Positive feedback in the classroom

Eleanore Hargreaves says that listening to children’s experiences of teacher feedback could make Assessment for Learning a positive tool for learning.

Teacher assisting pupils in classTeachers who practise Assessment for Learning (AfL) often believe that to give good feedback, they should:

  • tell pupils where they are in their learning (as though learning were linear)
  • tell pupils where they should be in their learning (as though curriculum content were relevant to pupils’ lives)
  • tell pupils how to get there (even though pupils are able to develop their own strategies).

My colleagues and I chose to look at AfL in a different way, by asking pupils how they saw ‘good’ feedback. One of our main findings was that pupils did not like being ‘told’ anything very much at all, and resisted teachers going “rah rah rah about full stops” (as one pupil, Mia, phrased it). The study (Inquiring into children’s experiences of teacher feedback: reconceptualising Assessment for Learning) found that pupils responded well to feedback when they felt the feedback-giver was respecting their autonomy as a learner – which, after all, is the founding principle of AfL itself.

The project involved a longitudinal study of nine children aged 9 to 10 years in a UK state primary school. I observed these children and filmed them in threes, twos or individually during literacy and numeracy lessons across two terms from January to July 2010. I showed them the video recordings of themselves later the same day, stopping at frequent intervals to ask them questions such as: What do you think the teacher meant there? How did you feel about her response? What did you think?

The children claimed that their learning was frustrated by overly directive feedback. This is illustrated in the following conversation that I held with Dave:

EH: Okay. So do you wish [the teacher] hadn’t given you an example?

Dave: ... If I ask for help, I need help, but most of the time I come up with stuff on my own.

EH: Yes. So how does that make you feel when she does it for you?

Dave: I’m not sure. Probably ... I’m not sure what it’s called, but someone has the idea, and you just write it down for them, it’s weird.

EH: You end up feeling like a ...

[Long pause]

Dave: Postman.

EH: Postman?

Dave: Yeah, because they have to deliver letters.

Likewise, pupil Laila told me that when the teacher kept repeating the same feedback:

It made me not listen and it was really annoying. I can do this, but you keep repeating it, actually distracting me instead of ... because I was told to think, and then ...

This was in keeping with Hattie and Timperley’s (2007) finding that cues and prompts rather than direct answers lead to longer lasting learning. Farhana told me that she found it more helpful to have to look up a spelling rather than having it spelt out for her. She commented: “You would remember how to spell it because you did it.” Likewise, Esther preferred the teacher to give her feedback using a question, because this provoked her to think more deeply for herself.

However, the children did say that their learning was supported by feedback reminder cues, even though they did not see much evidence of their effectiveness. Vijay, for example, engaged with me as follows, suggesting that teachers telling pupils ‘how to get there’ was not easy:

EH: You said every day for a year she’s been telling you, “Don’t forget your full stops,” something like that?

Vijay: Pretty much.

EH: It feels like that, anyway? What happens to you when she says that? What do you think or feel?

Vijay: I always feel like (sound of a plane plummeting).

EH: Oops. Yes.

Vijay: I always think, “Maybe I can do it that way tomorrow,” and I always forget overnight.

EH: You forget overnight?

Vijay: Yeah, my memory’s gone a bit bad, but it’s getting better. It’s coming back.

Finally, the children noticed that feedback provoked emotions which could interfere with or support learning. They did not see learning as something mechanical that happens in a logical way starting at A and ending at Z. They did not see good reasons why the curriculum contains the things it does. Being told where they were in their learning and what they needed to do to ‘get there’ was a relatively insignificant part of their motivation to learn. Their emotions, and their response to the teacher’s feelings, were far more crucial in how they reacted to any learning task.

Some of the children said that praise encouraged them to keep learning. Mia told me how she had received praise for acting on written feedback, which had encouraged her to check her feedback and take the desired action. However, a ‘performance orientation’ rather than a ‘learning orientation’ seemed evident among these children, who ended up longing for autonomy (Watkins, 2010). Dave claimed that he only knew his work was right because the teacher said so. Esther observed that, “If [teacher] knows I can do it, then I know I can do it.” Laila described feeling fear and panic when the teacher told her she had done something wrong. Aaron told me how negative feedback to his friend could affect his own and his friends’ learning. He said the other children “… kind of slow down because they’re so angry with her about [telling off] the other person.”

My suggestion is that AfL might most productively be conceptualised as a classroom conversation in which children as well as teachers assess how teacher feedback benefits children’s learning. This conversation would itself constitute a major contribution to their autonomous learning. It takes a brave teacher to really want to hear children’s voices, however, and a confident child to voice their genuine opinion. AfL was founded on the desire of educators to promote children’s learning autonomy – and through it, brave teachers and confident learners may be supported.

Eleanore Hargreaves is Senior Lecturer in Effective Learning and Teaching at the Institute of Education, University of London.

  1. Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The Power of Feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81–112.
  2. Watkins, C. (2010). Learning, Performance and Improvement. Research Matters(INSI), 34.

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