Never mark with a red pen. Cover your classroom walls with posters decreeing ‘not yet’. Don’t even think about praising intelligence. When it comes to improving education through feedback it seems like there are more answers given than questions asked. But while the noise of feedback policies clammer against meta-analysis research, teachers continue to plug away at all-consuming mountains of marking. And to what outcome? Surely there are better ways to inspire students' progress? We’ve sifted through the research and spoken to the experts to find out how to maximise the value students receive from feedback while alleviating the strain of traditional marking modes.
Back in 2007, Hattie claimed that with its impressive effect size feedback almost doubled the rate of learning. But if you ask James Nottingham, like we did on our Brainwaves podcast, something seems amiss. “Now that sounds fabulous doesn’t it? But everybody is giving feedback in school, all students are receiving feedback and yet very, very few of them are making two years progress in one year because of that feedback. Therefore something's not right... and that's why we need to challenge the way learning is taking place.”
Just as we avoid drowning our students in busy work, it’s time we started measuring feedback by the quality of the impact it provides, rather than the number of ticks and crosses it leaves behind. As James says:
“Let's look for impact, let's look for effect, let's look for outcome... Too often teachers are writing lots of feedback because they know it's going to be checked. Whereas if we look for ‘what is the outcome’, then we could still write it if we want, but we could speak it, I mean hell, we could sing it if we really want, but the point is, did the students understand it and apply it - that's the key.” (Nottingham, 2020).
So, let’s jump into five practical steps for creating feedback for better student outcomes and less teacher meltdowns.
A 5-step guide for reducing marking piles and improving feedback outcomes
1. Lay some groundwork
Investing time in setting up your feedback processes will save you down the line. The goal here is twofold; to help your students receive feedback effectively, and to help you both leverage that feedback to better their learning and your teaching outcomes.
Set your timeframes
Like most things in life, when it comes to feedback timing is everything. According to James Nottingham, mistiming feedback could be one of the main factors related to students not making the gains Hattie’s effect size touts. In a recent episode of our Brainwaves Podcast on Challenging Learning, James spoke at length about the importance of timely feedback. “Far too often feedback is given at the end, and no matter how we write it because it's at the end students take it as a summative statement... Whereas we well know, formative feedback helps so much more.” But at what time should ‘timely’ feedback be given? James says around two-thirds of the way through the task. “We need to give students the opportunity to struggle and go through the learning pit, but I don't think we should wait ‘til they're out of the pit altogether before we give them that feedback. As they are coming out the other side, let's say two-thirds of the way through the assignment, then collect in the books, the drafts, and then give formalised feedback at that point so the students have time to do something with it.”
Set your students up to receive feedback
"I used to think giving more feedback and better feedback was the answer [to improving education], and it's the exact opposite: How do teachers and students receive feedback? How do they interpret it?" (Hattie cited in Sparks, 2018).
Developing a shared understanding of what to expect from feedback early on will make things easier once feedback is given and delicate teenage egos get involved. Let your students know what to expect by being explicit about the criteria you’ll use to provide feedback, how often they can expect it, and their responsibilities. You could even set expectations by running through some sample student responses on the same task. Use annotated examples to show your students different levels of achievement, and what techniques will help them reach each level.
‘Feed Up, Feed Back, Feed Forward’
Hattie and Timperley’s ‘Feed Up, Feed Back, Feed Forward’ model is useful for establishing effective feedback before students even set to work. Use it to help your students consider three questions;
- Feed Up.
Where am I going? Clarifying the goal.
- Feed Back.
How am I going? Reviewing the evidence.
- Feed Forward.
Where to next? Modifying the next steps.
You can read more about this model in The Power of Feedback, but let’s unpack this last question a little more.“The power of feedback... can be used to specifically address this question by providing information that leads to greater possibilities for learning. These may include enhanced challenges, more self-regulation over the learning process, greater fluency and automaticity, more strategies and processes to work on the tasks, deeper understanding, and more information about what is and what is not understood. This feedforward question can have some of the most powerful impacts on learning.” (Hattie & Timperley 2007)
2. Leverage Edtech to automate tasks
A surefire way to reduce your marking time is to use quizzes that are automatically marked. This will not only save manual marking, it will also give you instant access to your students performance data. This can help establish how each student is performing and who might need that little bit of extra help. This information can also be directly applied to your ‘Feed Back’ and ‘Feed Forward’ sessions. You can learn more about how to inform your teaching with Atomi data in our help centre if you’re interested.
Free up class time for live feedback sessions
Allocating content outside of class hours will give you more time for classroom feedback sessions. Plus, you can use the completion data to make your classroom feedback sessions even more efficient and effective.
