Thursday, August 14, 2014

Feedback doesn't cause learning, thinking causes learning

Arrow Feedback 
"If I had to reduce all of the research on feedback into one simple overarching idea, at least for academic subjects in school, it would be this: feedback should cause thinking. All the practical techniques discussed here work because, in one way or another, they get the students to think, rather than react emotionally to the feedback they are given." - Dylan Wiliam
Here's what I'm gaining from reading Wiliam, Butler, Kluger and Denisi. Kids don't learn anything from knowing what they did right or what they did wrong. The giving of feedback is not what directly causes learning. All the learning happens after you give feedback, when you've either sent a kid down a productive path or motivated them to reexamine their habits in a serious way.

In short: feedback that students don't act on probably doesn't do much.


  1. What does effective feedback on standard-issue quizzes and tests look like? Do you give comments on every question? The assessment as a whole?
  2. Are written and oral feedback equally effective?
  3. Are questions ("Have you considered similar triangles?") and suggestions ("Try thinking about similar triangles") equally effective when appearing in feedback?
  4. Last year I gave feedback on weekly quizzes and on some classwork. Is that enough? Is there a limit on how much feedback, practically, is useful, or is it a "the more the better" situation?


  1. Michael, you leave us hanging with: "Last year I gave feedback on weekly quizzes and on some classwork. Is that enough?"

    What was the result of your feedback? How was that different than the results you had before? Did you do feedback and a grade, or just feedback?"

    1. My school doesn't give grades, but I think that there are lots of ways to "give grades" without giving grades. There are two things that make grades nasty for learning. (1) They're easy to understand, so they get all the attention and (2) they allow for easy comparison with other students. Even in a no-grades environment you can do this by tallying the number of right/wrong or even by marking right/wrong with nothing further. Kids will say: "I only got three wrong!" instead of "I got a 92!" which isn't much of a difference.

      So, in short: I dunno. I wasn't paying close enough attention.

  2. How do you account for the fact that most of the kids don't give a crap about feedback, that a good number of them don't care whether they got a question right or wrong?

    I have other ways of giving them this information, but if it's not during--if it's after? They do not care in the vast majority of cases. The ones who care enough to ask, of course, I explain.

    1. All this stuff is so environment-specific. I'll answer from what I've seen in my own classes, but I obviously can't really speculate about what's going on with your kids.

      I think when I've given crappy feedback it gets ignored by kids, as in 38% of the well-designed studies that Kluger and DeNisi studied. When I've given feedback that actually gives kids a good plan for improvement, I've seen a lot more caring.

      One routine that I've landed on, that I like, surrounds my weekly quizzes. Weekly quizzes are on anything from the entire semester, so kids get a lot of stuff wrong. They take them on Friday, I give them feedback over the weekend, and then on Monday they get the quizzes back with half a class period to improve their solutions.

      That's one routine that I feel good about, though I know I need to be more careful about making sure the feedback I give offers them something clear that they can act on.

  3. Michael,

    This is my experience as well. Students should be required to think about the feedback they get in order to make sense of it and adjust their reasoning. This is why I found using questions as feedback as incredibly helpful.

    It is also Ed_Realist, to use structures for mathematics that students do care about. I once, in a high poverty school, used the Königsberg bridge problem with my 9th grade students. All of them attempted to find a solution. Every single one of them, including the kids who rarely came to class. Every single one of them wanted to know if they had the right answer. Almost all of them came to me with something they thought was a solution. In fact, the problem spread to most of the 9th grade class that year, and some students were still trying to find a solution weeks later.

    When I showed them the (informal) proof that there is no solution, they were all interested, and I hope they felt like proof itself was more motivated.

    In any case, kids uninterested in getting feedback is a sign of bad teaching IMHO. Kids care if they are right or wrong if the problems they are doing are interesting enough to matter.

    1. Blah I missed a word and can't edit.

      "It is also Ed_Realist, to use structures for mathematics that students do care about."

      should be

      "It is also important, Ed_Realist, to use structures for mathematics that students do care about."

    2. Yes, that must be it. I'm a terrible teacher.

  4. I'm also curious about the relationship between grades and feedback -- Dylan Wiliam has some great stuff in Embedded Formative Assessment about how putting a grade on an assignment minimizes students' ability to engage with the feedback.

    I believe it, but I don't have the option not to give grades at my school. I'm curious what a hybrid would look like -- are some types of quizzes early in the learning process never graded, and given with comments? Classworks? Not sure how this might look.

    1. Wiliam is great, but if you can get your hands on Ruth Butler's papers they are absolutely worth reading. Or at least a writeup of her papers. (link)

      I'm currently teaching at a school that gives no grades. When/if I'm back in a grades environment, I'd be inclined to leave weekly quizzes ungraded and to only grade tests. I'd give as many tests as my schedule allowed, and they'd be cumulative, and good performance on a subsequent test would improve their past grades.

      Or, like Ashli, you can just stop writing their grades on their papers when you hand them back. (link)

  5. I’ve been reviewing some of the MARS formative assessment lesson teacher resources, and they suggest giving most of the feedback in the form of a question (Example in Rolling Cups on page T-3 under Assessing student responses
    ). Page T-4 gives a list of common issues along with suggested questions and prompts for feedback. Most of these are questions instead of suggestions. Not sure if this is a suggestion or finding from MAPS that questions are better than suggestions, but it has got me thinking.

    I am really liking your reflection questions at the end of your posts recently. These questions may have originally been for you, but now that you have asked these questions they are for all of us readers as well. If you had written your post as a summary instead, I still would have enjoyed it, but I wouldn’t have this great list of questions to think about. Have you noticed more comments and feedback as a result of these questions? Just curious.

    1. The MARS stuff is great, and I think they definitely fall on the "suggestions in the form of questions" side of things.

      Also: too soon to know if the questions at the ends of posts have an effect on comments! We'll see what happens when the school year starts. Thanks for sharing that you like them, I'll keep at it.