Providing effective feedback in schools
In schools, feedback is commonly offered and received at various levels. Teachers are often responsible for providing feedback to students and in return students’ performance is perceived as a reflection of the teacher’s skill and efforts. Recently, schools have started inviting students to provide anonymous feedback to assess teachers’ performance. More formally, teachers receive feedback from heads of their departments, and in some instances, the school principal. Many schools also encourage peer feedback between teachers as well as student groups. Despite its common use, there is rarely any formal training or coaching in providing feedback within school systems. This article presents a brief conceptual overview of feedback, its critical role in school systems, and offers some recommendations for various individuals within the school system while providing feedback.
In education, feedback is often defined with the student as the recipient. It is seen as “information given to students about their performance that guides their future behavior” (Ambrose et al., 2010). The key feature of feedback, according to this definition, is that it is a pathway to direct a student’s future performance, academically, behaviourally, or across other domains. Feedback is therefore seen as a mechanism to promote and sustain learning (Bransford et al., 2000). In a meta-analysis that synthesized over 800 meta-analyses of 138 factors that influence student achievement, Hattie (2009) found that feedback was one of the top 10. However, the study also found that the type of feedback provided impacted the strength of the relationship between feedback and student achievement. This implies that not all feedback is equally effective.
Feedback is effective when the recipient, be it students or teachers, have opportunities to implement it and engage in goal directed behaviour that demonstrates the desired improvement. As Ambrose et al. (2010) emphasize, feedback is interconnected with practice and performance. Sadler (1989) in his seminal work on feedback and assessment identified three conditions that are essential for effective feedback: the learner or recipient must know what the expected standard is, they must identify the gap between where they are and the expectation, and they must know how to close that gap. Feedback is therefore not only aimed at identifying what is lacking, but also guiding the recipient towards meeting the desired goal. As Susan Ambrose, Vice Provost of Teaching and Learning and Professor of Education, aptly writes in one of her co-authored books titled, How Learning Works: Seven Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching, feedback is not devoid of an evaluation and effective feedback tells students “what they are or are not understanding, where their performance is going well or poorly, and how they should direct their subsequent efforts” (Ambrose et al., 2010). Simply put, as Hattie (2011) mentions, the role of feedback is to help the recipient address three fundamental questions: where am I going, how am I going, and where to next.
However, delivering feedback that is evaluative is not easy. In schools, principals and leaders hesitate and avoid giving negative feedback, a practice that has been widely documented as the “mum” effect (Tesser & Rosen, 1975). This reluctance to provide negative feedback often results from the experience of contradicting feelings of anger (that the teacher has not performed well) and compassion (awareness of the teacher’s capabilities and their context) towards the teacher (Yariv, 2006). In practice, leaders and teachers then rely on the feedback sandwich method that suggests providing positive comments or feedback before and after a negative comment. However, more recently, evidence suggests that this approach may not always be effective. Although much of the writing in this area is within the field of organizational behaviour, it is as relevant to schools which are systems directed towards a common goal of student-centric learning. It appears that with the sandwich method, many students and teachers begin to anticipate negative feedback whenever they receive positive comments, almost as if ‘waiting for the other shoe to drop’ (Daniels, 2009). This creates a lot of anxiety and makes the process of receiving feedback very monotonous. In many instances, it also minimizes or nullifies the impact of the positive feedback which gets perceived as merely a buffer, as something that is used to absorb the unpleasantness of the negative feedback. The worth of the positive feedback diminishes, which can negatively impact student and teacher motivation to improve. This is counterproductive to the primary goal of feedback and leads us to an important question: How can we provide constructive feedback in schools?
Systems-level feedback mechanisms
Providing and receiving feedback is a skill-based process. It not only requires thoughtful engagement from the individual/s providing feedback, but also an appropriate environment that facilitates this process. In schools and educational settings, it is important to start by asking the following questions: a) What is the culture of feedback in the school? b) What opportunities are available to students, teachers, and school leaders to provide feedback? c) In what ways are individuals in the school coached to provide and receive feedback? d) How are feedback mechanisms monitored and evaluated?
