When Is Feedback Most Effective?

The Coaching Model

Effective athletic coaches use a formative assessment and feedback process to develop their players on the athletic field. They set up small-sided drills wherein their players are practicing a skill or tactic that is easily observable because of the way the coach has designed the drill.

Two forms of feedback are built into this model. As a coach moves around the field observing player interactions within the small groups, the coach can stop to discuss with a particular group of players, providing some feedback based on what s/he has seen them do. The coach may blow the whistle and bring the entire team back together to provide such feedback, or s/he may choose to do it individually.

The other form of feedback is from other players competing in the drills. If one does not execute properly, opponents provide immediate feedback by stifling the success of the player. The important thing to note about the process is that there are constant opportunities to provide/receive feedback based on observations and player interaction. This way, bad habits are less likely to be formed by players, and players are receiving clarification about their execution of important skills or tactics while they are in the process of developing them.

It would be a shame if the coach failed to use such a process, but rather simply outlined with the team, at practice or on a chalkboard, how they should play the game, and then waited until after a match was played against another team to provide feedback on how the players executed the plan that had been discussed. Such an assessment and feedback process would be executed too late to affect the outcome of the match. However, in a classroom in which instruction takes place, leading only to a quiz or a test of student mastery of the subject matter, the exact same process may be occurring – instruction followed by a summative assessment leading to a grade that is a measure of success or failure – too late to make a difference.

Formative Assessment and Feedback in the Classroom

Formative assessment, leading to the opportunity to provide timely feedback, is the essence of effective classroom instruction. This notion is not new. Lev Vygotsky called it “dynamic assessment” in the 1930’s. Benjamin Bloom used the term “formative assessment” in his “Mastery Learning” program in the 1960’s and the process was widely known as “authentic assessment” in the literature of the 1980’s and 1990’s.

A great deal of recently reported research has demonstrated that both formative assessment and feedback lead to significant achievement gains. One such source is John Hattie’s Visible Learning (2009), a 20-year synthesis of hundreds of meta-analyses that reports student achievement effect sizes of .90 for formative assessment and .73 for feedback.

Yet, in a classroom where a teacher presents information to students through the culturally normative model of instruction, the forms that formative assessment and feedback take are often closer to what the coach who waits until after the match has been played to provide feedback does than to that of the coach who provides it on a timely basis in small-sided drills at practice, where the feedback can have the most positive effect on player development. This is to a large extent due to the culturally normative information-presentation model still common in most classrooms, wherein the teacher presents information in the form of a lecture that is often accompanied by visuals such as slides, with teacher questions to determine student comprehension of the information presented, and often followed by the use of worksheets or other activities designed to have students practice whatever has been presented. Students are then expected to study the notes that the teacher provided in the presentation process, and, eventually, the test or quiz determines student acquisition of new knowledge. What is wrong with this picture? It is the lack of some of the essential elements of classic coaching involving complex, timely, developmental, dynamic, authentic, and differentiated formative assessment and feedback.

Formative Assessment and Feedback in a MAX Teaching Classroom

How can a teacher with thirty students know what is going on inside each of the heads in the classroom? The answer is that the teacher can’t. Try as s/he might, the teacher does not have the visibility that a coach has, simply because the action takes place inside the heads of the students. However, in a MAX Teaching classroom, timely, prescriptive, and differentiated formative assessment is the norm, only it comes from multiple sources. In a recent Education|Update, Katie Rapp lists seven characteristics of the formative assessment and feedback loop that are found in a well-coached classroom:

  • Tie the feedback to a specific learning goal.
  • Provide information that students can use to improve their performance.
  • Deliver feedback on student work in a timely manner.
  • Provide opportunities for students to participate in generating feedback rather than acting as passive receivers of information.
  • Feedback doesn’t always have to be tied to a grade.
  • Help students self-regulate.
  • When giving students feedback, take the time to think about what will help students actually improve.

Yet much of the current literature on feedback is geared toward teacher-to-student feedback that takes the form of frequent quizzes or other teacher-administered forms of assessment that, although they provide some measure of formative assessment in the form of student-to-teacher feedback, do not address many of these seven characteristics, especially in the complex curricula of a middle or high school classroom, where the learning goals are numerous, complex, and different from student to student (since each student comes with different background knowledge).

In the MAX Teaching classroom, wherein students participate in a routine of reading for learning, with small-group interaction preceding and following the reading, the opportunities for feedback are multiplied and built-in. Feedback occurs from teacher-to-student, student-to-teacher, student-to-student, text-to-student, and ultimately, from student-to-self – metacognition, or self-regulated learning.

In fact, one of the main goals of the MAX Teaching process is to scaffold the development of self-regulated learning for all students through the practice of a three-step lesson framework that facilitates the use of text to help students learn new subject matter. If a teacher has selected appropriate text, and students have been scaffolded into the successful processing of that text, one can be fairly certain that the feedback is going to be widespread, on-target, timely, differentiated, unthreatening, and immediately useful to each student in the process of developing new understandings.

Just as in the small-sided drills on the athletic field, the MAX Teaching classroom assures a multitude of timely feedback opportunities differentiated for the needs of each student.


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