Feedback from teachers doesn’t always help pupils improve

Is feedback always helpful? Gold star by Brian A Jackson/www.shutterstock.com

The feedback that a teacher gives to pupils has been seen for decades as one of the most important factors in how people learn. It occurs when teachers let their students know how well they are doing and what they ought to do to improve and move on to the next stage.

Feedback as “formative assessment” has been reported to be highly effective in enhancing learning. But our recent study involving more than 5,000 primary school children casts doubt on whether feedback is always as effective as previous studies have made out.

A 2005 study carried out by the OECD across eight countries claimed that schools using formative assessment showed improvements in academic achievement, attendance and quality of work – particularly among previously underachieving pupils. More recently a couple of small trials of feedback also reported promisingly positive effects.

A toolkit created by the Education Endowment Foundation charity, which looks at the effectiveness of different teaching interventions, said feedback can have an effect equivalent to giving children an extra eight months’ progress in a year.

Some studies have claimed the use of feedback is more effective than some other significant educational interventions. Other studies have reported benefits for children with special needs and that feedback is more effective for low-achieving students than for high-achieving students. So far, the efficacy of enhancing teacher feedback to improve pupils’ attainment has gone largely unchallenged.

Feedback is not always appropriate

Some previous studies have found no benefit, or even damage to attainment, when feedback is introduced by schools themselves away from the spotlight of researchers or those with a vested interest. However, these have generally been very small studies.

The more recent evaluation we conducted at Durham University was much larger. It was the largest evaluation of the use of feedback in England, involving 5,041 pupils from 58 primary schools in a suburban borough of London.

Of these pupils, 1,677 received the specific feedback intervention and 3,364 did not. The evaluation, which was conducted with the Anglican Schools Partnership, involved teachers using research evidence to develop and use feedback strategies in real classroom conditions across a range of subjects and age groups. The teachers adopted a range of approaches, including getting pupils to self-regulate their performance or adopt and monitor criteria for their success.

Our impact evaluation found that the progress made by the group of pupils that were given enhanced feedback was only slightly higher in maths and was actually lower in both reading and writing compared to those who didn’t get enhanced feedback. Although the study is far from definitive – because of the way the schools were allocated to the intervention – it provided no evidence that enhanced feedback works when it is implemented by regular teachers under normal classroom conditions.

Vague praise won’t help

The in-depth part of the study, that included lesson observations and discussions with pupils, begins to suggest why. Many teachers in the study said they already knew what feedback was and that they had already been using it in their regular teaching.

Taking time to do it properly. Teacher and pupil via michaeljung/www.shutterstock.com

Higher-level feedback is when teachers tell pupils specifically where they have gone wrong and how to improve, rather than feedback about the child and the task at hand such as “this is a very good piece of work”. When this is already part of a teacher’s good practice – then new “enhanced” interventions can make little or no difference to their pupils. But many teachers were observed not adopting high-level feedback strategies – even though they claimed that they had always done so.

Much of the feedback we observed was at the personal and task level, such as a teacher remarking how well a pupil was doing. The prior research evidence has been that such non-specific “praise” is at best ineffective – and possibly harmful. Despite this being clearly explained by the research leads at the outset of the experiment, teachers praised pupils frequently in the classroom.

Praise was often couched in such vague terms that pupils did not know what was good and what they needed to do to improve. There was little higher-level feedback or peer interaction in any of the lessons observed. Pupils were told to make up their own criteria for success, so they knew what they needed to achieve. Many were observed to claim they had met these criteria when they patently had not, and teachers failed to use these criteria to inform their instruction. Too much of this kind of feedback was superficial or formulaic.

Real-life is different

Many of the previous studies on feedback have been conducted under somewhat artificial conditions, using volunteers, offering extra resources, or in laboratory settings. Any overall estimates of the effectiveness of feedback should come with a warning notice. A very high proportion of prior research on feedback has shown almost as many ineffective interventions as successful ones.

What looks feasible in controlled experiments or in theory may not work so well in practice. Once the researchers with their extra funding have gone away, and the intervention moves away from the enthusiastic schools volunteering to take part in the study, perhaps the “effect” of feedback on attainment drops. When rolled out across the board to all pupils and all schools, any advantage may be reduced or even lost because of the challenges, such as time pressure, that teachers face in implementing feedback strategies in the classroom. Some teachers may also exhibit sullen resentment at being told how to do something that seems so basic.

Another reason for the lack of impact could be that the whole basis of the strategy assumes that the feedback given by all teachers will be valid and appropriate. In practice, this is not so – particularly where teachers used vague praise or only emphasised the marks the student achieved.

The results of our research do not mean that enhanced feedback is not effective, but rather that to use it effectively requires skills and careful implementation. Feedback works only under certain conditions with certain people.

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