Feedback is a proven method for improving students’ learning outcomes. The effectiveness of feedback depends on how well it is done. I will draw on Geoff Petty’s work in ‘Evidence-Based Teaching‘ (Chapter Eight) to sketch out things instructors need to know to get the best out of using feedback in practical legal training ( ).
Feedback is used in, which is assessment for learning. This can be contrasted with summative assessment, which is assessment of learning (usually expressed through grading).
Petty (citing Hattie (1999) and Marzano (1998)) identifies informational feedback as one of the most powerful tools for improving learning. Hattie’s meta-analysis of 13,209 studies found that feedback from teachers and/or peers produced an average effect size of 0.81. Marzano’s meta-analysis of 488 studies involving students receiving feedback on the processes they used to complete a specific task produced an average effect size of 0.74. According to Petty, a teaching method with an effect size of 0.5 gives a one letter grade improvement in learning outcomes!
Of course, for feedback to produce such impressive effect sizes the feedback itself must be effective. How do we achieve this?
Petty synthesises findings from several studies that show us how effective informational feedback might work. Generally there are the following stages with informational feedback:
- Presentation of Information to Students
(the student starts constructing their knowledge of the topic)
(the student constructs or improves their construct of the topic through an activity)
(the student produces a Product from the learning activity, eg a performance, answers, a document, etc)
(the student receives feedback on the Product)
That is pretty straightforward. For a more detailed concept map of the stages, see further below. However, each of the Presentation, Application, Product and Feedback stages can be informed by evidence-based approaches.
At the beginning of the Presentation stage, we can find out what the students already know and correct any misconceptions. We can use this as a first step to find out about and then build on our students’ foundational constructs. We can give our students a ‘medal’ for what they can already do, and then give them a mission to fix what they cannot do. We can provide exemplars to the student so they know what they are working toward. The teacher must provide criteria that describe the characteristics of good work in concrete terms. Ideally the Presentation stage should involve multi-sensory and whole brain media, such as teacher talk, audio-visual media, reading, web searches, etc.
It is important to set up achievable goals clearly so the students can use these to give themselves feedback on their progress toward the goal during the Application stage. Self-assessment while the work is in progress allows the student to evaluate their work against the relevant criteria, and to compare their work against an exemplar. Doing this, the student develops their own improvement strategy repertoire for closing the gap between their present position and the goal.
Following the Application stage the student produces their learning Product. The Product itself provides feedback to the student about their work, and provides feedback to the teacher about the student’s progress toward the learning goal. The Product might disclose that there is a ‘failure of intent’, where the student has misinterpreted the criteria or the task so their energies have been misdirected.
During the Feedback stage the student can give herself or himself feedback by reviewing their own Product. The student may also provide direct feedback to the teacher by asking questions or making statements about the task. The teacher also provides feedback to the student. The feedback ought not be a grading of the student’s work, ie “excellent”, “superior”, etc. The feedback can be a plain language description of progress toward the learning goal, including what parts of the Product met the criteria and what parts of the Product did not meet the criteria. The teacher’s comments can aim to be non-judgmental and informative along the lines of, ‘these are your goals, this is what you do well, this is how to get better’, so that the feedback is ‘task-focused’ for clear and tangible steps toward improvement (rather than ego-focused).
By way of example, let us imagine a face-to-face session in an advocacy workshop concerning examination in chief. You could:
- Find out what your students already know about the topic (pre-test through discussion, quick quiz, etc).
Example: you ask your students what they know about the rules of evidence regarding examination in chief.
- Identify gaps or blind spots in your students’ existing knowledge and explain these.
Example: the students might provide relevant answers but omit the rule forbidding the asking of leading questions during examination in chief. You could identify this and explain the rule. You could then provide examples of questions that breach the rule and ask the students to identify what is wrong with the questions and how they could be fixed. The examples could be provided through role play, audio-visual material, or transcripts (multi-sensory approach).
- You could then organise the students into groups (say tables of 4-6) and give them the task of describing the criteria for asking good examination in chief questions. Following discussion directed to identifying the agreed criteria, you could write these up on a whiteboard or giant post-its. (interactive and kinesthesic approach)
- Using a common fact pattern, you could then set students the task of scripting a set number of their own examination in chief questions, to be submitted to you at the end of the task. You explain the completed work will be redistributed for peer assessment. You remind students about the criteria set out on the whiteboard or post-its. (Application and ongoing self-feedback)
- You circulate to provide help and identify errors or weaknesses; you refer a student needing help to the agreed criteria on the whiteboard and ask them to compare their work against the agreed criteria. You can use this exchange to identify where the student might be feeling blocked and provide assistance. You remind all students to self assess their work against the agreed criteria. (Application stage, teacher feedback, self feedback, product feedback)
- You collect the completed work from the students and then redistribute the work for peer assessment. Students conduct the peer assessment (by pencilling in feedback comments) with reference to the agreed criteria. You circulate to assist where needed. (Peer feedback, self feedback by comparing other students’ work)
- The work is then returned to its owner and the students have time to read the feedback comments and to make improvements, if necessary. (Medal and Mission)
- You have a class discussion about any issues that arose from undertaking the task and/or the peer assessment, and provide clarification where necessary. You can identify tangible steps toward achieving the learning goal (set the mission) for those students who have not yet attained the learning goal.
Below is a concept map of the feedback process (right click to view the image at full size):
Hattie, J 1999, ‘Influences on Student Learning’, retrieved 8 January 2012, <http://www.education.auckland.ac.nz/uoa/home/about/staff/j.hattie/hattie-papers-download/influences>.
Marzano, RJ 1998, ‘A Theory-Based Meta-Analysis of Research on Instruction’, retrieved 8 January 2012, <http://www.mcrel.org/topics/products/83/>.
Petty, G 2009, Evidence-based Teaching – A Practical Approach, 2nd edn, Nelson Thornes, Cheltenham, UK.