The English Department's Blog

Apr 15

Improving Pupil Feedback

This blog post supplements the mini-INSET which I delivered at the beginning of term. I hope it fleshes out my thoughts more fully and points you towards the experts whose ideas I have so shamelessly cribbed for the purposes of this presentation. If you’d like a link to my presentation, you can find it here.



I was really inspired to experiment more fully with pupil feedback and critique by the work of Ron Berger and David Didau. Ron Berger is an elementary school teacher from the USA who has done some amazing work in cultivating what he describes as an ‘ethic of excellence.’ He has written a book under that same name which I can heartily recommend: it’s a compelling argument for his philosophy, and written in prose unencumbered by the usual jargon of educational theory.


Austin’s Butterfly

An excellent introduction to Ron Berger’s work is this short video about Austin’s Butterfly. If you can look beyond positive attitude and emotional sincerity which distinguish our transatlantic cousins from us bitter, chilly Brits, you’ll find a brilliant example of the ‘ethic of excellence’ which Berger espouses. I have showed this video to my Year 8 and Year 10 groups, and both were impressed by the progress which Austin made over the various stages of his drafts, and, in the case of the Year 10s, seemed to encourage the boys to be much more thorough in their re-drafting.


You can find the original images of each stage of Austin’s drafting process here. When I showed the video to my classes we spent some time discussing what we could learn from looking at how Austin had progressed between each stage of the drafting process, in particular, that he seemed to go backwards between stages 2 and 3, and that stage 4 represents a synthesis of what has been best about his previous two drafts. We talked about how this reminds us that progress is not always easy or even linear, and discussed the sort of specific feedback which would be needed at each stage of the process.


Why isn’t all student feedback this effective?

It was this blog post by David Didau that articulated a great many of the unvoiced 

Helpful feedback?

suspicions which had been lurking in my mind.  He presents the “statistic” (the inverted commas are out of deference to Ben Goldacre), drawing on the work of Graham Nuthall, suggesting that although 80% of the feedback a student receives comes from his peers, 50% of that is not helpful. (if you think this is all getting a bit Anchorman, then I agree!) Hence, it’s vital that we start getting it right.

David Didau suggests the following reasons why peer feedback may not achieve what we want it to:

“even when students’ feedback isn’t wrong, it can be pretty bland and meaningless.”

I agree, but I think there are a few other points to take into consideration:

General Feedback: in my experience students often rely on seemingly helpful comments such as ‘you need to write in more detail‘ or ‘use PEEL more‘. These sound good, and mimic the sort of language I use when teaching, but they can leave the recipient of the advice all at sea, not knowing what sort of ‘detail’ to include, or how to fit ‘PEEL’ into their writing.

Using unhelpful criteria: as an English teacher, much of my life is governed by all-powerful ‘AO’s and some of the most opaque mark schemes you’ll find anywhere. Given that rooms full of experienced teachers often cannot agree on whether a piece of work is operating at the level of ‘evaluation’ or ‘analysis’ (words used by AQA to differentiate between Band 6 and Band 5 work in AS-level English, and which seem to me to be lazily cribbed from Bloom), how should we expect a student to do so successfully? Even when put into ‘pupil-friendly’ language, assessment objectives, or grade descriptors, or whatever, remain abstract and general.

Untimely: in the past, I’ve tended to use feedback at the beginning and end of a piece of work, sharing or commenting on ideas at the beginning, and offering some sort of formative assessment at the end. These are all well and good, but if our aim is for the feedback to have some effect on the work itself, then these can’t cut the mustard. At GCSE, where essays may be knocking on for a thousand words, how can I expect the person giving feedback to be able to go into sufficient detail to make a real difference? Equally, if I’d spent ages on something and someone came to me and said, ‘Right, you need to change this, and this and this,’ wouldn’t I be justified in feeling a bit deflated, especially as I might be rather proud of the work I’d produced, or simply overwhelmed by the scale of the task before me?


How can we make feedback better?

Giving good feedback is something which needs to be taught. As a teacher I’ve spent my career learning how to offer advice to young people at different stages of their lives and educations so that they can make progress. Expecting a fourteen-year-old to be able to identify specific strengths and weaknesses without any sort of guidance is, put politely, unrealistic.

How to teach feedback:

  1. Model it: put an example of a student’s work on the board and critique it together, as a class, identifying good qualities and points which need re-working.
  2. Model examples of good work, so that everyone can agree what they’re looking for.

