Thursday / April 25

Feedback Without Clarity is Meaningless…At Best

“Students need to know their learning target— the specific skill they’re supposed to learn— or else ‘feedback’ is just someone telling them what to do.”

-Susan Brookhart

Have you ever been given feedback by someone who doesn’t know your situation or your intended goals, or who hasn’t established clear objectives for you to operate within?

 A few years ago, during the first week of school, my daughter was given a writing assignment for homework. She was asked to craft at least five paragraphs about her summer (snooze) using figurative language to describe what she did and the events that were most memorable. She was given a four point rubric of what the teacher said was “essential criteria” that must be included in the essay.

She tackled the paper with zeal, and per what was noted on the rubric and from my trained teacher eye, it appeared as though the essay was proficient to exemplary based on the criteria. A few days later, however, she received feedback from her teacher in the form of a big red “0” at the top of the page along with the comment, “Didn’t use proper heading.”

In what world does a student deserve a zero on a completed assignment for simply not using the correct formatting, especially when the rubric does not mention anything about proper heading within the listed criteria? Also, it was a four-point rubric – how did she justify a zero?

Not only were both of us confused about the outcome, but the feedback given ended up influencing my daughter’s belief in her language arts capabilities. Even this assignment, though small in scope, tarnished her self-efficacy in this particular context.

In the classroom with students, feedback (when done WELL) has been proven to be one of the most empowering and effective pedagogical practices we can employ. “Feedback is among the most thoroughly researched methods of all and is one of the most powerful influences on learning performance. Visible Learning cites 25 meta-analyses with an average effect size of 0.75 in the last 30 years alone.” (Hattie and Zierer, 2017)

Feedback that yields approximately two year’s growth over a year’s time is information about the learner’s progress toward the established learning outcomes, based on evidence, and is designed to close the gap between current and desired performance to guide the teacher’s and/or student’s next steps. Grant Wiggins said it best, “Feedback is not advice, praise, or evaluation. Feedback is information about how we are doing in our efforts to reach a goal.”

This type of feedback is not possible without teacher clarity!

Teacher clarity, as defined in the Visible Learning research, also has a 0.75 effect size—in other words, it doubles the speed of learning. This effect is an amalgamation of the essential ingredients that bring focus to the lesson or unit and ensure that learning and mastery of the standards is evident and in progress. Some of the most critical aspects of teacher clarity are:

  • The extent to which teachers are explicit and clear about what the goal is (learning intentions)
  • How students and teachers know if the learner is on track to attaining the overall outcome (success criteria)
  • Examples of what success looks like at multiple stages throughout the journey to hit the target (worked examples)
  • The building blocks of how the learning builds before, over the course of, and after the unit is complete (learning progressions)

*It is worth noting that none of the above can be crafted unless the educator has first identified their priority or essential standards. Frankly, when we as humans seek to make everything important, nothing is truly important. Assigning priority to standards based on life, leverage, and the test, empowers educators to truly hone in on those must have skills for learners and spend ample time doing so.

Feedback that yields a .75 effect size meets the learner right at their immediate point of need, precisely when and where they are starting to veer off course. It lets students know how they are doing while there is still time to adjust and revise their efforts.

A Framework for Feedback

In 2007, John Hattie and Helen Timperley derived a powerful and simple framework to give and receive feedback within, which is only possible when an educator has fully established clarity. “Effective feedback needs to address one of three major questions asked by the teacher and/or by the student: Where am I going? (What are the goals?) How am I going? (What progress is being made towards the goals?), and Where to next? (What activities need to be undertaken to make better progress?).” (Hattie, 2011)

This model assumes that feedback has a past, a present, and a future. Feedback = how have you done so far when it comes to mastering the success criteria on your journey to hitting the learning intention? Feedforward = what can you do next to ensure you hit the target?

If my daughter’s teacher had used this framework to provide her feedback per the established criteria on the rubric, it would have sounded something like this:

  • Where am I going? Your goal was to write at least five paragraphs about your summer using figurative language to describe what you did and the events that were most memorable.
  • How am I doing? You included powerful examples of alliteration, and have met the criteria when it comes to utilization of this technique.
  • Where to next? Diversify your use of figurative language to attain more of the criteria. This can include the use of metaphor, simile and onomatopoeia.

Not only do clear learning intentions, success criteria, progressions, and worked examples provide students with a vision of where their efforts are taking them, what success looks like, and where to next (so they can invest their time, energy, and resources accordingly), but clarity also has many other benefits. One of those benefits is that learners increase their efforts. This in turn can increase their motivation to learn and overall engagement, particularly when there is a clear goal that is appropriately challenging. Furthermore, learners develop and use more effective learning strategies such as error detection and self-assessment, which eventually empowers the learner to self-regulate their own feedback, provide meaningful feedback to a peer, and authentically receive feedback from their teacher.

Clarity also benefits the teacher. When teachers provide feedback aligned to specific goals and criteria for learning, they work smarter not harder. Instead of spraying feedback and hoping something sticks, teachers are able to go back to the learning intentions and success criteria and provide feedback that is focused and meaningful that helps the learner through their learning journey. It is empowering to know what to teach and how it is to be learned, and enabling to be able to give feedback to guide our students in the learning process.

This school year, I encourage you to assess the extent of your clarity for every unit of study and every content area you teach. Then, take the next step toward bringing you and your learners closer to your desired outcome by being the catalyst for the meaningful feedback that a clear learning journey can bring.

Interested in learning more about feedback? Join John Hattie on September 17 at 3:30pm PDT/6:30pm EDT for a FREE webinar. Click here to reserve your spot.

Visible Learning books

Written by

Kristin R. Anderson is an incredibly passionate educator who strives to bring joy, hope, and empowerment to learners across the globe by helping them unleash their brilliance. She motivates systems leaders, educators, consultants, and students to leverage their strengths and apply research principles that have the greatest impact on student learning into practice. Over the past eight years, she has studied Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn research under John Hattie and was recognized as the United States delegate and speaker at the first annual International Conference on Visible Learning in Brisbane, Australia. Since then, she has spoken at each annual International Conference on Visible Learning in San Diego, London, and Washington D.C. and at multiple National VL institutes and symposiums in North America and Australia.

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