Saturday, November 22, 2014

Sooner is Not Better, and There Is No "Best Feedback" (Post 5 of 10)

At the start of this series, I highlighted four claims about feedback that I thought were both widely heralded and wrong.
  1. Oral feedback is always better than written feedback.
  2. When it comes to feedback, the more the better!
  3. When it comes to feedback, the sooner the better!
  4. Feedback is all about helping students understand the mistakes they've made.
Since then, I've shared a case when I gave oral feedback and a case when I gave written feedback. In one case I gave lots of feedback and in the other I gave rather little feedback. 

Sometimes oral feedback is better than written feedback. Sometimes it's the other way around.

The point isn't just that these myths are wrong, though they are. It's that this talk of "best practices" (or "best activities") is such a limited and unhelpful way of talking about teaching. 

In this post I'll argue that sooner isn't always better. Then, it's time to put these sorts of claims to rest. There's a better way to talk about teaching.

Point: When It Comes To Feedback, The Sooner The Better

"In most cases, the sooner I get feedback, the better." (Seven Keys To Effective Feedback)

"Of course, it's not always possible to provide students with feedback right on the spot, but sooner is definitely better than later." (5 Research-Based Tips For Providing Students With Meaningful Feedback)

Counter-Point: Nah

A few weeks ago I gave a quiz to my geometry classes. We were at the end of a unit on quadrilateral properties and proofs, which was the area that my quiz targeted.

When looking at the quiz, I noticed that my three "always/sometimes/never" questions had gotten a huge variety of responses: "always, always, sometimes"; "sometimes, sometimes, it depends"; "sometimes, always, never", etc. 

A closer look confirmed that their thinking was all over the place. A handful of kids indicated that parallelograms have a line of symmetry. Others didn't recall that a kite can be split into two congruent triangles. Others thought that a trapezoid's diagonal divides it into two congruent triangles. Some proofs were nice, others needed lots of improvement. 

I quickly decided to give my class feedback and time to revise: no other activity that I could run in class would be able to address each individual mistake and give each student a chance to think about their specific area of need. 

I decided to wait a week. 

Why wait? It wasn't because I didn't have time. I think that waiting was the right decision. Consider the work of one of my students, Jake:

Jake showed some major limitations in his thinking on this quiz. Jake indicated that only parallelograms can be split along their diagonals to form two congruent triangles and that the consecutive angles of a parallelogram don't sum to 180 degrees. 

Jake was hard-working during class, and he participated actively in many of our conversations in class about parallelograms. In short, he hadn't slacked during the past two weeks. Despite this, he was still having trouble putting the pieces together. Would feedback help him where two weeks of instruction couldn't?

Maybe. But here's another thing I knew: the upcoming week quite possibly would help. Why? The unit we were beginning was studying how one shape (e.g. a parallelogram) can be dissected and rearranged to form a new shape (e.g. a rectangle). The activities that I was planning on running would give us a chance to physically rearrange shapes into other shapes. I thought that these activities would probably give me a number of great opportunities to address some of Jake's misconceptions about congruent triangles in kites and parallelograms. Or, at least, we could draw on these dissection examples when discussing his quiz when I did give Jake feedback.

Another factor: Jake was hard-working, but I saw a drop in engagement after a few days of "always, sometimes, never"-style questions. I wasn't shocked. We had been working on them for a few days, and questions that are posed in a similar fashion can start to bleed together after some time. I thought that Jake (and others) needed a break from these sorts of questions.

So I waited a week, and I gave feedback. And it was fine. 

OK, Great. Every Rule Has Exceptions. Including "The Sooner the Better." Who Cares?

Thanks for the question, sub-heading!

It's true: there are certainly times when the decision to wait a week to give feedback is the wrong one. And is that the majority of situations? The vast majority?

I don't know. I do know that there are lots of situations like my quadrilaterals quiz, and there are a lot of students like Jake. And that "the sooner the better!" is, strictly speaking, false. 

Here's the only question worth asking, then: do we learn much from a slogan like "the sooner the better"?

I don't think so. 

We don't need "5 Research-Proven Teaching Techniques" or "7 Activities For Learning" or "12 Qualities of Excellent Feedback." Ultimately, the work of teaching comes down to the decisions that we make, and writing about teaching should be about improving those decisions. 

What we do need is to talk about the dilemmas that we teachers commonly face, and try to find guidelines that help us make wise decisions in those scenarios.

Talk of "the sooner the better" isn't anywhere close to that. In the rest of this series, I'll try to talk more productively about decisions we face when giving feedback for revision. The stories that I've shared so far are my attempt at a start to that work.

This is the fifth post in a series on feedback. To read the rest of the posts click here.


  1. (Blogger keeps eating my comments. Sorry if this shows up twice.)

    THANK YOU. I actually snuck out of a conference talk on research-based formative assessment a few weeks ago because the speaker said feedback needed to be immediate.

    Students are most receptive to feedback when they are personally invested in the assessment they just did, are motivated to improve, are cognitively prepared to understand the feedback, feel emotionally safe enough to reflect on their own mistakes, and can see how improvements will help them with the next skill they are learning. Not all of those things may be at their peak just after the formative assessment, and as teachers we have to balance which needs dominate.

    Also, there is the practical fact that detailed, personalized feedback can take several days to produce. I'm still finding it to be extremely valuable, though.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Julie!

      One thought to add: kids don't learn from feedback, they learn from improving their work. There are times when supporting revisions is going to take detailed, personalized feedback but I've found that something much less time-consuming is often what's best.

