The Role of Feedback

I had to learn this lesson the hard way.

In the fall of 2012, we had to part ways with our Geometry textbook. We replaced it piece-by-piece by what became our Geometry Course It was definitely a net positive for everyone involved, but as you might expect, it didn’t come without some growing pains.

As it turns out, in order write a decent course, it helps to know a little something about how young people learn. When I built in the activities that made up the course, I tried my best to pay attention to what the students would be doing. What was my target content and how was I giving the students a valuable experience with that content that would help reduce as many barriers as I could to the learning. I tried to pay attention to foundation knowledge, reviewing old content and building in new understanding in reasonable chunks with practice.

What would the handouts look like? What should the wording be? What sequence will I ask the questions? How many practice problems should they have? What type of product should they produce?

I thought of all of these things. The first year, there were lots of positive signs, but I still noticed students struggling in areas that I wasn’t expecting. The students were getting better at verbalizing their thoughts both in writing and speaking. They were using the vocab fairly well. But they struggled in ways that after a while, got pretty predictable. It started to seem like the more extensive the paper-and-pencil process, the more likely the students were to struggle, and not just clumsy-style, like in ways that seemed to suggest that they didn’t really know how to complete the process.

What I never thought of: How am I going to build in opportunities for the students to receive feedback on the products they were producing?

As the year progressed, the seemed to get better and better at discussing the math and using the words, sometimes with some wonderful results, but that was because the whole time they were talking, I was walking around talking with them. Interacting, correcting verbiage, modeling effective uses of the essential vocab and connecting it back to the problem. I was responding to their curious looks and asking them to clarify their confusion. These were my favorite times in math class. So I did them as often as I could.

No wonder they showed growth in this way.

But what was I doing once they completed a handout like this? That first year, a whole lot of nothing. We moved on. Or we would discuss the broad topics and I would pose a problem like this with a mind to formatively assess their progress.

But I wouldn’t simply show them the answers. I forgot about the feedback. And it got in the way.

A few quotes from Dr. John Hattie on this topic:

“In short, receiving appropriate feedback is incredibly empowering. Why? Because it enables the individual to move forwards, to plot, plan, adjust, rethink, and thus exercise self-regulation in realistic and balanced ways.”

“Imagine a group of students who are about to embark on a series of lesson, and during these early experiences we pause and show them the various way they will be successful at the end of the lessons, or tell them how they will know when they have been successful in these lessons. The is a relatively cheap investment, takes little time, but of course, it provides teachers with a challenge – that of working alongside the students to maximize the number who reach the success criteria.”

“When we interview students on what they understand by feedback and why it is important to them, on theme emerges almost universally: they want to know how to improve their work so that they can do better next time.”

“The feedback you offer your students provides the tools they need to be able to perceive the immediate path ahead, and so decide that it is really worth effort.”

Second year we determined that we were going to have an answer key (and if possible two or three) so that the feedback could start by them checking their answers. I instructed them to ask anytime they had questions (even if the question was “mine looks different than yours, but I still think it’s right.” I actually rather like that question.) Dr. Hattie is indeed right that that was a cheap investment. My goal was for every student to get to compare his/her solutions to the correct ones. It slowed progress a bit through a lesson the first time a bit. But I had to do significantly less reteaching, so I got that time back.

When the students were left to practice and then draw their own conclusions about their own comfort level of their progress, I had forgotten one rather important understanding that both myself and the students were largely aware of. They mostly lacked the expertise to properly determine whether or not they should feel comfortable with the work they just completed.

But given the appropriate feedback, they can see where they were successful, were their focus needs to be for future success and how much room their is between the two.


Quotes taken from Chapter 8 of Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn by John Hattie and Gregory Yates. Routledge Publishing – 2014

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3 thoughts on “The Role of Feedback

  1. Some really interesting thoughts – I’ve also just written a post about feedback but from a different perspective so it was great to read yours! I found John Hattie’s ideas about feedback really useful as well.

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