A culture of feedback refers to an environment that values and encourages effective feedback. It involves creating pathways and mechanisms for systematic feedback. For instance, while many schools use student performance as an indicator to evaluate teachers, many others rely on anecdotal feedback received from students, administrators, or parents, which is irregular and random. Instead, a culture of feedback provides opportunities for teachers to receive feedback from their peers, students, and administrators in a more consistent, meaningful, and structured way (Hall, 2013). A school that values the role of feedback also provides formal channels for students, teachers, and staff to receive feedback from each other. There is a common understanding about the role of feedback and the types of feedback that the school encourages. Additionally, students, teachers, and administrators are considered as partners in the feedback process. They must be coached not only in providing feedback but also in receiving and reflecting upon the feedback. Lastly, difficult conversations or negative feedback may result in desired improvements but may also lead to unintended consequences. As a school, it is important to identify ways to evaluate the feedback process and offer alternative feedback mechanisms.
Before we get into specific strategies that can facilitate the process of delivering negative or difficult feedback, there are some features that characterize effective feedback. Research indicates that staff and students value feedback when it is, a) offered in a simple language that is easy to understand, b) is specific to a particular aspect of performance, c) provided in a timely manner to ensure that it improves future performance, d) contextualized and takes into account the individual’s goals of learning, and e) personalized and refers to the individual’s previous performance/work and what is known about the individual, including their strengths (Nicol, 2010). These underlying factors can make critical feedback more acceptable and recipients are more likely to act on it.
Recommendations to provide effective feedback
In addition to developing systemic channels for feedback, adopting certain communication styles and developing skills to provide feedback that is actionable, timely, and specific can facilitate the process of constructive feedback. Referring to Sadler’s three conditions noted earlier, effective feedback depends as much on the skills of the individual providing feedback, as much as the awareness and knowledge of the individual receiving the feedback. In his book chapter titled ‘Opening up feedback’, Sadler (2013) illustrates how feedback from an external source leads to improvement when the recipient has prerequisite knowledge about that area of performance. In other words, feedback must be situated within what Vygotsky referred to as one’s ‘zone of proximal development’. Negative feedback or difficult comments must therefore be developmentally appropriate and build on the individual’s preexisting knowledge. Let us imagine a scenario where a middle-school coordinator provides negative feedback to a teacher about their teaching skills. The feedback comes as a reactive measure since the teacher’s class which has students with diverse abilities and needs, has performed poorly in math. As part of the constructive feedback, the teacher is asked to plan activities that can facilitate successful outcomes for all students. However, if the teacher is not acquainted with differentiated instructional strategies, the feedback may seem too overwhelming. It is not unlikely for the teacher in this scenario to dismiss the feedback citing the administrator’s lack of experience in managing a class of students with diverse needs. The process of delivering negative or constructive feedback must therefore be contextually relevant and central to the recipient’s growth. Some strategies to facilitate this process are discussed below.
Nurturing feedback literacy: Although not part of the feedback giving process, this is an important step that prepares individuals to receive feedback. Feedback literacy involves intentional efforts taken to develop an individual’s ability to work with feedback and act on it confidently (Carless & Boud, 2018). This can be facilitated through regular conversations that help students, teachers, and staff appreciate the role of critical feedback. This also includes deliberate efforts to challenge the idea that negative feedback or criticism is reflective of failure. Such school-wide conversations create a foundation for effective feedback. Feedback literacy efforts will also include skill development for all individuals on identifying the “gap” between one’s performance and the expectations. This is what Sadler refers to as the ‘knowing to’ skill or the ability to know when one’s work or performance is not how it should be. This can be done through regular use of self-assessment techniques and rubrics that encourage individuals to evaluate their performance. Additionally, teachers and students must also receive coaching on regulating their emotions in the face of difficult feedback. This can be facilitated during teacher reflection meetings, or social-emotional learning classes for students. Feedback literacy is important to ensure that individuals within the school are adept at responding to and utilizing critical feedback.
Approaching with empathy: Creating a culture where critical feedback is acceptable does not make the experience of receiving criticism pleasant or easy. Negative feedback must be delivered with an intention of support and growth. Research shows that negative feedback delivered with empathic concern is better received and recipients are more likely to experience positive emotions despite the criticism (Young et al., 2017). In educational settings, approaching teachers and students with an empathic lens is important for the feedback to be impactful. Empathy can be reflected in one’s tone and non-verbal behaviours while delivering the feedback. One important aspect of empathy is reflecting on one’s own socio-cultural position and privileges. For instance, teachers and staff can be encouraged to reflect on how their identities, such as caste, class, educational status, leadership position, etc., influence their assumptions, biases, and possibly the feedback too. Bell (2022) provides the following questions which administrators and teachers can reflect upon before they provide feedback: “Will the teacher perceive the feedback you are conveying to be helpful or harmful? Will they believe that you are committed to supporting them throughout the growth process, or are you too focused on documenting the problem?”
