leaning into feedback

Feedback is an essential part of the learning process, for both students and teachers. Students need to know what they’re striving for, why it’s important, and how they’re doing. Teachers need feedback from their students and colleagues; they can’t evaluate how the teaching and learning are going on their own. But giving feedback can be complicated: What kind? How much? When? Who is this person I’m giving feedback to? What is their level of confidence in the subject area or as a learner? How is their day going? What is their affective state in this moment?

Earlier this year, I began working with a personal trainer for the first time. Though I’ve always been active, I had no experience with lifting weights or formal strength-training. Before our first session together, we got together for coffee and my trainer asked about my goals and athletic experiences. We had a nice chat. After our first training session, however, I was demoralized. My head juts too far forward, my balance leans forward and to the right, I don’t know how to isolate my muscles or breathe correctly. I’m sure those weren’t the only messages I was given, but they’re the ones I latched onto.

In classroom settings, many students give up in the face of demoralizing feedback. For feedback to be effective, the learner needs to be able to hear it, and the feedback needs to be specific and actionable. And it needs to come at the right time. Too soon and it can impede exploration and confidence-building. Too late and misinterpretations can become ingrained. Education researchers John Hattie and Helen Timperley (2007) suggest that effective feedback addresses one of three important questions:

Where am I going?

How am I going?

What next?

They further suggest that we consider whether the feedback is about the task, whether it’s about process and strategies, or whether it’s designed to help a student become more self-directed and autonomous. All three types have their place. (The fourth and weakest type of feedback is personal feedback – Great job! – in part because it contains no actionable information.)

It’s a lot to be mindful of. Some of our indicators of Radically Reimagined Relationships may help situate our efforts.

Connection, Belonging, and Wellbeing. Students need to be able to hear our feedback. As Hattie and Zierer (2018) suggest, “an essential condition for effective feedback is a culture of mistakes.” Our classrooms need to be places where students feel safe to be themselves, express themselves, and take chances. When we create – or co-create with students – an environment where mistakes are a vital and expected part of the learning process, students are more apt to stick with difficult tasks. When errors can be treated as information (about a task, not about self-worth) and when the learner knows what they can do to improve, feedback is less likely to trigger anxiety or shut-down responses.

Humility, Care, and Curiosity. When we know our students well, we are better able to present feedback in ways they can hear. What does this student care about? What might they be dealing with at home or with peers? What have their past experiences in school been like? Approaching our students with humility, care, and curiosity enables us to go beyond superficial getting-to-know-you questions and helps us understand where they’re coming from and what they value. Humility, care, and curiosity also opens us up to feedback from our students. As Hattie (2019) notes, “I discovered that feedback is most powerful when it is from the student to the teacher. What they know, what they understand, where they make errors, when they have misconceptions, when they are not engaged – then teaching and learning can be synchronized and powerful.” Shared Purpose and Responsibility. For feedback to be effective, students need to have a clear understanding of - and commitment to - the goal. When students are invested in the learning goals and believe what they are doing is worthwhile, they are more apt to seek and pay close attention to feedback. However, as noted by Hattie and Timperley (2007): “Teachers and parents often assume that students share a commitment to academic goals, whereas the reality is that developing this shared commitment needs to be nurtured and built.” Humility, care, and curiosity come into play again as we check those assumptions. Building shared purpose can take different forms: from group or individual conferences to the co-creation of evaluation rubrics to decisions about how students can show mastery to ways for students to provide feedback to teachers (and for teachers to show they’ve heard it). Shared purpose and responsibility can help a teacher move from a central role to one of facilitation.

I’ve been working with my personal trainer now for about five months, and we know each other much better. After our initial session, I let her know that I’d been dwelling on my weaknesses and my confidence was flagging. She hadn’t meant for me to be discouraged at all. She assumed I knew what my strengths were and was just clarifying what needed to be worked on. Thinking about it from the perspective of effective feedback, it probably just came too soon. I was completely new to the work and needed some time to observe closely and get a feel for things. If we’d had a relationship already, she might have known I tend to be a little hard on myself. On the plus side, now that we’re up and running, strength-training is an activity with feedback built in. As has also been shown in the feedback research, the ability to monitor and experience progress is highly reinforcing.

I’ll be keeping these recent experiences in mind when I’m in the classroom this fall, and I’ll be looking to actively cultivate a culture of mistakes -mine and my students’ – as well as channels for reciprocal feedback so that all of us are able to track our progress. (And I’ll be trying my hardest to forever steer clear of “Great job!”)

How are you successfully approaching feedback in your classroom? Let us know!”


If you'd like to learn more:

Hattie, John, and Shirley Clarke. Visible Learning: Feedback. Routledge, 2019.

Hattie, John, and Helen Timperley. “The Power of Feedback.” Review of Educational Research, vol. 77, no. 1, Mar. 2007, pp. 81–112.

Hattie, John, and Klaus Zierer. 10 Mindframes for Visible Learning: Teaching for Success. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2018.

Image credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay