Creating powerful feedback involves combining a focus on the here and now with an eye to the future 

How will students benefit from our feedback? Answering this innocuous question should help us overcome three barriers to effective feedback, and increase the impact it has on our students.

Effective feedback changes students’ knowledge and future behaviour: this is easier to believe than it is to achieve. Most teacher feedback focuses on a specific task: we tell students where they’ve gone wrong, what to correct and how to improve. This makes sense: the immediate errors and limitations in students’ work elicit our feedback and this is where we want to see improvement. However, information we offer students “is considered as feedback only when it is used to improve their work. We face three barriers meeting this exacting definition of feedback, and ensuring students benefit.

An image showing a teacher giving feedback to a pupil; the words Fix, Improve and Benefit can be seen as a speech bubble

Source: © Claudia Flandoli

Barrier 1: Students don’t respond

Too often, students don’t apply (or don’t understand) our feedback. Just providing students information about how to improve is time-consuming and potentially fruitless: students must respond if they are to benefit. Some students may use feedback independently, but most need us to provide a specific activity, revising the current task or applying feedback to a new task.

Barrier 2: They don’t transfer specific feedback to new tasks

An improvement task is helpful, but if it only leads students to improve the current task, its benefits may be limited to that task. In the 2017 book, What does this look like in the classroom?, Dylan Wiliam notes that feedback should improve the learner, not the task: what matters is the student’s response when they next face a similar question. People struggle to apply knowledge to new problems without a hint, particularly for different problems and after some time. Our feedback may be immediately useful, but students may not think to use it next time it’s relevant: they may improve their atom diagram today, but fail to apply the same principles to another diagram, or a real-life example.

Barrier 3: They don’t apply general feedback to specific tasks

If we want students to improve beyond the current task, we could offer them general guidance, but they may not be able to apply it at all. We could tell them that scientists change only one variable at a time to measure its effect on a reaction, for example. This can be applied to every experiment students conduct: it should help them understand what is expected of them more deeply, but students often struggle to apply general ideas like this to specific tasks.

7 simple rules to boost science teaching

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Overcoming the three barriers

The first barrier has a simple solution: provide students with an activity to apply feedback. The second and third are harder: both specific and generic feedback are limited. Recommendation 7b in the EEF’s Improving secondary science guidance, Think about what you’re providing feedback on, includes a table I developed to show the different levels of feedback we might offer, specific and generic. I’d advocate:

  1. Choosing levels of feedback to target – from improving the current task to improving understanding of the subject, or students’ self-regulation.
  2. Addressing barriers 2 and 3 by linking specific and general guidance: guidance at more than one level helps students improve the current task and future learning.

In your class

Download a template to help you create powerful feedback as MS Word or pdf

Our most powerful feedback combines an immediate focus and a broader implication. This might sound challenging, but it is achievable in a sentence: indeed, succinct, limited and clear feedback is crucial. ‘Refine your atomic model by … always remember to…’ may be enough, combined with a reminder the next time the topic arises. This feedback creates improvement that is both immediate and lasting.

This article is part of the series 7 simple rules for science teaching, developed in response to the EEF’s Improving secondary science guidance. It supports rule 7b, Think about what you're providing feedback on.