The Power of Feedback: Part Two

14 Jun

ThePowerofFeedbackpartAs I promised in part 1 I am continuing to provide summaries and reactions to John Hattie’s and Helen Timperley’s “The Power of Feedback.” Some of my English colleagues and I have been focused on improving our feedback on student writing, and reading this meta-analysis (published in 2007) was our starting point this year. Of course, the more I read the more I wanted to know, so this reading led to more reading…and more reading, which I will summarize through these blog posts.

Since writing my first post, I had the chance to go to London and hear John Hattie speak at a Visible Learning conference. Hattie and team use a “Barometer of Influence” to explain research results to the masses. His main argument is this:

Almost ANYTHING teachers do helps students achieve. There is actually very little we do in the classroom that decreases achievement.

The key to truly effective learning, then, is to focus on WHAT WORKS BEST. If we want to be effective educators, Hattie tells us to focus on the actions that fall in the green or blue category (anything offering over 0.4 influence), and, very importantly, to carefully measure our actions, gauging whether or not they are actually helping students reach greater achievement.

barometer_of_influenceFeedback, by the way, has a 0.75 influence and falls within in the blue range. In other words, it is very much worth our time to get better at providing it.

Hattie’s argument makes perfect sense to me, and it is edifying to realize that teachers’ gut instincts (e.g. better feedback helps students write better) are actually supported by big data. John Hattie and the Visible Learning team are basing their results on over 1,000 meta-analyses involving 240,000,000,000 students.


The good news, then, is that in reading “The Power of Feedback” I have been exposed to a much broader perspective on what makes for effective teaching. The bad news? “The Power of Feedback” left me wanting more specific, concrete advice on how I can get better at giving feedback on writing.

Naively, I was hoping for information along the lines of:  Writing comments on students’ essays has a 0.82 influence on achievement while simply talking to students about their work only has a 0.24 influence. Research would indicate, then, that English teachers really should feel wonderful about sacrificing so many weekends to the time-suck that is writing individualized comments. It works better than conferencing face-to-face! Alas, no such clarity is to be gained here. Yet, there are broader takeaways that I can apply to my own practices. Here they are:

TAKE-AWAY#2: “Simply providing more feedback is not the answer, because it is necessary to consider the nature of the feedback, the timing, and how a student ‘receives’ this feedback (or, better, actively seeks the feedback)” (Hattie and Timperley 101).

To help us consider the nature of our feedback, Hattie and Timperely describe four categories:

Feedback on Self (FS) = praise

“Nice job!”

“You obviously worked hard on this essay!”

Feedback on Task (FT) = how well a task is being performed; is a task correct or not

“You are now writing topic sentences which clearly preview the content of the paragraph.”

“You have three run-on sentences in this introduction paragraph.”

Feedback on Process (FP) = what strategies are needed to perform a task; suggesting alternative strategies that might lead to success.

“Your topic sentences will be more effective when you provide a specific argument within them. Re-read this paragraph and answer this question: ‘What am I trying to prove?’”

“Before handing in the next draft, correct the three run-on sentences in this introduction paragraph and check with me in class to see that you have fixed them. Use the online run-on resources if you need to review this concept before you revise.”

Feedback on Self-Regulation (FR) = self-monitoring with a clear goal in mind

“What is the purpose of topic sentences? Considering your answer, what can you do to improve the topic sentences in this draft? Check with me in class to see if your revisions strategy is on point.”

“Through our in-class activities, you have demonstrated a good understanding of run-on sentences, yet they still appear in your drafts. Look at your introduction again and remove the run-ons you find there.”

I, like you, focus inordinately on feedback on task. Most teachers do. To make our feedback more effective, however, we must consider, what type of feedback is necessary at an exact point. One of the Visible Learning presenters defined feedback as: just for me information delivered just at the time I need it.

The definition is fantastic…and daunting. I think I am good at giving feedback, and I’m left wondering, “OK. But how do I know exactly what they need and when they need it? And how do I clone myself so I can give everyone feedback at the moment they need it?”