3. Mark live
The sweet spot between reducing your marking workload outside of class and improving feedback quality could lie in a good old fashioned chat. Whether you hold classwide sessions or breakout meetings, marking your students work alongside them allows for valuable verbal feedback while reinstating your work-life balance. Nick Burton from the Teacher Toolkit now facilitates feedback meetings for all thirty-one learners in his class. “There are between five and ten minutes where each child can expect my undivided attention.”
While Burton is happy to have more time in his evenings and weekends, “more importantly, children know they have an audience. They also know that they can get one-to-one support during this time if they need any misconceptions explained again. They also have a forum in which they can receive extra challenge and motivation. Finally, they know that they are going to be held accountable for the work they produce.” Burton’s tips for setting up live feedback sessions? Make sure your classroom management is secure before you attempt to mark with students in lessons. And before you dedicate the time to work one-on-one, set your class up to be engaged and on-task while you’re working with their classmate.
4. Encourage self-regulation and self-assessment
According to the experts, self-assessment is a key process within an effective model of feedback (Boud & Molloy, 2012; Hattie & Timperley, 2007; Nicol & Macfarlane‐Dick, 2006). Sure, this step requires some solid foundations, but self-assessment can be an invaluable tool in encouraging students to take responsibility for their own learning. The fact that it reduces the time you spend pouring over marking? An added bonus. If you’ve laid the groundwork in Hattie’s ‘Feed Up’ stage you can pair self-assessment with the powers of self-regulation, or identifying students' expectations. When they’re ready to assess their work, set them up with the best parameters by providing them with guidelines to assess their answers effectively. Here at Atomi, we take a three-pronged approach to self-marking guidelines in our long-form quizzes.
- Marking criteria
A rubric for students to assess their answer against.
- Key terms
We pull out the key term or cognitive verb from the question and use it to clearly define what students are expected to produce.
- Sample answer
We include a sample of what a top marks answer looks like. This helps students draw parallels to their own work and recognise whether they’ve hit the mark.
We’ve found this process of encouraging students to self-assess and reflect has been a hit with students and teachers alike. As Grant Murphy, Dean of Learning at Rosebank College told our School Success team:
‘Not all work needs to be marked by a teacher so it is really good that students are able to write their answers, mark themselves and be able to self reflect to improve.’
5. Seek your own feedback
As educators, we teach our students that feedback is a powerful tool for improvement. Despite this, most teachers are much more comfortable on the giving, rather than the receiving end of feedback. As Su Temlett, former head of English and Digital Learning Leader for Curriculum and Pedagogy put it in our Brainwaves podcast; “This can be quite daunting for teachers, particularly if you’re not at ease with a 12-year-old reviewing your performance.” Though according to Hattie, ‘feedback to teachers makes learning visible.’(Hattie, J, 2009, p.173). So how do we bridge this disconnect? If we’re to take Hattie at his notion that ‘the power of teaching is in the art of listening’, hearing out students can lead to a powerful synchronisation between teachers and students. By listening we not only learn how to improve our teaching, but how to improve how, when and to whom we offer feedback, and to ultimately make our feedback more effective.
Tips for inviting constructive student > teacher feedback
According to Su, “It’s about setting it up in such a way that they can offer feedback respectfully, and offer things that are useful and valuable.” So, like introducing anything else into your class, set parameters.
- Model what productive and constructive feedback looks like
Just as you’d facilitate peer reviews, set guidelines for your students comments. This will likely help you avoid remarks like “that lesson was crap”, and invite valuable insights you can use to direct your teaching.
- Don’t wait for something to go wrong to open up the feedback loop
There’s no need to focus purely on misunderstandings. As Su suggests, a student clearly understanding a topic is a golden opportunity for a teacher to quiz them on what worked. What did they like about your explanation? How did the lesson enable them to grasp the concept? You can then feed these wins into your future practices.
- Piggy back end of topic reviews
As she has her students demonstrate their understanding of the topic before they move onto the next, Su slips in questions on her teaching practice. Think a simple likert scale with space for a few comments.
As with most teaching strategies, there are no overnight fixes for reducing that marking pile and improving your students outcomes. But get it right and not only does everyone win, you get the holy grail of a teachers’ bonus – the priceless gift of time back in your week.
Burton, N, Feedback Meetings: The End Of Marking?, Teacher Toolkit.
Hattie, J & Timperley, H, 2007, The Power of Feedback, University of Auckland.
Nottingham, J, 2020, James Nottingham on Challenging Learning, The Atomi Brainwaves Podcast.
Temlett, S, 2020, Su Temlett on Visible Learning, The Atomi Brainwaves Podcast.
Sparks, S,, 2018, Getting Feedback Right: a Q&A With John Hattie, Education Week.
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