Geoff Petty - Feedback means fixing, not marking

The point of giving feedback is to fix errors and omissions in understanding, says Geoff Petty, author of Teaching Today and Evidence-based Teaching. Geoff is the author of ‘Teaching Today’, ‘Evidenced Based Teaching’ and ‘How To Teach Even Better’.

Many teachers interpret feedback and formative assessment to mean commenting on students’ work, and annotating it with ticks and crosses and so on. Some think this includes grades or marks although two of my articles for InTuition (Issues 12 and 13) looked at the negative impact of grading.

But the guru on formative assessment and feedback, Dylan Wiliam, emeritus professor of educational assessment at the Institute of Education, interprets the terms differently. For him, the purpose of feedback is not just to comment on progress to date, but to fix the errors and omissions in students’ understanding, and to help students identify exactly what a good piece of work looks like.

Dylan points out that feedback is an engineer’s term. A thermostat tells your boiler that the temperature is 5 degrees too low (this is like a comment or a grade) then this information turns the boiler on (this is the fix). Without the fix, there is no benefit from the feedback.

A misconception teachers often have is that it is they who must provide feedback and formative assessment. But students can do a pretty good job for themselves and each other, saving you some trouble, as well as teaching students about how to assess and the nature of good work.

Done well, feedback can have a huge impact on students’ learning. Let’s look at an example of good practice: the snowball teaching method. One use of snowball is to get students to evaluate an imperfect piece of work. I will imagine you have just explained to your students how to use commas, but this approach could be used to teach them how to write a good marketing plan, care plan, or experimental design. You could also use this approach to teach students how to rearrange algebraic expressions, indeed pretty much any intellectual skill.

Having explained how to use commas you will want to give them feedback on their understanding before they start to use the skill. You give them a few paragraphs of punctuated text, but it contains errors and omissions in the use of commas. Students are then told the following sequence in advance, and challenged to find all the errors and omissions in the example given them, and to be able to explain these.

  1. Students work alone to detect faults in the text
  2. Students pair up to discuss the improper use of commas that they have found, and to combine and improve their ideas
  3. Pairs combine into fours, and again ideas are discussed and improved. Together they create the best, reasoned critique of the punctuation they can
  4. Now you get one idea from each group of four in turn. You choose a member of the group to give one problem with the punctuation, and perhaps another to explain why this is a problem and what the solution is. You don’t comment on their thinking at this stage except to clarify it.
  5. For each point made by a group you ask the class if they agree or not, and why. There is class discussion. You record the class’s conclusions on the board, whether these are right or wrong, and without evaluating them.
  6. You repeat 4 and 5 above with the other groups, until all the comments on the use of commas have been collected
  7. You now comment on the class’s thinking for the first time, and correct errors and omissions in this

Why does this teaching method work so well? Look at the diagram of the quality learning cycle. When people learn they make links between neurons (brain cells). The new learning (red cogs in the diagram), is connected to prior learning (blue cogs). This new learning encodes the student’s version of what you have explained. It is called the student’s ‘construct’ for how to use commas.

This construct will have errors and omissions in it, because it was not made by you, but by the student. If you are not convinced, at the end of one of your lessons ask your students to write down what they have just learned on a piece of paper. Collect these in – and read them. You will be astounded at how your perfect explanations have been garbled and corrupted. And of the vital need for formative assessment.

The best way to fix these errors and omissions is to engage the learners in active learning on a challenging task with feedback. This requires the student to form an understanding, then checks and corrects this understanding, and so improves it. Snowball does this pretty well, as each student will go round the quality learning cycle a number of times: probably when working alone, certainly in pairs when there is a disagreement, again in fours, and yet again during class discussion. The construct is improved at each stage.

You also get excellent feedback on their understanding. This enables you to re-teach the points that students have not understood. There are no written comments or grades during snowball, but there is plenty of feedback. Vitally, this goes on to produce plenty of fixing. The feedback in snowballing has not just corrected students’ work, it has corrected their understanding and your teaching.

Snowballing will not be enough by itself to teach the use of commas, students will now need individual practice at punctuating text, or creating marketing plans and the like. But they will find this practice much easier if they have snowballed first, and less practice will be needed to establish the skill. This practice could be snowballed as well, or instead. Snowball has lots of uses.

The quality learning cycle can be used to analyse any teaching method to see if it provides the feedback and fixing that students need. Feedback, or formative assessment, does not require the teacher to do all the work, or to provide lots of comments and marks. Its aim is to get students to understand what they are trying to do, what they do well, and what they don’t, and to fix misunderstandings.