Evaluating the impact of written feedback

A couple of weeks ago I was putting together my slides for #TMSBradford and I took some photographs of mail merge feedback sheets completed by students. (This is one method I use for reducing time spent on marking while increasing impact.)

The problem was, I had to reject the first 3 or 4 examples because they hadn’t actually met the targets in the feedback exercise. Some had written very little and some had completed the feedback incorrectly e.g. used the wrong ‘there’ in a homophone activity.

This student has attempted the task but has not added all of the full stops.

This matters because it illustrated that the written feedback I had taken time to produce in these cases had zero impact! In some ways you could argue that there was a negative impact as a misconception was allowed to continue.

As a result of this, I then decided to look at a range of my books across all of my classes and look at the impact of my written feedback.

In some books, there was feedback that had no impact on future pieces of work- identified errors continued into the next task. Sometimes the errors were fixed immediately afterwards but appeared further down the line. In both instances, the time spent marking appeared to be wasted and the issues needed to be addressed again.

Of course, most of the time, students did act on the feedback and it is important to track those instances of success and do more of the things that work.

Dylan Wiliam, speaking at the Festival of Education, explained that written feedback is effective but that some studies actually show a negative effect. It is therefore not ok just to do written feedback, it must be of sufficient quality and have a worthwhile impact for it to be worth the time it takes. This is why this extra layer of evaluating the impact of written feedback becomes necessary.

I have already written about the entire process of making written feedback work. I would add the ideas that follow to that sequence so it becomes: before, during, after, evaluate.

Here are my recommendations for ensuring that written feedback does actually make a difference:

Ensure that any written feedback comes with advice on how to improve.

If you say ‘You need to organise writing into clear paragraphs’ then the few students who just forgot about paragraphs will possibly remember next time but the ones who don’t actually know when to take a new paragraph are not going to be able to understand just from that. It needs to come with some guidance on how to do that. Then students need an opportunity to put that guidance into practice. This is clearly the most important stage of the written feedback process so students need to be given time to do this. They also need to develop the mindset of relishing their feedback and wanting to use it to improve. Teachers need to assure students that their feedback is simply the most important thing for them to improve.

After giving feedback, read the responses to the feedback and ensure that any misconceptions are addressed.

Read the response to feedback immediately (or as soon as you can). If you don’t check that they have understood and improved as a result of the feedback then you risk the possibility that the feedback didn’t work. If students don’t improve from your feedback, refine it. Was the wording of your feedback helpful? Were students given sufficient time to read and respond? If a student just didn’t try then you can discuss it with them. This is obviously much more effective soon after the feedback.

If you only write a comment with no opportunity to act on the feedback then it is going to be difficult for you to ascertain whether they have even understood the feedback. Asking students to comment on your feedback or phrasing the feedback as a question might be one way to do that. Even then, you need to evaluate the quality of student responses. A comment of ‘Thanks Sir. I have read my feedback and understand it’ isn’t really that illuminating!

Tackle wide misconceptions in class too.

Take the opportunity to teach things that are coming up repeatedly in your marking. Do this in addition to students acting on the feedback. The feedback is much more likely to stick if it is accompanied by this.

The taxonomy of errors is a good approach to this. Andy Sammons has a couple of blog posts on the subject too: DIY LEARNING: Taxonomy of Errors and Using Taxonomy of Errors for feeding forward. This is my example of common errors in descriptive writing for use with a class.

Ensure that students revisit their targets repeatedly.

There are a number of ways to do this:

Make sure most recent targets are displayed on the front of exercise books or folders. Make them easy to refer to.

Another idea, which I will experiment with next year, is to create feedback bookmarks to be kept in exercise books.

Use the targets to feed forward into the next piece of work. Make this the first thing that you focus on when you mark.

Meticulously record targets for students and monitor them. I RAG them on a spreadsheet- If I don’t I lose track of the targets I have given in the past.

Have routines embedded to ensure students’ targets are memorised. This could be that they answer with their target in response to the register. It could be that you repeatedly ask individuals about their targets. It could also be part of a call and response.

(I’m not interested in students being able to recite these simply so they can say it when someone observing asks them, I want them memorised because I want them to be conscious of what they need to do and then do it in their work.)

Don’t give too much feedback to act on.

Sometimes you will identify a number of things that need addressing. You should be precise with your feedback to ensure that progress is made as a result of the feedback. Write too many targets and there is a danger that they will not be acted on.

Like any area of professional practice, we need to continually refine our approach to written feedback so that we maximise the impact. While I still rate the quality of my written feedback highly, there is still much more room for improvement.

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