I can’t clone myself, but looking at Hattie and Timperley’s analysis of big data helps. Here are a few of the important points I gleaned from my reading:

  • Mixing corrective feedback (FT) with feedback at the self level (e.g. “I am proud of you!” or “Good effort!”) actually dilutes the power of feedback (85). Praise can be a motivating tool we use to build relationships with students, but if we should not expect it to affect achievement very profoundly. It has only a 0.14 effect (83).
  • “Specifically, feedback is more effective when it provides information on correct rather than incorrect responses and when it builds on changes from previous [trials]” (83). When we focus on what the writer is doing correctly, we are helping the writer achieve. Reinforcement has a 0.96 effect (83).
  • FT is more powerful when it is about faulty interpretations, not lack of information (85). Further instruction is needed when knowledge is not present. Re-teaching, depending on the student’s base knowledge, will be the more effective strategy.
  • “Feedback at the process level (e.g. cuing a student to use an advanced organizer) appears to be more effective than FT for deeper understanding” (86). At the beginning of a task, FT is useful, but we must consciously move students toward more autonomy and independence. When we do so, the numbers show that students achieve more.

Considering these points, how do my own practices stack up with what the research tells us we should be doing?

The Good:

Focus on what works: The longer I teach, the more focused I become on celebrating what the students do well in their writing. I try to dedicate at least half of my comments to what is working in the piece, reserving the rest of my comments for suggestions to improve.

Big data tells us that such a focus increases achievement, as students are more likely to internalize such skills and carry them from assignment to assignment. It also makes students more receptive to the corrective feedback, and if we can’t get them to accept feedback, it won’t be effective.

I am also becoming more conscientious of how I phrase such suggestions. Within these past months I have been especially aware of the three questions feedback should help students answer: Where am I going? How am I going? What next?

Instead of writing…“You do not integrate textual quotations well. Please review the materials we have studied in class.”

I have been writing….“When you learn to integrate textual quotations into your own syntax, you will add more sophistication to your work.”

In the future, I will write…“You were suppose to integrate textual quotations into your own sentence structure. You have selected strong quotations, but they are only dropped into the essay with insufficient setup. When you learn to integrate textual quotations into your own syntax, you will add more sophistication to your work. Use the TLC method we reviewed in class or review the online sources on Haiku to improve.”

The last statement is much longer, but because I use macros to make such comments, I will not take more time to give better feedback. If I am using an audio feedback approach, I will need to limit my comments and be sure to shape them around the three feedback questions more directly.

In addition to the phrasing of my feedback, I am also happy with the mini-essay approach I sometimes use. It allows me to give more pointed feedback more frequently.

I came across these graphics in an Eli Review module on feedback and they really stuck with me.

The typical writing process in the typical classroom often looks like this. (Actually, this graphic is generous, as far too often the “process” goes write/review really quickly/revise a little bit/get your grade.)

timeline1A writing process that will help more students find more achievement, will review and revise more often and more frequently. It might look like this:

timeline2The mini-essay approach allows me to give such feedback as we work toward a larger essay. It works the same way when we break down longer essays into various paragraphs. Eli Review (and big data) argue that when we train students to give more effective feedback, we can more realistically shift the writing process paradigm to look more like the second graph.

In the future, I will be focused on other ways I can increase the frequency and timeliness of the review and revise components of the writing process model.

The Bad and The Ugly:

Nice in theory, but let’s be realistic: I need to make something really clear. I am not always giving excellent feedback. One big reason for the delay in between my postings is that I am spending a big chunk of time marking big stacks of essay. And in the time period that I have been drafting this post, not every student has received extensive feedback on every essay.

I just finished 40 grade 10 reflective essays where I simply wrote a note at the end of the essay, detailing two things they did well and two things they could do to improve. But, there is no time for students to act on my feedback. It’s the end of the year, and these essays were written entirely on their own time, outside of class, with little to no feedback from me.

While I was marking the reflective essays, the same students wrote an in-class timed commentary essay on a passage from The Great Gatsby. On these handwritten commentary essays I underlined things that were good, circled things that were a problem, and put a few different symbols that relate to certain points of feedback. I marked some points on the scoring guide and assigned a grade. Again, the students did not get a chance to revise these first attempts. The grade was the grade.

Of course, I am using these essays as assessments, and when students cannot act on my feedback I give very little (if any). I just want to admit to the fact that while I’m writing these posts of feedback my own practices are far from perfect. I am pragmatic…and simply try to improve with every passing year.

I will write one more post on “The Power of Feedback.” In the meantime, you might want to check out some of these links to read some of what I have been reading while writing these posts:

Notable Quotes on Formative Feedback

7 Things about Feedback Infographic

Is the feedback you’re giving helping or hurting?

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