Blog by Maths Pathway
Learning isn’t a simple, linear process that all individuals meticulously follow. It’s messy and involves mistakes, connections and light bulb moments. Underpinning it all, is feedback.
Without feedback, students can’t effectively progress. They don’t have an understanding of where they’re at, where they’re going or how they’re tracking. So the messy gets messier.
That’s why it’s so important to include regular, timely feedback in the classroom. But what is effective feedback and how should it be structured? In this blog we break down what feedback is and take a look at a feedback cycle that can be applied to your practice.
What feedback is, and isn’t
Feedback happens in a system
It is almost impossible, by definition, to deliver feedback in isolation. As teachers, we have to give that feedback to someone, about something, in reference to something else. While that may seem obvious, what is perhaps less obvious is the degree of complexity that this ‘feedback system’ really has.
We need to reference our feedback to goals, intentions and personalised targets
To deliver (or receive) feedback, we first need to reference some set of goals, outcomes or learning intentions for the student – and importantly, these goals are not just about the task or activity itself. Our references come from curriculum standards, a deep understanding of the individual student’s place on some form of learning progression, and our knowledge of the student as a person. These inputs help us articulate where the student is going, in what sort of time frame, and along what sort of learning path.
The three types of feedback
Feedback isn’t a task – it is three interconnected types of teacher-student interaction
I can’t simply “give feedback” and then consider “feedback” done. In reality, there are three key types of feedback that I should deliver with the right timing and balance.
The first is task-based feedback. This is best delivered during and/or immediately after a piece of work a student is completing, and it aims to help improve that piece of work. Task-based feedback is deceptive – it’s attractive to deliver as a teacher, because for most of us it’s easy. We know the task, we’ve seen all the things that can go wrong, and so we feel helpful when delivering this feedback. Unfortunately, it’s also the least valuable type of feedback, because it rarely transfers to other tasks, or to any process improvements for the student’s learning. Because teacher time is so scarce and valuable, task-based feedback is actually best delivered through the task itself, or some form of automated or peer assessment. In mathematics, for example, students should use worked solutions to check their work after each question (not after completing all the questions) – used well, this is an extraordinarily effective form of task-based feedback.
The second type is process-based feedback. This focuses on how the student approached, thought about and completed the task. It includes what we often call “meta-cognitive” skills these days – thinking about your thinking. This feedback is less immediate, and much harder to deliver, because it requires a human conversation, and knowledge of the student. It is also the most useful type of feedback, because it will transfer to any other task (and across subjects, by the way). It is, therefore, the feedback that teachers are best placed to deliver, and makes the best use of our time. Fitting an appropriate amount of process-based feedback into your planning requires a clear system of how and when it will happen, and typically requires automating the less valuable parts of our jobs so that we free up time for this more impactful work.
The final type of feedback is personal. This targets the student’s identity and self-efficacy. It needs to be delivered with care, because phrases like “You’ve done very well” or “You’ve put in great effort” have limited impact on specific learning goals. However, it does have significant value in building student self-efficacy around their work habits, and is an appropriate place to leverage the good parts of “growth mindset” theory and related ideas. By itself, such feedback achieves very little, but as a part of a broader system of feedback, it is an important step on the road to self-regulation.
The feedback end goal
You should aim to build self-regulating students – but you may not get there
As teachers, we often talk about developing self-regulation skills in students – which, in the context of feedback, means that they can set their own well-informed goals, seek and create their own feedback, and connect this into new and evolving goals.
This is an admirable, worthy and correct goal. But it’s also one that requires more than just the work of the teacher. If we’re honest, many (if not most) adults struggle with self-regulation – just look at the sometimes awful ‘mentoring’ and support structures in place in various organisations, that are trying to deal with the same issues we have with students.
Treat effective feedback as a critical part of the learning process, that is important for its own sake, and as is a necessary (but not sufficient) part of the process of ultimately creating effective, confident, self-regulating lifelong learners.
About the Author
Richard Wilson, Chief Visionary, Maths Pathway
Richard began life as a management consultant, before switching gears to dedicate his life to teaching. A native of South Africa and Teach for Australia alumni, he witnessed the radical equalising impact of education firsthand. It was his own experience as a classroom teacher that made him realise that nothing less than systemic change would be required to transform how maths was taught in the classroom.
What is Maths Pathway?
At Maths Pathway, we envision a world where every student can experience growth and success in maths — regardless of their current level or background. We believe the way to achieve this is to support teachers to have an even greater impact in the classroom, so we created a Learning and Teaching model that does just that. We make individualised learning practical by using tools that put administration in the background and bring teaching to the front, where it belongs.