  2. Hi Michael. For me to wrap my head around this, I'm thinking that it's more task related whether it needs immediate feedback or not. I'm thinking this because I have mainly three types of feedback to give students: 1) Weekly PoW from -- you are familiar with this in our work with EnCoMPASS, 2) formative assessments, and 3) summative assessments. Out of the three, #3 gets the most immediate feedback from me and it's whole-class oral feedback. Then it's #1 because I want us to stay on a schedule, without a schedule, all hell will break loose because I won't be able to follow through; so this is more personal discipline driven. Strangely enough #2 is my more wishy-washy feedback (when it should be more Dylan Wiliam-esque) because 1) I don't have time to reply to each kid, oral or written, 2) kids do make similar mistakes so addressing the common mistake (rather than kids A, B, and C) will have to do, and 3) the curriculum does spiral sufficiently that hopefully if they didn't get it at time x, then they may reason through it on their own at a later time. And that's fantastic!

    I guess I also know my style of teaching. How to reiterate concepts that I know are important and will set the foundation for another. I try to connect everything and anything whenever possible. Each lesson itself acts as feedback. Mathematics is the best subject to do this, I believe. What they didn't get in Lesson A gets reiterated and morphed in Lesson B.

    That all sounds really nice (i.e., cough cough bullshit), Fawn, but the reality is that I do have a few kids who have very little understanding of what we're doing. So, I have them come in at lunch and we sit and eat lunch together and start breaking things down. I want to learn how they learn. How some stuff is very difficult for them. This is my oral feedback. One kid blurts out and says, "OHH, that's what it is!" Her face literally lights up. I have to do this or I go home and bang my head on the wall, and that hurts.

    Teaching and learning are never one-size-fits-all. So many variables and moving targets. You and I may have just presented our very best lesson, but one kid did not hear a word we said because she was cyber bullied the night before. That's what's on her mind.

    Thank you, Michael, for making me think more about this. Bottom line, I feel generally shitty about my lack of feedback, immediate or not so immediate.

    1. Fawn, your comment does an amazing and thorough job of showing how important it is to talk about context when we talk about feedback. I also think you show us how badly we need to refocus our talk onto the decisions that we teachers face, and the frameworks that might be found to improve them. In other words, can we describe a way of thinking about feedback that can unify the many careful and difficult decisions that you have to make about feedback?

      I've been trying to develop a way of thinking about feedback that leads me to make better decisions. My current idea is that thinking about "giving feedback" leads us astray.

      I feel generally shitty about my lack of feedback, immediate or not so immediate.

      I don't think that you should feel shitty about the amount of feedback that you give, because I don't think that kids learn much from "receiving feedback." Instead, kids learn from improving their work, and feedback is helpful to the extent that it helps kids improve their work.

      If the goal is to help kids improve their work, then this thing that lots of feedback-advocates hold up as the goal standard -- immediate, narrative written feedback or one-on-one oral feedback on every goddam piece of paper -- starts seeming rigid and unnecessary.

      Kids learn when they improve their work, and there are lots of ways to make that happen. Whole-class instruction is sometimes the best route. Individual comments is sometimes better. There are even times when revision without teacher feedback is the right call.

      That's the position that I'd argue for. It's helping to guide my decision-making right now, but I'm eager to know whether others find it helpful.

    2. "That all sounds really nice (i.e., cough cough bullshit)."

      I might just have to frame that quote and put it in a tiny picture frame on my desk.

  3. I seriously hope that it's an unspoken/implied goal already that we give feedback so kids can improve their work. Giving feedback takes serious hours and fragile thoughtfulness, therefore I can't imagine any teacher doing this just to "give feedback." But I wonder if teachers ASK and SHOW kids what the next steps are on the student part looks like.

    For example, I can say, "I've looked at your work on ___ and gave you feedback. I need you to read my comment and see if it makes sense. Our goal in this exchange is for you to improve on your work. Is my comment helpful in helping you revise and improve on your work? If not, I need to know that. You can write, 'Mrs. Nguyen, I still don't know what you mean by ___.' Then maybe we can find a time to sit down and talk this through."

    I'd be explicit in what I want from the kids. The ball goes back on their court after my feedback, but kids need to know what we mean by next steps. Most of my answers on how to do things come from just doing it, then watching it fall flat or not completely fall flat, and/or asking kids for their feedback. We want to know if our feedbacks are helping kids improve their work, then let's ask them. Are we? This dialogue alone tells students that we believe in this endeavor and want to make it efficient and useful. It's all for naught otherwise.

    Feedback is a loop. How effective are we with our feedbacks? That answer comes from seeing what feedback -- what students have done to improve on their work -- we get from students. At first, we should expect shitty first drafts. Of everything. So maybe this is where quantity trumps initially. Getting kids to engage in this exchange is not easy, so let's not judge on quality just yet. It's easy to hone a feedback and get a better product from it after we get it, but we can't do that if we had nothing to work with.

  4. I liked your line here about how Michael was growing tired with the sometimes, always, never type of questioning. I think ultimately as the first commenter touched upon you need the student to be invested for feedback to have any meaning. Usually that can happen immediately, but not always.

    I also like your perspective on reflecting on your teaching. Choosing Jake as a reference for how it went (the hard working student that did not demonstrate mastery). It helps take the emotion out of students that perhaps did not reach their potential through no fault of the teacher and got at the heart of what you as a teacher do have control over. Thanks for posting this Michael.