The Power of Feedback

Cross-posted to In my last post, I wrote about the value of Assessment for Learning as an approach to supporting and engaging students. Whenever we talk about Assessment for Learning, we must also address its key element — timely, effective, and meaningful feedback.

Let me take you back in time once again to when I was a young English teacher, facing a loaded curriculum and a semester that, in my view at least, seemed very very short. I had a lot to cover and not much time. Back then, feedback in my mind looked like this:

In fact, this image above is a collage of actual corrected student essays (one image shows a scan of an essay corrected by me). Why am I sharing this with you? I’m sharing it because all too often when we talk about feedback, this is what we really mean: correcting – an activity that teachers don’t even particularly like. As a young teacher faced with a lot of material to cover, I thought the only way to give feedback was to read student work, correct it, and assign a grade. I was convinced that my students would read their corrected papers, take notes, and learn from my corrections so that they would not make the same mistakes again. Did they? I think I can safely say that this assessment or feedback practice by a young inexperienced teacher did not contribute to a lot of learning. It just wasn’t feedback.

According to Hattie and Timperley (2007), feedback “… needs to provide information specifically relating to the task or process of learning that fills a gap between what is understood and what is aimed to be understood.” “Specifically,” they add, “feedback is more effective when it provides information on correct rather than incorrect responses and when it builds on changes from previous trails.” Corrections, like the ones in the image above, never focus on things that a student performed well. They zero in on what went wrong. They are also very definitive and authoritarian. They show weaknesses in student work, they point out mistakes and errors.

Feedback, on the other hand, is about supporting the student in the process of moving toward the goal and closing that gap between where she is now and where she needs to be. As teachers, we must help our students answer three questions:

  1. Where am I going?
  2. How am I doing?
  3. What actions do I need to take next?

In other words, effective feedback focuses on goals, progress, and next steps. It’s important to keep in mind that our role here is to guide, not to answer these questions for our students. Feedback that helps them answer these three questions will provide exactly the kind of guidance that’s needed. Over time, it will also teach the students to become effective evaluators of their own work and that of others because what they will learn from effective feedback is not just how well they are moving toward finishing that independent project on volcanoes, for example, but also — perhaps most importantly — how to exercise control over their learning, how to self-monitor and work independently. Maria Montessori was right when she wrote: “The greatest sign of a success for a teacher … is to be able to say, ‘The children are now working as if I did not exist.’” You know you’re doing your job when your students and their work begin to demonstrate that your presence is getting more and more unnecessary.

Let’s look at an example. The following comes from a grade 8 science teacher in Vancouver, Canada, who is commenting on a student project on biofuels:

There’s so much more detail in this draft, Vanessa! Last time we looked at your project you just had an outline and some great ideas. Now I see you added your research. Remember when we talked about including specific examples and practical uses of biofuels? You made it happen here. That section now reads like something written by an expert!

I see that you organized the information more visually and added a chart. Have you thought of making it bigger? I think it would make a very nice large format pull-out/ insert. Ask some of your friends for their opinion. You could still keep the paragraphs you have but the graphic organizer you created could get lost in the middle of all that text. I could book computer lab time for you to work on that.

Any ideas on the video component? What do you think would be better – you, summarizing the information as the author of this report, or the Discovery Channel videos you found? Both?

Have you thought about re-writing the introduction – remember? We talked about how your focus has changed a little since you started.

Next conference: Monday, May 12th.

Doesn’t this written feedback make you want to be the one working on that project? What comes across most strongly, in my opinion, is that Vanessa is treated like someone who’s building her own expertise in a topic she cares about.

Let’s evaluate that feedback by looking at the list of key feedback components. According to Sue Swaffield (2008), effective feedback should:

  • Focus on student learning
  • Focus on the task rather than the learner
  • Focus on process rather than the product
  • Focus on progress
  • Focus on particular qualities of the work
  • Advise how to improve
  • Encourage the student to think
  • Require action that is challenging yet achievable
  • Be specific
  • Avoid comparison with others
  • Be understandable to the student

I think Vanessa’s teacher scores rather high on the list above. I am especially fond of how well she suggests improvements. Notice that throughout her note, she focuses on helping the student think about next steps and asks Vanessa specific questions about her work. She doesn’t impose anything; the questions are designed to help Vanessa focus on very specific aspects of her work and to address them. When she read the note, Vanessa knew the answers to the three key questions:

  • Where am I going? Finished project on biofuels that includes detailed research as well as multimedia components and solid organization.
  • How am I doing? “That section now reads like something written by an expert!” “There’s so much more detail in this draft, Vanessa!”
  • What actions do I need to take next? “Any ideas on the video component?” Have you thought about re-writing the introduction – remember?”

These prompts are providing the guidance and the encouragement she needs to keep going and keep thinking about her work. There is also nothing quantitative here — no letter or number grades. There are also no meaningless comments, such as “Good Job, Vanessa!,” which focus more on the learner than learning and the task at hand. What this note from Vanessa’s teacher shows to me is a conversation with a student about the work she’s doing. The date of the next student-teacher conference confirms that this note is part of an ongoing conversation.

I don’t really see Vanessa failing, abandoning this project, or getting a C, do you?


Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81-112.

Swaffield, S. (2008). Feedback. The central process in assessment for learning. In Swaffield, S. (Ed.). Unlocking assessment. Understanding for reflection and application. New York: Routledge, pp. 57-72.