Monday, 3 August 2015

How hard can it be to get feedback right? (2015 Term 3 Week 4)

According to Emeritus Professor Dylan Wiliam from the University of London, in 38% of well-designed educational research studies on the topic of feedback, feedback actually made performance deteriorate. He calls this "one of the most counter intuitive results in all of psychology." It seems obvious that feedback would be both a necessary and a helpful element in the learning cycle. Why does it fail so often? And how do we get feedback to be more effective?

In a recent Educational Leadership article, Wiliam observes that feedback informs a learner either that they have not yet reached a goal, or that they have reached a goal. If the student hasn’t yet reached the learning goal, he or she might: 

  • Increase effort 
  • Reduce aspiration 
  • Decide the goal is too hard 
  • Ignore the feedback 
On the other hand, if the student has reached or exceeded the goal, he or she might: 

  • Exert less effort 
  • Increase aspiration 
  • Decide the goal is too easy 
  • Ignore the feedback
Of the eight possible responses, only two are positive! To put it another way, six times out of eight, we respond to feedback in a way that is detrimental to our learning!  

The only thing that really matters about feedback is how the student responds to it.How can teachers (and parents) try to ensure that feedback provokes a positive response?

Wiliam suggests four ideas that can contribute to students responding positively to feedback.

First, make the environment one in which it is safe to make mistakes. Competition may be unhelpful in this regard. If students perceive that they are likely to fail where others succeed, they are more likely to disengage and not try. After all, it is better to be thought of as lazy than as dumb! At Inaburra we are working to establish a culture wherein failure is welcomed as a part of the learning process.

Second, cultivate a growth mindset amongst students, whereby we make it clear that 'smart' is not innate, but that it can be achieved through effective effort. The word 'yet' is immensely helpful. If a child says "I can't do this", add the word 'yet'. Mastery comes through intentional effort.
Growth v Fixed

Third, downplay scores and marks. If a student is provided with a mark and a comment, the first thing they will look at is a mark. The second thing they will look at is another person's mark. As parents, your interest in your child's learning can reinforce or downplay the significance of marks. To agitate for better marks for your child can send a powerful message about what matters in their learning. Likewise, your focus across the dinner table or when reading the report will indicate where your interests lie, for good or for ill.


However, the thing that really matters in feedback is the relationship between the receiver and the giver. Every teacher knows that the same feedback given to two similar students can make one try harder and the second give up. Likewise, as parents we should know how to read the relational dynamic with our child; there are some points when providing feedback is going to be counter-productive. At those points, the best option is to remain silent.
The reality, which good teachers intuitively know, is that when you know your students and your students trust you, you can ignore all the “rules” of feedback. Without that relationship, all the research in the world won’t matter. This is just one reason why we try to ensure that each individual at Inaburra is 'known and loved'.

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