How can I provide effective feedback?

The primary purpose of assessment is to improve student performance. Teachers who use formative assessment effectively are able to identify aspects of achievement and provide students with feedback about how to enhance the quality of their work.

Providing feedback to students is a key function of the teaching role. Effective feedback identifies, in relation to specific learning,

  • what students already know, understand and are able to do (Plus)
  • what they do not yet know, understand or are able to do (Minus), and
  • how they might improve – by suggesting specific strategies.

Each of these aspects of effective feedback is important.

  • The Plus is important because of its links with student motivation and self-esteem and the fact that it provides a focus on where students are.
  • The Minus is very important because this focuses on the gap between where students are now and where they need to be.
  • Information about how to improve tells students how to close the gap between where they are and where they need to be.

Before you can provide feedback which is effective in improving student performance there are some other ingredients that need to be in place.

Firstly, the assessment activity must relate to the knowledge, skills and understanding that you wanted the students to learn.  It must provide students with the opportunity to demonstrate those skills, knowledge and understanding. You might like to spend some time evaluating your assessment activities to see if they fulfil that role.

Secondly, students must know what learning you want them to demonstrate. They need to know the criteria (the success criteria) by which their work will be judged and what it was that you wanted them to learn (the learning intention).

Would you like to try this? Select a sample of student work, and ask these questions:

  • What was the learning intention for this piece of work?
  • What were the success criteria?

If the learning intention and success criteria are not explicit, can you see that you have a difficulty? Where will you focus your feedback? And how did the students know where to focus their attention and effort?

When providing feedback, ask these questions:

  • What, in terms of the success criteria, has the student done well?
  • In which areas does he/she still need to improve?
  • What advice will you offer to help him/her make that improvement? (Make your advice specific by providing examples or scaffolding.)

Some food for thought:

  • How effective is the feedback that you currently give your students?
  • What changes might you make?
  • What might prevent you from making those changes?
  • What might help you to make those changes?
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How do you know if you’ve taught a good lesson?

‘Just had a great lesson!  We all had a lot of fun!’

So there was student engagement and you got a buzz as well?  Yes, that’s very good.  These are both important aspects of a good lesson because they can stimulate motivation, a key ingredient for learning.

Teacher reflection on the success or otherwise of our lessons is an important part of the teaching process.  As well as being aware of student engagement and motivation, we also need to ask:

  • what did the students learn?
  • how do we know that they learned it?
  • how are we going to follow up? (that is, how will we make use of the assessment knowledge that we have gained as a result of this lesson?)

In order to increase our chances of teaching a good lesson, we

  • plan the lesson beforehand. Yes, of course it’s possible for an experienced teacher  to fly by the seat of her pants and still produce a good lesson.  But planning makes success far more likely. It means we know what skills, knowledge or understanding we want the students to have at the end of the lesson, and we’ve thought about the kinds of teaching activities that are most likely to help our students to be successful in their learning.
  • tell the students what it is that they’re going to learn.  There’s plenty of research out there now to support the idea that sharing learning intentions is an important condition for student success.
  • tell the students how they will know if they’ve been successful in their learning.  That is, we provide them with success criteria, and therefore, as  Royce Sadler says,  ‘let them in on the secret’.
  • make sure we’re aware of what students already know and build our lesson around that knowledge. This is likely to involve some differentiated learning in terms of teaching approaches or student activities.
  • provide feedback to students during the lesson. Effective feedback tells students what they have done well and where improvement is needed.  It offers specific advice about how to make that improvement.
  • plan opportunities for peers to provide each other with feedback. Again, the research tells us much about the effectiveness of peer feedback in promoting student learning.
  • plan opportunities for self-assessment to encourage students to reflect on their progress and how they are learning.
  • evaluate what we’ve learned about our students’ skills, knowledge and understanding as a result of this lesson and use that information to shape our future planning.

Yes, teaching is a complex business: there’s a great deal going on before, during and after a good lesson. 

(If you’re interested, you can read more about these aspects of lesson planning in my book Improving Student Achievement, A practical guide to assessment for learning.)

Whoever said ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover’?

‘Good’ readers already know a great deal about a book before they begin to read it.

They look at the title of the book.

  • They ask themselves ‘What might this book be about?’
  • They ask themselves if it reminds them of anything else they’ve read before.

