Does feedback improve teaching and learning?
The role of theory in advancing knowledge in the area of feedback and performance is extremely problematic; only experiments conducted over a long period will establish this (Coe, 2006).
In 2006, Prof Robert Coe published a 25-page paper to highlight how feedback can improve performance. The purpose was to determine if people who receive feedback on a task perform better than those who do not, and if it is supported by any empirical evidence.
Feedback research and practice has evolved significantly since this paper was published. In my humble career, I have evolved a simple understanding of at least 6 different types of feedback a teacher can provide.
Written, verbal and non-verbal. Feedback, feed up feedforward.
This research covers a wide range of feedback scenarios, from inspection to appraisal. However, with the classroom (also) considered, Coe’s research considers if feedback is always beneficial, and under which conditions we may expect to improve performance.
Feedback on performance
There are conditions which impact feedback. Coe highlights:
- What type of task and which performance is being measured
- What characteristics of particular feedback is given, and the way it is given.
- What are the individual characteristics of the person receiving the feedback.
Teachers will be very familiar with ‘feedback research’; that it makes the greatest difference to learning. From an academic perspective, we must ask ourselves ‘Learning what?’ and ‘What type of feedback, to who and when?’ We also need to define ‘performance.’ Teachers will know that outcomes are only one crude measure…
As Coe suggests, “these distinctions are not clear-cut.” Given the current discussion on cognitive load theory and working memory, the perception a person receiving the feedback is also a factor. I’d say this plays a significant role in the success of feedback (or not).
Fifteen years later, I’ll ‘stick my neck out’ and say we are still in the same position, despite the teaching profession and myself promoting verbal feedback strategies.
Coe highlights many you feedback variables:
- The characteristic of the task, and any distinction between motivation and effort and its links to performance.
- How feedback is presented; especially goal-setting
- Ego-involvement (E.g. competition)
- Norm-referenced and self-referenced and,
- Informational or controlling
As fascinating quote is included in the paper from a meta-analysis by Cameron and Pierce (1994):
Rewards are detrimental only under a highly specified set of circumstances. That is, when subjects are offered a tangible reward (expected) that is delivered regardless of level of performance, [students] spend less time on task than control subjects once the reward is removed. The same condition has no effect on attitude.
I found a similar study from 2018 on the demotivational effect on retrospective rewards (E.g. that rewards have a negative impact on pupil attendance). Coe continues to provide more feedback variables:
- Positive or negative feedback
- Timing (immediate or delayed)
- General or focused
- Credibility (containing accurate information)
- Level of involvement
- Self-efficacy and self-esteem. Studies reveal that students with high self-esteem improved with positive feedback compared to those with low self-esteem (Ilgen et al, 1979).
- Attributions for success and failure
- Locus of control (Rotter, 1966); the differences between individuals and their expectations about the relationship between their own behaviour and the reinforcement they receive
- Achievement orientation and,
- Receptiveness and performance adequacy.
There is so much that teachers and school leaders can take away from reading this paper; content under each feedback variable is fascinating. If anything, I can now take my limited understanding of six types of feedback to 16!
Something for all school leaders to consider, is that written feedback (marking) is just one form, and that there are still limited experiments on feedback and performance over a long-period of time.
On the very last page, Coe provides the reader with a list of feedback factors which are determined by the task and its context as well as factors which may be altered (Bloom, 1979). They are a brilliant overview which I will share elsewhere…
Where feedback is accompanied by other forms of guidance or instruction it seems likely that the measurable effect of the feedback will be less than if these alternative aids to learning are not available (Coe, 2006).