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Feedback techniques

Teaching strategies

Feedback techniques for teachers and teacher aides

Feedback techniques – a set of methods used by teachers when providing information to students about their performance.

Teacher aide writing on  a student’s workbook in a class.

Effective teaching requires effective feedback.i High-performing teachers are continually providing feedback to their students, whether it be quick verbal signals, facial expressions, verbal comments or formal feedback on assignments and tests. There are many different types of feedback and each with its own purpose. Effective feedback helps to motivate students, builds their self-esteem, is an important vehicle for teaching metacognitive skills, directs students learning, and is an essential part of the continual improvement feedback loop.

On the other hand, ineffective feedback (which includes not providing feedback at all) can deflate even the most enthusiastic learners. While few teachers argue against the importance of effective feedback, unfortunately it’s a skill that very few are taught, and even fewer actively seek to master. It is rare to see a conference with a session on ‘feedback skills and techniques’. Even without training, the majority of teachers already use several feedback techniques which is a good starting point.

High-performing teachers are continually providing feedback to their students, whether it be quick verbal signals, facial expressions, verbal comments or formal feedback on assignments and tests.

First however, like all strategies, we need to consider why we use feedback in the first place. There are several reasons for why feedback is commonly provided:

  • to correct mistakes (rectification)
  • to expand students’ knowledge or skills
  • to provide advice for next time
  • to improve students’ metacognitive skills and coping strategies
  • to improve critical literacy, critical thinking, problem-solving and analytical skills
  • to provide general hints, tips and advice
  • to motivate, inspire and encourage
  • to set goals and to show whether goals have been met
  • to inform parents of progress and issues.

The initial reason for providing feedback naturally influences the message conveyed to the student. If the intention is to motivate and encourage students, dwelling on their mistakes is more than likely counterproductive. Concentrating on the positives is more likely to result in enhanced student efforts and greater participation in the future. If the intention is to fix repeated errors, ensure that clear and precise information is provided on how the error can be avoided in the future. Being specific about the reason for providing feedback is important as it allows the feedback comment to be highly targeted for best effect. In some instances (such as for an assignment or project), multiple reasons for feedback can be combined into a larger comment.

Concentrating on the positives is more likely to result in enhanced student efforts and greater participation in the future.

The mode of communication is also an important feedback consideration. The mode should match the goals of the message. For example, written feedback is not appropriate every time a student answers a question correctly. Conversely, a nod and a thumbs up is not appropriate feedback for parents or for an essay. Feedback can be informal or formal; written or verbal; short or long; individual or group.

Experienced teachers use a combination of these feedback delivery vehicles throughout their working day. For example, individual students receive feedback during class questioning sessions and as the teacher circulates the room. Groups and the class as a whole like to hear feedback about their overall general progress toward the end of the lesson. Students should be provided feedback about their progress and performance in relation to the teacher’s expectations and the lesson’s goals. Without feedback, students may not know whether they were successful or if they achieved what their teacher hoped they would.

Hint: a favoured technique is to ask students for feedback about how they think they went, what they learnt and what they could improve on. You will be surprised at how honest students are when asked questions like ‘what percentage of today do you think you were on task?’. Try asking students how you as their teacher could improve.

There are 3 important rules that apply to feedback. Feedback should be:

  1. simple and clear
  2. singularly focused (with the exception of assessments)
  3. provided immediately.

However, feedback on its own can only go so far in helping students to improve. Students should be provided with opportunities for correction, practise and additional feedback. Unfortunately, teachers tend to regularly test students with summative (final) assessments and immediately move to the next topic; students never have the opportunity to practise where they went wrong, and a significant learning opportunity is lost. A short 30-40-minute lesson that covers each aspect in the test combined with explicit teaching of metacognitive skills (such as applying processes and systems) is an invaluable follow-up feedback lesson. In the real world, a passing score is rarely enough – a mechanic can’t fix 73% of a problem, an accountant can’t get your taxes right 51% of the time, an electrician can’t install ‘most’ of your electrics correctly, and a pilot needs to safely land their plane every time.

Hint: mastery learning is a strategy that requires students to score 80-100% before they are permitted to move to the next topic. Less content is covered but students become masters of each topic. Mastery learning originated in medical training where a passing mark is simply not acceptable.

For essays and projects, longer feedback is expected (in part as a reflection of the extended effort made by the student and the importance of the task). The following feedback structure can be used to make marking large numbers of assessments a little bit easier:

  • sentence 1 – overall impression (for example, ‘Overall I think…’)
  • sentence 2 – the specific aspect that was done well (for example, ‘Your calculations were perfect.’)
  • sentence 3 – specific aspects that need work (for example, ‘Questions 2 and 3 were lacking detail.’)
  • sentence 4 – advice for future tasks (for example, ‘Read the question carefully and plan your answer.’)
  • sentence 5 – a word of encouragement (for example, ‘Glad to see that you are improving each week’).

Here is an example of this structure:
‘Overall, a well-researched project that shows you understand the topic very well. The second part was a little short and some basic fact checking is needed. I enjoyed reading your final ideas which were very creative. Next time consider a more challenging topic and plan out the project in more depth. Overall, I am very pleased with your final project and you should be happy with it as well.’

When it comes to perfecting your feedback techniques, remember to:

  • relate it to the task at hand
  • comment on the performance and not the student. For example, ‘you need better references’ should be ‘essays require references’
  • teach metacognitive skills where possible
  • when an assessment has a large number of mistakes, return it for resubmission (and provide additional instruction or resources) instead of marking it
  • not edit or proofread your student’s work (that is a different task altogether)
  • use words like ‘I’ and ‘feel’ for social effect (such as ‘I feel you put in the effort. However, it does need…’)
  • explain what the learner can do to improve – steps they can take from here, resources, ideas. For example, ‘Come and see me for help’)
  • use examples to show what you mean when providing advice
  • ensure that you can justify your feedback if it is challenged
  • consider how your mood affects the quality and tone of your feedback
  • make sure that the language you use is age appropriate
  • be careful about what you say or write as some people are easily offended
  • use inclusive, non-discriminatory language
  • avoid value-laden, judgemental, political or moralistic comments. For example, if a student writes an essay about a political party or figure, do not agree or disagree with their views – instead ask for balanced arguments and comment on their writing style, persuasive language, selection of detail and accuracy.

Hint: don’t feel like you need to address every issue or mistake – in fact, most of them you can ignore. Address 1 or 2 key points that are most likely to help the student improve based on the reason for providing the feedback in the first place and the goals of the lesson or activity.

Foot notes:

  1. Nicol, D.J., Macfarlane‐Dick, D. (2006) Formative assessment and self‐regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice, Studies in Higher Education, 31(2), 199-218. doi: 10.1080/03075070600572090.

About the author

Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and an author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of Fast Track Training Australia, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.


Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to check his article for accuracy, information may be outdated, inaccurate or not relevant to you and your location/employer/contract. It is not intended as legal or professional advice. Users should seek expert advice such as by contacting the relevant education department, should make their own enquiries, and should not rely on any of the information provided.

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