The Principles of Effective Feedback

Didau draws on Ron Bergen(dy) and argues that good feedback is characterised by being:

  • Helpful
  • Specific
  • Honest (but kind) (the emphasis of this last I have reversed from Didau’s original)

The principle of being helpful is that all feedback should be linked to a specific outcome, a goal linked to the agreed focuses of what makes work good. For example, simply saying, ‘Begin this sentence with an adverb’ is less helpful than saying ‘Begin this sentence with an adverb to create a bit more drama and tension’ helps the recipient of the advice understand that they are learning something which can be applied in other situations. If you understand why you’re doing something, you’re not only more likely to do it, but you’re more likely to do it again like that in future.

Specific feedback is just that: it picks up on specifics which need to be reworked. It’s very important to distinguish critiques from target-setting. Targets are long-term, broad and can be applied to many different situations. Critiques respond to the actual piece of work in front of us.

The last characteristic of good feedback is that it is honest (but kind). Didau follows Bergen(dy) in emphasising kindness over honesty, but I prefer it this way around. If someone is doing a poor piece of work, they need to know, but they need to be told in a way that will encourage them to do it better next time. Again, teaching children how to deliver this sort of feedback is important, and will equip them with a very useful skill for life beyond the craggy walls of our school.

Returning to dear old Austin, it’s very important that feedback tries to solve problems one step at a time. Austin’s advisers told him first to focus on the shape of the wings, then to add the pattern and then to add colour. In my work I often stress a specific aspect of writing that I want boys to give each other feedback on, such as how an essay is organised, or the quality of descriptive writing. Once they feel that they’ve mastered that, then they can go on and address the next stage of the task. This can help avoid the situation (and it’s one I encounter all too often with my own work) of pupils spending ages doing the things they’re already good at, and hoping that their weaknesses will look after themselves.

Feedback is only as good as what’s done with it

I’m a singer, and in the context of a singing lesson I will often be pulled up and given a specific critique of my performance by my teacher, abiding by all the principles I’ve outlined above. However, if I dutifully take a pencil, annotate my score and then crack on with the next phrase, there’s very little chance that my teacher’s critique will have any effect. In fact, it’s highly likely I’ll open my score a few days later and the cryptic scribble above a word or note will mean little or nothing to me. What I need to do is have another go, attempt the phrase again so try to put the critique into practice, and to keep doing so until I’ve achieved what I need to do to make the music work properly.

Returning to the idea of timely feedback, I’ve tried to get more frequent, smaller-scale critiques into my lessons, intervening while a piece of work is underway, so that students are more open to the idea of making changes.

Lately, I’ve tried to build time into my lessons to allow students to re-draft their work, focusing on immediate and specific responses to the critiques they’ve received. Y8 boys in particular found this helpful, especially as it made them more confident that the work they were doing was ‘good.’ It takes time, quite a lot of it, and may not be appropriate for each piece of work they do. However, re-drafting is a great way to demonstrate progress, and for students to reflect on what made a second (or third, or fourth) draft better than the first, which, in turn, helps with target setting

The benefits of this approach are manifold:

  • Students submit better work
  • You spend less time correcting mistakes and more time praising excellent achievement
  • The focus of assessment becomes formative, not just summative
  • Students become more self-reliant. (This may seem paradoxical, as they are more  closely managed through the drafting process, but the improvements come from within, and the process of re-drafting encourages them to see work as something which they can transform, rather than something which is merely submitted to a teacher for us to pass awesome judgement upon.

Pitfalls, problems and the like (after Christopher Smart)

My cat Jeoffry

Differentiation: critiques and re-drafting are obviously useful for boys who struggle with work: it gives them concrete advice and opportunities to improve. Hence, pairing up a bright boy with a weaker one has obvious benefits for the latter, but what of the former?

That’s where I’ve found I need to be flexible and a bit creative in how I organise my groups. Sometimes I’ll pair up boys of different abilities, but it’s just as important to pair up bright boys together. Doing this shifts the focus of the critique, moving away from immediate corrections towards emphasising an academic debate about how one has interpreted or presented an idea. This can yield some very high-level discussions, and offer opportunities for boys to practice presenting their ideas robustly.

Planning work:

A blooming, colourful taxonomy

It’s pretty obvious that this approach to pupil feedback is best suited to open-ended tasks where students are producing original work. If all you’re doing is giving them a worksheet or asking them to memorise a list of vocab, then there’s little opportunity to improve or make meaningful progress.  I’ve found that tasks which draw on skills up at the higher end of Bloom’s taxonomy (Analytical or Evaluative tasks) are those which are most likely to have a real benefit for the boys.

Assessment: As above, this is a good opportunity for students to demonstrate progress, not just take a snapshot of attainment. I intend to experiment with assessing how well a student has responded to feedback as well as assessing the level of their final piece. This, I hope, will be a way of rewarding those boys who can never hope to attain glittering grades, but whose efforts are nonetheless considerable.


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