Feedback is essential to the learning process. Nothing is more frustrating than realizing you made mistakes in your work but received no information on how to correct it.
1. Goal-referenced. There is only feedback if a person has a goal, takes actions to achieve the goal, and gets goal-related information fed back….Given a desired outcome, feedback is what tells me if I should continue on or change course.
2. Transparent and tangible, value-neutral information about what happened. Therefore, any useful feedback system involves not only a clear goal, but transparent and tangible results related to the goal. Feedback to students (and teachers!) needs to be as concrete and obvious as the laughter or its absence is to the comedian and the hit or miss is to the Little League batter….We need to know the tangible consequences of our attempts, in the most concrete detail possible – goal-related facts from which we can learn.
3. Actionable information. Thus, feedback is actionable information – data or facts that you can use to improve on your own since you likely missed something in the heat of the moment. No praise, no blame, no value judgment – helpful facts….Thus, “good job!” and “You did that wrong” and “B+” on a paper are not feedback at all. In no case do I know what you saw or what exactly I did or didn’t do to warrant the comments.
4. User friendly. Feedback is thus not of much value if the user cannot understand it or is overwhelmed by it, even if it is accurate in the eyes of experts or bystanders.
5. Timely. The sooner I get feedback, then, the better (in most cases). A great problem in education, however, is the opposite. Vital feedback on key performances often comes days, weeks, or even months after the performance – think of writing and handing in papers and getting back results on standardized tests. If we truly realize how vital feedback is, we should be working overtime as educators to figure out ways to ensure that students get more timely feedback and opportunities to use it in class while the attempt and effects are still fresh in their minds. (Keep in mind: as we have said, feedback does not need to come from the students’ teachers only or even people at all, before you say that this is impossible. This is a high-priority and solvable problem to address locally.)
6. Ongoing. It follows that the more I can get such timely feedback, in real time, before it is too late, the better my ultimate performance will be – especially on complex performance that can never be mastered in a short amount of time and on a few attempts. That’s why we talk about powerful feedback “loops” in a sound learning system.
If we truly understood how feedback works, we would make the student’s use of feedback part of the assessment! It is telling that in the adult world I am often judged as a performer on my ability to adjust in light of feedback since no one can be perfect.
This is how all highly-successful computer games work, of course. If you play Angry Birds, Halo, Guitar Hero, or Tetris you know that the key to the substantial improvement possible is that the feedback is not only timely but ongoing. When you fail, you can immediately start over – even, just where you left off – to give you another opportunity to get, receive and learn from the feedback before all is lost to forgetfulness. (Note, then, this additional aspect of user-friendly feedback: it suits our need, pace and ability to process information; games are built to reflect and adapt to our changing ability to assimilate information.
Do you see a vital but counter-intuitive implication from the power of many ‘loops’ of feedback? We can teach less, provide more feedback, and cause greater learning than if we just teach. Educational research supports this view even if as “teachers” we flinch instinctively at this idea.. That is why the typical lecture-driven course is so ineffective: the more we keep talking, the less we know what is being grasped and attended to. That is why the work of Eric Mazur at Harvard – in which he hardly lectures at all to his 200 students but instead gives them problems to solve and discuss, and then shows their results on screen before and after discussion using LRS ‘clickers’ – is so noteworthy. His students get “less” lecturing” but outperform their peers not only on typical tests of physics but especially on tests of misconceptions in physics. [Mazur (1998)]
7. Consistent. For feedback to be useful it has to be consistent. Clearly, I can only monitor and adjust successfully if the information fed back to me is stable, unvarying in its accuracy, and trustworthy. In education this has a clear consequence: teachers have to be on the same page about what is quality work and what to say when the work is and is not up to standard. That can only come from teachers constantly looking at student work together, becoming more consistent (i.e. achieving inter-rater reliability) over time, and formalizing their judgments in highly-descriptive rubrics supported by anchor products and performances. By extension, if we want student-to-student feedback to be more helpful, students have to be trained the same way we train teachers to be consistent, using the same exemplars and rubrics.