Excerpts from my outbox: Where are all the good readings about feedback?

Question: Do you have any recommendations for good (i.e. accessible, useful, reasonable) readings on feedback?

Answer: First I’ll get the self-recommendations out of the way.

I did a blog series about feedback a few years ago. It’s definitely idiosyncratic, but it might be more readable than some of the academic stuff that I’m about to recommend. Also, there are some pretty detailed case studies as “chapters” in this series, so that might be helpful:

Series On Feedback and Revision

I really do have a lot of writing scattered around about feedback, and I can’t help but recommend more of my own stuff.

In terms of readings…well, I think honestly most stuff is not very good. If you end up reading some of my writing on this you’ll find out why I think that is. In short, I just don’t believe in feedback as a teaching concept. Conceptually it’s far too broad a category. Feedback can only (I think) be successfully studied in lab conditions that artificially restrict interactions between students and learning materials — so we end up hearing that feedback is very important, but really there’s very little useful to say about how or why. In teaching, feedback is constant but not always productive for teaching.

Dylan Wiliam is the standard recommendation, though I feel his notion of “formative assessment” isn’t much better than “feedback” in terms of covering a huge amount of teaching territory. (It does emphasize that student work should be used to impact teaching, but remains an incredibly broad category.) That said, I was definitely influenced by his piece in the NCTM research handbook, which he reworked later into a series of books — this is his Embedded Formative Assessment. I think the most useful things in this book are some of the ideas of specific formative assessment techniques. It’s still pretty jargony. I don’t love it, but it’s probably the best thing out there.

Valerie Shute wrote a long literature review. That’s on the researchy side of things. Again, I think it suffers from all the challenges of trying to organize a vast and unwieldy teaching concept, but I do find it useful as evidence that the research literature is a mess.

Both Wiliam and Shute cite Kluger & DeNisi’s meta-analysis and reviews of the feedback literature, because they did a great job underscoring how much of a mess the literature was/is. They’re the ones that found that roughly 1/3 of studies found that feedback had a negative impact on learning.

Another canonical citation is Ruth Butler’s experiment with gradeless comments — though honestly in this day and age we should be wary of psych studies with eye-popping results that haven’t been carefully replicated, and I don’t know if this has been. That’s just my editorial. Raymond wrote up the paper in a very nice way.

If I’m thin on readings that I haven’t written, that’s largely because I grew very unhappy with the dominant ways of talking about feedback. Once you take the lesson from Wiliam that kids don’t learn from feedback — they learn from thinking about feedback, or using feedback to do something else — then there’s no reason to think that grades or comments are any more “feedback” than your next classroom activity.

The thing that does matter is (a) figuring out what kids know and (b) crafting activities that are responsive to what kids know. If feedback is good for anything, it would have to be good for that. And that really has nothing to do with grades or comments on pages.

But in some ways, it’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle. People already think of feedback as comments/grades. So I don’t really know what to do with most of the existing writing about feedback, because I don’t know if I really want to talk about feedback as it’s usually defined at all.



One thought on “Excerpts from my outbox: Where are all the good readings about feedback?

  1. Thanks Michael an excellent summary of the problem with feedback research in education. It gets even more laughable when so called guru’s like John Hattie present their take on feedback.

    Your insight that feedback is too general goes to another level in Hattie’s work, he includes basically anything that is vaguely feedback. For example one study he used has background elevator music played in a PE class to see if it reduces disruptive behaviour. Another uses money to reward students who remember certain things.

    He combines all these studies into one effect size statistic to represent feedback.

    for those interested


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