Feedback That Moves Student Learning Forward
Let’s talk about effective feedback which is an integral part of assessment-driven learning. Good feedback is one of the most important classroom practices. I also think it’s one of the most rewarding as it strengthens your relationship with students and demonstrates your belief in their ability to learn math. In fact, research shows that good feedback can accelerate the rate of learning. John Hattie’s Visible Learning meta-analyses tells us that feedback, implemented correctly, is one of the most powerful influences on student achievement.
Even though we know that positive feedback boosts student engagement and drives learning, all too often classroom feedback focuses exclusively on what students are doing wrong rather than on both where they need improvement and what they are doing right. If we only focus on what students have done incorrectly, feedback becomes more of a roadblock to learning than a path forward. Just as pointing out errors isn’t effective, neither is praising students for innate abilities or skills. In fact, research by Carol Dweck indicates that praise for innate abilities—“You are so good at math.”—undercuts future performance and limits risk-taking and may even damage students’ self-worth.
So, if effective feedback isn’t praise, then what is it? I like to refer to effective feedback as actionable feedback, information provided to students that positions them as learners, helps them improve their work, and moves them closer toward their learning goals. Good feedback also promotes self-confidence and builds agency. Here are a few guidelines to help you provide actionable feedback to every student in your class.
Feedback must be timely, ideally provided during learning or shortly thereafter. Have you ever had someone make an insightful suggestion weeks after an event about how you could have improved? As helpful as this feedback is intended to be, you may no longer be able to clearly link it to what you were doing at the time and a learning opportunity is lost. Students need to be able to connect your feedback to the concept or skill they are learning.
You may think that you don’t have time to provide timely feedback to every student in your class. But remember, it’s not likely that every student needs feedback at the exact same moment. And feedback can be verbal as well as written. In fact, a purposeful question that helps students identify a gap in their thinking or guides them toward alternate approaches or strategies is one of the best ways to provide in-the-moment feedback. [Read more about purposeful questions.]
Feedback should be tied to a learning goal. If feedback is designed to help students move forward in their learning, then they must know their destination and how to determine when they have arrived. When your feedback helps students understand where they are against goal and exactly how success is measured, they can see more clearly how that feedback helps them plot a course toward the objective. Furthermore, when students know what success looks like they can provide their own feedback and take charge of their learning.
Feedback must be specific. Remember we want students to act based on the feedback provided. Students need to understand exactly what they did right and where they need to improve. Additionally specific feedback encourages reflection and deeper thinking. Rather than, “Good work.”, you might say “Your drawing helps me better understand your solution path.” Rather than, “You need to rework your answer.”, you might ask “Can you explain how you arrived at that solution?” Rather than, “Use this formula.”, you might offer guidance, “Do you think one of these strategies might help you solve this problem?”
Feedback should reward effort and help students persevere through productive struggle. One of the goals of feedback is to keep students moving forward despite setbacks. Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindset tells us that students are more likely to persevere when they believe that they can improve if they try hard. Feedback that focuses on effort shows your students that you believe they can succeed and reinforces that everyone can learn math. And remind students frequently that making mistakes is part of the learning process and ultimately leads to greater understanding.
Feedback should focus on what’s right as well as areas for improvement. Think about a time when someone provided you with input only what you were doing wrong. You were most likely discouraged and probably thought it might not be worth your time to continue learning. At times in our efforts to help our students meet grade standards, we concentrate just on what they need to improve. If that’s the extent of our feedback, our students may not be convinced that they can make any progress. Students need to hear what are doing well and how their strengths can help them achieve success.
Of course, actionable feedback also needs to point out areas for improvement. After all this is how students know where they need to put in additional time and thinking.
Feedback should be individualized. All students, both those who wiz through the toughest problems and those who struggle, need feedback. Your ace students need the benefit of feedback that stretches their thinking, requires them to defend their reasoning, and encourages them to consider other perspectives and ideas. A student who is struggling with a particular concept needs to know that you are there to support them through the learning process. Actionable feedback lets them know that you see what they are doing well in addition to where they need improvement. As challenging as it can be to find time to provide every student with feedback that is tailored to them, it’s also one of the most effective ways to build student confidence and show students that you value their thinking.
Feedback should provide time for students to act. Sometimes in the hectic pace of the classroom we don’t give students enough time to think about and respond to feedback. Since the purpose of actionable feedback is to move student learning forward, they need to have the opportunity to use the feedback provided. The sooner they can respond to input, the more likely they are to make learning breakthroughs and advance toward their learning goals.
Feedback should be regular and ongoing. Although you don’t need to provide every student with actionable feedback every day, you do want to make sure each student receives feedback frequently throughout the school year. Since the learning process is ongoing, so is the feedback process. Some students may require more feedback than others, but they all need regular input. Research shows that regular feedback motivates students and actively engages them in their own learning. Furthermore, feedback is part of an iterative process. Students act (work on a problem), teacher responds (shares feedback), student interprets input and act, teacher responds again.
Feedback should go beyond the teacher. Some of the most effective teachers in any math classroom are other students. We’ve all experienced that moment when something another student says or does helps another student make sense of a math concept with which they have struggled. So powerful is peer feedback that NCTM recommends that teachers provide opportunities for students to analyze, compare, and discuss approaches and strategies. Research indicates that not only does the student receiving the peer feedback benefit but the student providing it makes connections and deepens their understanding.
Feedback should support self-regulation. Effective feedback doesn’t only provide students with the information they need to advance, it also teaches them how to evaluate their own work. Students develop metacognition as they reflect on the feedback they have received. Research suggests that when students contemplate “where next,” as part of the feedback process, they not only recognize the strategies they need to master goals, but also develop the ability to monitor their learning process.
Teachers need feedback too. To ensure that your feedback is moving your students forward, you need to check in frequently with your students. What do they know? What misconceptions do they have? When have they tuned out? When are they confused? Additionally, you will want to confirm that you have correctly interpreted what students have said and that they have understood your feedback. Because no matter how good your feedback is, if students don’t understand, then they can’t act on what you have shared and move forward in their learning.
Husband, M. and Nikfarjam, P. (2022) Peer feedback in the mathematics classroom. Journal of Mathematics Education at Teachers College. Spring 2022, Volume 13, Issue 1.
Hattie, J. and Timperley, H. (2007) The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research. 77, 81-112.