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May 1, 1997
Vol. 54
No. 8

Research Link / Learning Through Feedback

Feedback to students assumes many forms and serves many purposes. Public praise recognizes student achievements; probing questions can assess student understanding; and a simple nod or written comment can encourage continued effort. Ultimately, feedback serves as an indispensable step in the learning process by extending instruction beyond the initial question or activity.
What types of teacher-to-student feedback work best? Danielson (1996) characterizes high-quality feedback as timely, accurate, substantive, constructive, and specific. Silverman (1992) found that combinations of corrective, descriptive, prescriptive, encouraging, and outcome-focused feedback appears to increase achievement. These types of feedback all encourage and guide growth, as opposed to explaining past performance. If a teacher limits feedback to explanation —with no clear reward for students who think about and respond to the comments—that teacher has missed an important learning opportunity.
One challenge teachers face, then, is to find ways to encourage their students to both heed and learn from feedback. Ching (1991) advises teachers to use varied approaches to deliver advice. For example, instead of writing comments on students' compositions, teachers could record the comments on audiotapes. This not only would be less time-consuming, but perhaps less intimidating for students.
Teachers also can make written comments more appealing. After instituting journal writing in her precalculus classes, Potter (1996) devised a simple feedback form with three columns —one for her suggested improvements, one for the student's strengths, and one for the student's own feedback. At first it took some prodding to get students to fill out the last column, but eventually they became comfortable with writing notes to their teacher. The form opened a new conduit for communication, encouraging students to think about and respond to their teacher's guidance.

Lesons of Instructive Feedback

  • Expansion feedback, where the teacher provides information related to the concept being taught. For example, if a student correctly defines a word, the teacher might praise the student, then give the word's antonym.
  • Parallel feedback, where the teacher gives students a different form of the stimulus material that requires the same response. An example is asking students to name a numeral, then showing them the number as a printed word.
  • Novel feedback, where the teacher presents information that is unrelated to the target skill, such as mentioning the color of various shapes after asking students to name the shapes.
In a summary of 24 studies, Werts and colleagues (1995) found that instructive feedback consistently helped students acquire knowledge more quickly, without significantly increasing instruction time. Moreover, students were apt to maintain this knowledge over time.
Because the Werts group focused primarily on special education classrooms, its findings may not be entirely applicable to other situations. Nonetheless, instructive feedback would seem to make sense in any classroom setting. Indeed, many accomplished teachers may already use this technique, even though they do not call it instructive feedback.

Pitfalls of Peer Feedback

While much has been written about strategies for teacher-to-student feedback, the guidelines for student-to-student interactions are not as clear. Nevertheless, having students give their peers feedback is appealing for several reasons: It promotes student-centered learning, it encourages students to produce their work for a larger audience, and it helps free overworked teachers from providing detailed feedback to every student (DiPardo and Freedman 1988).
The problem is, are students capable of providing the same high-quality feedback that their teachers do? Ching (1991) notes that without proper training on giving feedback, English students frequently respond to "lower-order concerns," such as syntactic errors, in their peers' writing, as opposed to the development of ideas. Vygotsky (1978) argues that interactions with more able peers can help students reach their full potential through what he called students' "zone of proximal development." He defines this as the distance between a student's developmental level and the higher level that the student can reach through peer collaboration. As DiPardo and Freedman (1988) note, however, if all students receive peer feedback, some inevitably will be receiving it from less able peers.
Further, while students in a cooperative learning setting have a shared interest in producing a group product, the traditional classroom setting rewards individual work. Thus these students are competing with one another, a fact that may inhibit the quality of the feedback they choose to provide.
Another significant consideration is inherent biases toward peers. Several studies (for example, Harvey 1986, Oakes 1990, and Sadker et al. 1991) have documented that many teachers unknowingly possess biases that cause them to provide feedback differently for students of different races or genders. Naturally, students might possess similar biases.
Finally, some students may simply not appreciate the need for and rewards of peer feedback. Zhang (1995) found that students whose native language is not English overwhelmingly (93.8 percent!) preferred teacher feedback to student feedback.
We can use our knowledge of teacher-to-student feedback to begin designing the student-centered model, and that would seem to be the next logical step. But no model can work effectively without student buy-in. That buy-in will come only if the model provides a reciprocal learning experience for the students giving the feedback and the students receiving it.
References

Ching, C.L.P. (1991). "Giving Feedback on Written Work." Guidelines 13, 2: 68-80.

Danielson, C. (1996). Enhancing Professional Practice: A Framework for Teaching. Alexandria, Va.: ASCD.

DiPardo, A., and S.W. Freedman. (1988). "Peer Response Groups in the Writing Classroom: Theoretical Foundations and New Directions." Review of Educational Research 58, 2:119-149.

Harvey, G. (1986). "Finding Reality among the Myths: What You Thought about Sex Equity in Education Isn't So." Phi Delta Kappan 67, 7: 509-512.

Oakes, J. (1990). "Opportunities, Achievement, and Choice: Women and Minority Students in Science and Mathematics." Review of Research in Education 16: 153-222.

Potter, M.A. (1996). "Using a Feedback Form to Communicate with Students." Mathematics Teacher 89, 3: 184-185.

Sadker, D., M. Sadker, and S.S. Klein. (1991). "The Issue of Gender in Elementary and Secondary Education." Review of Research in Education 17: 269-334.

Silverman, S. (1992). "Teacher Feedback and Achievement in Physical Education: Interaction with Student Practice." Teaching and Teacher Education 8, 4: 333-344.

Werts, M.G., M. Wolery, D.L. Gast, and A. Holcombe. (1996). "Sneak in Some Extra Learning by Using Instructive Feedback." Teaching Exceptional Children 28, 3: 70-71.

Werts, M.G., M. Wolery, A. Holcombe, and D.L. Gast. (1995). "Instructive Feedback: Review of Parameters and Effects." Journal of Behavioral Education 5: 55-75.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Zhang, S. (1995). "Reexamining the Effective Advantage of Peer Feedback in ESL Writing Class." Journal of Second Language Writing 4, 3: 209-222.

Andrew S. Latham has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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