The Cartography of Learning The core principles of effective feedback

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

— Robert Frost

The travelling analogy when it comes to giving feedback is an apt one. I first came across it when reading Dylan Wiliam on formative assessment. Wiliam writes that effective teaching has three key principles at its core: “finding out where learners are in their learning, finding out where they are going, and finding out how to get there”. This is what I like to refer to as the cartography of learning.

John Hattie agrees. According to Hattie, feedback “refers to the process of securing information enabling change through adjustment or calibration of efforts in order to bring a person closer to a well-defined goal.” Not many teachers would dispute the essential role that these adjustments, calibrations and course corrections play in successful learning, yet teachers habitually view giving feedback as an onerous and often thankless task. This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy particularly if teachers are made to follow ill-conceived feedback policies that focus on the gathering of evidence of feedback rather than on its effectiveness in enabling progress.

This article is an attempt to explore what makes feedback effective and therefore where schools should focus their policies, which should encourage teachers to view giving feedback as an integral part of teaching, not as an additional intervention.

Make explicit your learning intentions and criteria for success

We shouldn’t assume that our idea of what success looks like is shared by our students. As novices, it is likely that our students have a rudimentary, low-resolution grasp of where they are going, whereas teachers can see it in high definition thanks to their knowledge and experience.

This means that outcomes need to be well articulated so that students can visualise the destination and begin to make course adjustments to get there. We need to do this clearly and explicitly, defining our learning intentions —the destination— in high resolution by marking out an audacious X on the map. Having painted a vivid picture of what success looks like, we then need to refer back to it frequently in our teaching.

In the wrong circumstances, culture or climate, we might feel that covering content is more important, leaving no room for anything else, but it is critical to understand that feedback is only effective if students know where they need to go, otherwise our directions lack a crucial point of reference for the requisite triangulation.

Deliver feedback regularly in the run up to summative assessments, not after them

Teachers often feel they need to provide extensive, individualised feedback after every task. In reality, the feedback we provide will need to vary depending on the stage of learning and on the task. For example, teachers are habitually encouraged to give detailed feedback after a summative end of unit test or end of year exam. In most cases, this is pretty pointless, as inevitably the unit of study has concluded and there is little the learner can do to alter the result.

It makes much more sense to give feedback regularly during the learning process, prior to the end of unit of study, in order to modify teaching and learning activities accordingly and thus have a better shot at improving student attainment. Formative assessment is only formative if it happens during the learning, not after it.

Focus on how feedback is received, rather than how it is given

Research shows that praise does have benefits to interpersonal relationships, which may indirectly affect the feedback that is given, but it doesn’t show any direct impact on achievement. Teachers often believe that lavishing praise is essential to provide the necessary encouragement and motivation for students to continue achieving. However, research suggests that the belief that improving student self-concept through praise will automatically lead to higher achievement is flawed. In fact, the converse is true: achievement has a much larger effect on student self-concept than praise.

Hattie writes that students tend to be future focused, and that they can find critique “unnecessary, lengthy, personal, and hurtful”. Students are sensitive to the climate in which criticism is given, so teachers need to focus on delivering feedback that does not dwell on negatives and focuses on the positive. Another interpretation of this is that we would be better served by establishing a positive and friendly climate in which the feedback is received, rather than attempting to engender such climate through congratulatory feedback.

Provide feedback that presents the learner with a roadmap to achievable challenges

Active involvement of students in their own learning is key to achievement. As Wiliam suggests, “feedback should cause thinking” and it should generate “more work for the recipient that the donor”. With these two principles in mind, we ought to focus our efforts on providing feedback engages the learner just above their current level of achievement by setting achievable challenges that are related to learning intentions and success criteria that we have already shared with students.

We should not be afraid to stimulate a degree of cognitive dissonance between where the student self-assesses herself to be and where we would like her to be. Providing this cognitive dissonance is not too large (or too pointlessly small), it should motivate the student to strive to make the leap to the next step in their path to achievement.

In addition, if, as argued above, teachers worry less about students’ emotional reaction to feedback, they should become freer to think about their feedback as an integral part of a sequence of lessons, rather than as a remedial addition. Informal feedback should happen continuously and should be woven seamlessly into our teaching. Formal feedback should be given regularly to cause students to act and think about their own learning. Giving feedback and teaching therefore should not be considered as two discrete activities.

Consider alternative ways to give feedback

As suggested above, feedback policies sometimes read as if those who wrote them were more concerned with leaving behind evidence of feedback than with its effectiveness in improving learning. While many of us are guilty of writing lengthy what-went-wells and even-better-ifs, the fact is that students often find teachers’ lengthy comments irrelevant to their moving forward.

As teachers, we should not be afraid to make professional judgements about what kind of feedback is required when. For example, often novices need corrective feedback based on their content knowledge —e.g. this was correct, but this wasn’t. Attempts at lengthy diagnostic feedback at the novice stage are likely to generate a huge deal of work for the teacher and very little benefit for the student. However, as learners develop greater expertise in the subject, they will need feedback that helps to support self-regulation and conceptualisation.

While individualisation and personalisation may seem laudable aims, the truth is that students are more alike than they are different. Dedicating some lesson time after a task to provide general feedback —including opportunities for peer feedback— may be as effective or more effective than attempting to leave individual feedback in writing. This lightening of the workload, in addition to increasing teacher wellbeing, may release —perhaps counterintuitively— time to spend on those students who would actually benefit from a one-to-one approach to feedback.

These are just some initial thoughts about feedback. Your thoughts and considerations would be very welcome.

Further reading

Hattie, J, 2013. Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn. 1. Routledge.

Wiliam, D, 2011. Embedded Formative Assessment. 1. Solution Tree Press.

The Education Endowment Foundation: Teaching & Learning Toolkit

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