Feedback is information given to the learner about the learner’s performance relative to learning goals or outcomes. It should aim to (and be capable of producing) improvement in students’ learning.
Feedback redirects or refocuses the learner’s actions to achieve a goal, by aligning effort and activity with an outcome. It can be about the output or outcome of the task the process of the task the student’s management of their learning or self-regulation, or about them as individuals (which tends to be the least effective).
This feedback can be verbal or written, or can be given through tests or via digital technology. It can come from a teacher or someone taking a teaching role, or from peers (see Peer tutoring).
1. Providing feedback is a well-evidenced and has a high impact on learning outcomes. Effective feedback tends to focus on the task, subject and self-regulation strategies: it provides specific information on how to improve.
2. Feedback can be effective during, immediately after and some time after learning. Feedback policies should not over specify the frequency of feedback
3. Feedback can come from a variety of sources – studies have shown positive effects of feedback from teachers and peers. Feedback delivered by digital technology also has positive effects (albeit slightly lower than the overall average).
4. Different methods of feedback delivery can be effective and feedback should not be limited exclusively to written marking. Studies of verbal feedback show slightly higher impacts overall (+7 months). Written marking may play one part of an effective feedback strategy – but it is crucial to monitor impacts on staff workload.
5. It is important to give feedback when things are correct – not just when they are incorrect. High-quality feedback may focus on a task, subject, and self-regulation strategies.
Feedback studies tend to show high effects on learning. However, there are a wide range of effects and some studies show that feedback can have negative effects and make things worse.
There are positive impacts from a wide range of feedback approaches – including when feedback is delivered by technology or peers. Impacts are highest when feedback is delivered by teachers. It is particularly important to provide feedback when work is correct, rather than just using it to identify errors.
Many studies of feedback also include other practices. For example, mastery learning approaches combine feedback with additional support for pupils that are falling behind, while approaches like formative assessment also include work to understand specific gaps in learning that need to be addressed and how the teacher wants the pupil to progress.
Feedback has effects across all age groups. Research in schools has focused particularly on its impact on English, mathematics and, to a lesser extent, science.
Some studies on feedback interventions in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) have captured teachers’ expectations from written feedback and teachers experiences with communal feedback in rural communities.
The outcomes of teachers’ expectations from written feedback vary with school status (fee-paying and no-fee schools). When teachers provide learners with motivational comments to encourage them and detailed comments on how to improve their work, more teachers in fee-paying schools expect learners to ‘be happy’, while more teachers in no-fee schools expect learners ‘to improve’. In addition, teachers approved the need for feedback in rural communities, which is used to support learners based on their needs – hence improving learning outcomes. Also, the Assessment for Learning (AFL) approach yielded positive results. It involves teachers including learners in the learning process, administering feedback and allowing learners to assist each other especially in science subjects.
Other studies have identified major impediments to effective feedback in SSA, including inadequate time allocated for teaching and attending to learners, large class sizes, inadequate teacher preparation, lack of teaching and learning resources and difficulties integrating formative assessment into daily practice by the teachers.
Feedback appears to have slightly greater effects for primary school age pupils (+7 months) than for secondary (+5 months).
Effects are high across all curriculum subjects, with slightly higher effects in mathematics and science
Low attaining pupils tend to benefit more from explicit feedback than high attainers.
Although some studies have successfully demonstrated the benefits of digital feedback, effects are typically slightly smaller (+ 4 months).
Feedback may have a positive impact through supporting pupils to focus future learning on areas of weakness, through identifying and explaining misconceptions, through supporting them in taking greater responsibility for their own improvement or through increasing pupils’ motivation to improve.
Implementing feedback successfully will require:
- communicate with pupils, teachers, and parents, about practices and expectations that relate to feedback policies,
- assessing pupil understanding, so that you know what needs to be improved,
- consider the ‘opportunity cost’ associated with different feedback practices,
- ensuring that feedback can be acted upon, for example through including specific information on what a pupil has done successfully or not, assisted with an explanation as to why,
- carefully considering how feedback will be received, including impacts on self-confidence and motivation,
- providing opportunities for pupils to act-upon the feedback after it has been given,
evaluating how effective the feedback has been.
Feedback interventions vary in length. Some function as short, targeted approaches that address pupil misconceptions within the space of weeks or even days. Alternatively, others are used as more extended methods of tracking and supporting pupil progress over many months.
The costs of providing effective feedback are expected to be moderate due to the existence of platforms to provide teachers with advanced training aimed at improving their practice. However, the costs could increase if decisions to mitigate some of the challenges to providing effective feedback in SSA are taken. Such decisions among others are allocating extra teaching time for teachers to attend to and address the concerns of learners (which could imply payment for the extra time), recruitment of teaching assistants to manage the large class sizes, construction of new classrooms to reduce the class sizes, and provision of teaching and learning materials to teachers and learners.
Implementing feedback and feedback interventions will also require a moderate and sustained amount of staff time, compared with other approaches.
Alongside time and cost, school leaders should consider how to maximise teacher professional development in supporting them to deliver effective feedback and avoid approaches that increase teacher workload without providing pupils with the necessary information to improve performance.
The security of the evidence around feedback is rated as high. 155 studies were identified that meet the inclusion criteria of the Toolkit. Overall, the topic lost one padlock because a large percentage of the studies are not randomised controlled trials. While other study designs still give important information about effectiveness of approaches, there is a risk that results are influenced by unknown factors that are not part of the intervention.
There has been limited high-quality research on the impact of feedback interventions on learning outcomes in SSA. Most of the available evidence on feedback practices in this region have come from South Africa. According to a joint publication by the World Bank and the Agence Française du Développement, feedback was amongst the education interventions with no impact evaluations or with no high-quality studies in SSA between 1990 – 2015. More research is required to see if the impact of feedback interventions in SSA can replicate the effectiveness of feedback seen in global evaluations and reviews.
As with any evidence review, the Toolkit summarises the average impact of approaches when researched in academic studies. It is important to consider your context and apply your professional judgement when implementing an approach in your setting.