The term feedback is often loosely used to describe marks, reports and annotations or general comments on written assignments. But none of these is feedback, strictly speaking.
Basically, feedback is information about how we are doing in our efforts to reach a goal. What good is it to put a mark/grade on my work if you won’t tell me what I did wrong or right? For example, feedback like “Great job!” doesn’t tell the learner what he did right, and likewise, a statement such as “Not quite there yet” doesn’t give her any insight into what she did wrong and how she can do better the next time around. And don’t get me started on “keep it up” or “pull up your socks!”
Simply put, feedback must provide learners with information on what exactly they did well, and what may still need improvement. Constructive feedback is goal-referenced; tangible and transparent; actionable; user-friendly (specific and personalized); timely; ongoing; and consistent.
Effective feedback requires that a person has a goal, takes action to achieve the goal, and receives goal-related information about his or her actions. Information becomes feedback if, and only if, I am trying to cause something and the information tells me whether I am on track or need to change course. In school, learners are often unclear about the specific goal of a task or lesson, so it is crucial to remind them about the goal and the criteria by which they should self-assess.
Similarly, effective feedback is concrete, specific, and useful; it provides actionable information. Thus, “Good job!” and “You did that wrong” or B+ are not feedback at all. We can easily imagine the learners asking themselves in response to these comments, what specifically should I do more or less of next time, based on this information? Many so-called feedback situations lead to arguments because the givers are not sufficiently descriptive; they jump to an inference from the data instead of simply presenting the data.
To be useful, feedback must also be consistent and timely. Clearly, performers can only adjust their performance successfully if the information fed back to them is stable, accurate, and trustworthy. In education, that means teachers have to be on the same page about what high-quality work is. Teachers need to look at student work together, becoming more consistent 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 to be consistent the same way we train teachers, using the same exemplars and rubrics.
In addition, it is vital that we take into consideration each individual when giving student feedback. Our classrooms are full of diverse learners. Some students need to be nudged to achieve at a higher level while others need to be handled very gently so as not to discourage learning and damage self-esteem. A balance between not wanting to hurt a student’s feelings and providing proper encouragement is essential.
Conclusively, progress is a great motivator both to the teacher and the learners. With productive feedback, this can be achieved in due course.
The writer is a language consultant.