube, Khan Academy and Coursera et al. suffice?

Guide on the side, not sage on the stage

Over the span of my teaching career (which incidentally started just four months after three former PayPal employees set up a video sharing service called YouTube above a pizzeria), I have noticed that my students no longer take my word for gospel — and rightly so! Information changes constantly and since I'm not a walking encyclopaedia, I can't be expected to know everything. One result of this sea change of information transfer is that the main role of teachers has now firmly shifted from content deliverers to mentors. 

Teachers have always been mentors (well, at the least the good ones), but since the advent of flipped learning, we can now spend less time delivering lesson content up front and focus on providing our students with quality feedback.

Digital helpers & the feedback loop

The basic feedback loop

The basic feedback loop

Most of the feedback I received from my teachers when I was a primary and secondary school student in Switzerland was either delivered orally on the spot (and forgotten almost as quickly) or scribbled barely legibly on my cruddy worksheets that would inevitably get lost, scrunched up beyond recognition or hidden in embarrassment. The exception to the rule would be end-of-semester comments in my gradebook, by which point it was generally too late to implement the feedback.

I now firmly believe that if my teachers and I had had access to today's technological aids, my academic performance would have been a lot better! I mostly soldiered on by myself, as my parents lacked the know-how and my teachers were too busy talking up front to help me in my struggles. I was missing one of the most important part of the learning process: effective, accessible feedback. 

The Power of Feedback

During my research for this post, I came across the perhaps most influential paper on the importance and effect of feedback published in the last decade: The Power of Feedback by John Hattie and Helen Timperley (2007). I promptly made it my Book Club piece and presented a summary to our Education Team last week. 

The paper refers to John Hattie's extensive collection of evidence, which in 1999 meant roughly 500 meta-analyses, representing 20 to 30 million students, though in his Nov 2013 TEDx talk, the author claimed that this number has since grown to around a quarter of a billion students! Feedback has been shown to be the key factor contributing to student achievement. However, not all of it is equally beneficial and some feedback (such as praise or punishment) has little to no effect on performance. 

A model of feedback

Hattie & Timperley propose a model of feedback that consists of three questions and four levels of feedback:

Feedback should provide answers to the following questions:

  1. Where am I going? This clearly states the goal, i.e. what does success look like?
  2. How am I going? This tells students how close to (or far from!) that goal they are.
  3. Where to next? Give your students clear next steps to develop deeper understanding and self-regulation abilities

As a teacher, I know that I often only provide feedback on the second question, even though 1. and 3. are just as important, as they set the context and motivate my students to work towards a goal.

These questions all work on the four levels of feedback:

  1. Feedback on the task (FT) — how well has the task been performed?
  2. Feedback on the process (FP) — what are the strategies needed to perform the task?
  3. Feedback on self-regulation (FR) — what is the conditional knowledge needed to know what you're doing?
  4. Feedback on the self (FS) — generally praising the students, (think 'Good girl!') which has been shown to be appreciated (only 10% of students don't like being praised, though most like being praised privately, not in the classroom in front of their peers) but not effective in terms of student performance.

When is which kind of feedback most effective?

Context is crucial when it comes to delivering feedback. Towards the end of this slide deck on effective feedback, Professor Hattie proposes what level of feedback we should use at which point in the learning process. I also added where in Stile you could provide the relevant feedback in brackets.

  • New material: Task feedback is most effective (Stile's per-question feedback is perfect for this)
  • Some degree of proficiency: Process feedback is most helpful here (pop relevant comments, links and attachments in Stile's summary feedback box)
  • High degree of proficiency: Self-regulation feedback helps students develop vital skills that will (Audio feedback would be great here and get students to report on their learning with a project space for self-reflection)

Notably absent is FS — the most commonly-observed form of feedback in classrooms is the one with the least effect on achievement.

Surprises (and a few hints for your activities)

When reading through the paper, I was quite surprised at a few findings, most notably:

  1. Positive feedback (i.e. 'That's correct') was almost twice as effective as negative feedback ('That's incorrect'). I always assumed that the opposite was the case. To maximise student learning, we should also type more than 'Well done!' into those feedback boxes; tell them why it's correct to reinforce knowledge! For example, 'That's right, we need to use plural 's' on French adjectives if the nouns they refer to are also in the plural'.)  Because of the importance of positive feedback, we need to define what success looks like with model answers and tell students when and how they achieve it.
  2. Praising students (as opposed to praising effort) doesn't actually improve performance. It even dilutes it in some cases! Praising effort rather than the students themselves yields much better results.
  3. Self-regulation and process feedback are more powerful than task feedback. They help keep your students' eyes on the proverbial prize, develop crucial self-helping strategies and foster independence. Task feedback, by contrast, tends to create a dependency on external feedback providers, i.e. the teacher!

The level of student confidence also matters significantly when analysing the effectiveness of feedback. As it turns out, feedback is most effective when students expect a response to be correct and it turns out to be wrong. The surprise engages and motivates them to find out where their knowledge gap lies. Conversely, if students are not confident of an answer and get it wrong, it can affect their motivation and feedback is less effective. Adding a 'How confident are you about your responses?' poll at the end of each activity is a quick yet effective way to gauge your learners' confidence levels.

Get students to interpret and reformulate feedback

The slide deck ends with a fantastic suggestion to test how well students have digested feedback:

Ask a student to tell you what they think you you are trying to say to them
— Professor John Hattie

Isn't that a neat way to capture student understanding and develop self-regulation abilities? 

In Stile, we could simply add a written-answer question at the end of an activity (Picture 1 below) after having left feedback. Then we can release all feedback and ask for a resubmission in a single click (see Picture 2 below) so students can reflect on the feedback given and articulate what they have taken away from it themselves. 

picture 1

picture 1

Picture 2

Picture 2

Please let us know how you leave feedback in Stile! 

Next week, I'll continue with my series on how to flip your classroom in Stile.