They look at the picture on the cover to discover more information.

  • Perhaps the picture depicts characters or setting, and so they know who the book is about, or where the action of the book will take place.

The colours on the cover, and the font in which the title is printed, can also be important.

  • Good readers can often tell that the book belongs to a particular genre or type.  Bright colours and cartoon-like figures might tell them that this is a funny book.  Dark colours might mean that the book is scary or sad, and other design features will provide further clues about the content of the book.  If the font appears to drip with blood, for example, good readers know that this is going to be a horror book.

Good readers read the blurb on the back cover.

  • They know that it is designed to entice them to read the book, but they also know that it provides extra information about character, plot or genre.

Good readers have favourite authors.

  • They recognize the author’s name on the cover of the book, and know whether this is likely to be a book that they want to read.

Good readers don’t just pick up a book and start reading, hoping that it will turn out to be something they like.  They check it out very thoroughly, first.  Here are the kinds of questions you might ask to make your child more aware and to help build comprehension skills:

  • How does the title of this book tell you what it might be about?
  • Does this title remind you of any other books you have read?
    Did you like those books?
  • What kind of book do you think this is going to be? (ie, what genre?)
    How can you tell?  (What are the clues on the cover that tell you this?)
  • Do you know the author of this book?
    If so, do you know what kind (genre) of books s/he usually writes?
    Have you read any other books s/he has written?
    Did you like it/them?
  • Who do you think wrote this blurb?
    Why was it written?
    How does it want you to think about the book? (For example, that the book  is very exciting/sad/frightening/mysterious etc.)
    What extra information does it give you about the contents of the book?
    Now that you’ve read the blurb, do you think you would like to read the book?

 After your child has finished reading the book, or you have finished reading it together, come back to some of the predictions he or she made after examining the cover.  Ask questions like these:

  • How accurate were the predictions you made before you started reading?
  • Now that you know what the book is about, do you think the title was appropriate?
    Is there another title that you think would have been better?
  • If you were the author would you like your book to have a different cover?  What do you think should be on the cover?

So … whoever did say, ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover’??

Strategies for reading non-fiction texts

For parents

Most of the books that children need to read at school will in fact be non-fiction books – books that inform, explain or instruct. At higher levels of school some of these will be textbooks. Others will be books they use to find out information for a project, for example.

Good readers are able to use their knowledge of the features of a non-fiction book to help them choose the most useful book in the first place.

They know, for example, that the table of contents and the index are both good places in which to find out whether the book has the information they need.They know that a single page reference in the index probably means that their topic is just mentioned there, whereas multiple page references (113 – 118, eg) mean that this is where they are likely to find the most information about their topic.

They look at the headings that the author has given to each chapter or section to find out what to expect there.

They look at the drawings or photographs accompanying the written information and read the captions that explain the picture or diagram.

They focus on any words that are printed in bold on the page because these might be important ones. Sometimes the bolded words indicate that they are contained in a glossary that explains their meanings.

They read the insets on the page because they know that these will give quick facts and perhaps provide more detail.

 Help children to find the information they need, by showing how these features can assist  them.

First check the book to make sure that it is not too difficult for the child.  The five-finger test is an easy one to use here.  Tell the child to start reading the part that seems to contain the needed information.  Every time an unfamiliar word is encountered, the child raises a finger. If he or she puts up five fingers on a page then the level of language is probably too difficult, and it would be more sensible to search for another book that contains the same information but presents it in simpler language.

Although I’ve been talking here about non-fiction books and their features, a lot of children’s reading will actually occur on the Internet.  It’s important, therefore, that children understand the features of a website and are able to use them to find information.

Children need to understand that a webpage will have various kinds of hyperlinks – headings, graphics, illustrations, italic print, differently coloured words, underlined words – and that each of these will lead to further information.

The top or sidebar menu with hyperlinks is the equivalent of a table of contents. Show children how these work and, in particular, how to get back to the homepage quickly and efficiently.  A great deal of time can otherwise be wasted.

If necessary,  note-taking from the Internet can be done by cutting and pasting into a Word document or by using a program such as Scrible.

Because it is important that children acknowledge the source of their information, encourage them to copy the URL at the same time.  When they are using a book, they should note the author, the title and the publisher.

When children rephrase the words from the text into their own words this not only avoids plagiarism, but also helps to consolidate their understanding of the material.