Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Frequently Asked Questions About Feedback (Post 7 of 10)

Q: What does effective feedback look like?

A: It's really best not to worry too much about this. Effective feedback looks wildly different in different situations.

Q: What does effective feedback look like?

A: Seriously, don't sweat this.

Q: What does effective feedback look like?

A: Look I GET IT. You want to know how to use feedback to move your students forward. Me too. But all of the guidelines and slogans you hear flying around about feedback are just plain silly. "The sooner the better"? "Personalized feedback is always better"? These guidelines are wrong, and it's sort of a crazy way to talk about teaching.

If you knew why you were giving feedback, you wouldn't need to ask what effective feedback looks like. We need to shift the conversation in two ways: (1) Away from "what good feedback looks like" to "how do we make good decisions about feedback" and (2) away from "giving feedback" to more specific teaching moves, such as asking for revisions.

We need to focus on decision-making instead of just the product, but feedback isn't specific enough to really gain clarity from thinking through. That's why we should move to thinking about revision.

Q: Why are you yelling, can you please stop yelling?

A: In fact, lots of "bad feedback" is frequently helpful! I mean, if you listen to the way some educators talk it's like there's this golden ideal of narrative, written comments that look a lot like the sorts of notes you're supposed to get on a research paper or a short story. And, sure, that sort of feedback can sometimes be helpful. But when? Why? There's no theory, so no wonder that we end up focusing on what effective feedback looks like.

But "revision" is knowable. We can study it. It encompasses feedback, because feedback is what it's going to take to help students improve their work. At the same time, it's easy enough to pin down "asking for revisions" that we can actually say things about it, like when it is or isn't helpful to give a revision assignment. For example, tasks that are readily comprehensible aren't good candidates for revision.

Q: I just want to know what effective feedback looks like?

A: Here's what I'm proposing:
  • Effective feedback doesn't look any particular way. From a picture, we can't tell whether we're looking at good or bad feedback.
  • Revision of previously attempted work is a powerful tool for certain situations.
  • Good feedback is whatever it takes to help kids improve their work, on their own, in class.
  • We got into this mess, partly, by talking exclusively at a very high level of generality. Feedback is an enormous, fuzzy, abstract concept. We'd do better to bring our discussions down to Earth.
OK, and now I have some questions.

Q: What are some of the decisions that we face when designing a revision activity?
Q: Are there contexts in which different sorts of revision activities tend to be better? 
Q: What sorts of situations tend to need whole-class feedback in order to help kids improve their work?
Q: What other concepts are there out there that are like "asking for revisions" in that they carve out a significant piece of the formative assessment landscape?
Q: What do students whose classwork was at a high level do during a revision activity?
Q: How do you support kids in a revision activity who need help but won't benefit from individual attention because of social reasons?

I have lots of questions, I can keep on going.

Q: What does effective feedback look like?

A: Effective feedback leads to revisions in class.

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


  1. I am going to respectfully disagree that there is no bad feedback.

    I have seen many examples of feedback that ranges from non-constructive to incorrect to mean-spirited.

    Non-constructive feedback involves undercommunicating the reason for a student error: no distinction between careless arithmetic mistakes vs. a bigger conceptual issue in solving equations, for example, just an X saying it's wrong.

    Incorrect feedback happens when a teacher latches on to a procedure being done *their* way, even if a child comes up with a mathematically correct approach.

    Mean-spirited feedback criticizes the child beyond critiquing their work, giving them little motivation to work harder and little guidance to work smarter.

    I have seen examples of all of these from working teachers in working classrooms.