Offering corrective feedback: Liebold & Shwartz (2015) provided a framework for types of feedback that can be provided online. This framework can be a useful tool to use offline in schools too. Drawing from this framework, feedback can be corrective, suggestive, or epistemic, but not punitive. Negative feedback and criticism are often misperceived as a replacement for punitive action, as a negative consequence for a wrongful action or behaviour. However, when phrased as corrective feedback, the feedback creates an opportunity for the teacher or student to reflect on their current performance and identify ways for improvement. For instance, the following feedback, “Your teaching is not up to the mark. You need to work more on clearing students’ doubts,” can be rephrased as, “You seem to address students’ questions after class and give feedback on their exam notes. However, you do not proactively create opportunities for them to share doubts or concerns during class. How can you address this gap?” Similarly, suggestive feedback offers suggestions to the recipient to improve their work instead of only identifying the problem area. And lastly, epistemic feedback encourages the recipient to think more deeply about the current challenge, thereby making the feedback process a “partnership” (McKeachie, 2011).
Provide behaviour specific feedback: Phrasing negative feedback in a way that targets specific behaviour is critical in facilitating goal-directed performance for students and teachers. Recent research shows that when constructive negative feedback is explicit in identifying the problem as compared to ambiguous comments that communicate disapproval, students are more likely to evaluate their performance against the expectation, and act on the feedback (Pankonin & Myers, 2017). For instance, phrasing feedback that is directed towards the teacher’s specific pedagogical practice is more effective as compared to vaguely talking about the teacher’s overall teaching. To assist in this process, school leaders and administrators must gather data from different sources including observations, interviews and feedback from students and other teachers, and reviewing the teacher’s self-evaluation. Feedback must be based on the triangulation of data from multiple sources, collected by using multiple methods.
Allow time: Receiving critical feedback is a difficult process which can become even harder depending on the individual’s context. For instance, a student could be experiencing a depressive episode, or a teacher could be grieving the loss of a family member at the time of receiving feedback. While we may not always be able to time our feedback appropriately, allowing time before, during, and after feedback is critical to ensure that the feedback is acknowledged and useful. Before the feedback is provided, teachers or students can be given time to reflect on their performance and conduct a self-review (Bell, 2022). During the feedback, it is important to take time to acknowledge the emotional content during the process. Often, the emotional discomfort leads leaders and teachers to jump into positive feedback. Instead, check-in with the student or the teacher and acknowledge that the conversation is difficult. For example, it may be appropriate to say, “I know that this feedback is not all positive and it can be overwhelming. I’m just going to give us a few minutes to reflect on this. We can talk about how you feel about this if you like.” And lastly, allow time after the feedback is provided for the teacher or student to follow-up. Inform them that you are available if questions arise later, or if they have any concerns about the feedback that they would like to discuss at a later point.
The recommendations discussed above can be incorporated at an individual level, if you are a teacher or an administrator in a position to provide feedback, and they can also be used at a systemic level in the form of a guideline that schools can create on providing and receiving feedback. These guidelines can be introduced during professional development programs, as part of professional learning communities, or student orientations. Having said that, at the crux of this entire conversation is the idea that critical feedback is essential for the recipient and therefore, if you’re in a position to offer feedback, ask yourself, “How can I help them improve?”
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• Sadler, D. R. (2013). Opening up feedback: teaching learners to see. In Margaret, P., Merry, S., Carless, D., & Taras, M. (Eds.), Reconceptualising feedback in higher education: developing dialogue with students. United Kingdom: Routledge.
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• Young, S. F., Richard, E. M., Moukarzel, R. G., Steelman, L. A., & Gentry, W. A. (2017). How empathic concern helps leaders in providing negative feedback: A two-study examination. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 90 (4), 535-558.
The author is a doctoral student in school psychology at Michigan State University and has been a practicing psychotherapist for the last eight years. She can be reached at email@example.com.