Effective feedback

  • Effective feedback

Towards the top of a long list of things that lead to frustration for teachers must be sitting up all night grading work and then carefully crafting individual comments on each young person’s jotter; only to see the thoughtfully composed words on how to improve being completely ignored by students the following morning as they eagerly compare their overall mark with the rest of the class. Whatever else ails the pupils, it certainly isn’t number blindness.

We shouldn’t be surprised. As a species we are beguiled by figures; we measure ourselves against others by our vital statistics, feel defined by our numerical age and even have gadgets to count the number of steps we take. Teenagers are no exception; for ‘pleasure’ they play computer games which unlock rewards upon achieving a certain score. Is it any wonder that they can’t process our considered and constructive written annotations when the numbers jump out off the page at them, drowning out the comment?

This isn’t just anecdotal – research going back as far back as 1988 shows that when students look at feedback from an assessment, there is an over emphasis on the grade and a tendency to overlook the learning function. Here are some methods, then, which could help to balance this, and make your feedback more effective as a result:

Write feedback on the assignment with no mark at all

The first thing that will happen if you give back work with a comment only, is that the student will ask, “Yeah, but what did I get?” However, without the immediate measure of a mark, learners will have to analysis your comments to find out whether the work they have submitted is the best they could do, or if there is room for improvement. Research quoted in Black and Wiliam’s book, ‘Assessment in Education’, refers to an Israeli study where a group of pupils were returned work which was marked in one of the following ways: with comments only, grade only or both a comment and a grade. The marks of the children who were in the first group and given just feedback improved in subsequent tasks, and all showed interest in the work; the pupils given a grade only made no gain from the first task to the second, and only those with a high score showed interest; whilst those in the third group showed no improvement at all. The authors of this research found that amongst lower achieving pupils, the helpful impact of constructive written comments can be undermined by the negative motivational effects of being given a low grade.

Separate the medium

If the above approach feels too radical, it is worth considering the two separate functions we are performing when putting a grade and comment on a piece of work. The mark lets the student benchmark himself with how he has done in the past and in comparison with his classmates. The comment tells him how to make his work better. Unfortunately in our age of instant gratification, the ‘how to make it better’ bit can get lost, so that the only real message that gets through is the ‘Where am I now?’ bit. Research from Education Scotland asked teachers and pupils of secondary schools in Scotland whether the latter received feedback on their work. According to the teachers, 99% of the students were told how to improve but only 68% of the pupils felt they were getting this information. So, why not create a separate grid sheet to record the score, to be delivered after the actual annotated class work has been returned and digested? Or, if you have time and your classroom dynamic allows it, tell the pupils the comment rather than writing it down. For some, a spoken message may be more memorable than something written, and the students can’t claim they were unable to read the teachers’ writing as their excuse for ignoring the feedback!

Put the most important comment first

In modern society we have developed a tendency to be overly sensitive to the feelings of others, to the extent that we have warnings on the news that viewers may find the following scenes distressing. Feedback in education is no different, as we are told to put the positive comment before the negative, even though it is the latter which will bring about improvement. Unfortunately, in practice this tends to lead to only the encouraging first lines being absorbed with the message being lost by the medium in which it is delivered. Why not adopt the structure of a newspaper article from one of the red-tops when writing comments on pupils’ work, where the most important information – where improvement could be made – is delivered in the very first sentence?

Let the students do the marking

Finally, if learners are allowed to grade their own work, or their partner’s, after reading the teachers’ comments, then they will be able to assess the comments independently of a grade, actively involving the students in their own learning. This is one of the factors that research indicates improves learning through assessment.


Gordon Cairns is an English and Forest School teacher, who works in a unit for secondary pupils on the Autism Spectrum Disorder. He also writes about education, society, cycling and football for a number of publications.