March 26th, 2013

Why Doesn’t Teacher Feedback Improve Student Performance?


Sometimes feedback leads to better performance, but not all the time and not as often as teachers would like, given the time and effort they devote to providing students feedback. It’s easy to blame students who seem interested only in the grade—do they even read the feedback? Most report that they do, but even those who pay attention to it don’t seem able to act on it—they make the same errors in subsequent assignments. Why is that?

Sadler, author of the article referenced below and an expert on how assessment can be used to improve learning, contends that “regardless of levels of motivation to learn, students cannot convert feedback statements into actions for improvement without sufficient working knowledge of some fundamental concepts.” (p. 537) Because they evaluate student work so regularly, teachers bring to the task a working knowledge of these concepts. Unfortunately, they provide feedback assuming students have the same knowledge, which Sadler contends they do not.

Before describing the necessary conceptual knowledge, Sadler spends time exploring the components of teacher feedback. Their feedback begins when teachers specify the nature of the task students are to complete—this “feedforward” includes descriptions of the assignment and the criteria that will be used to assess it. The criteria may be detailed, as they frequently are when rubrics are used.

The feedback on completed work contains the teacher’s overall assessment of the work. Usually this includes the grade and the rationale for the grade. Most teachers also provide advice as to how the work could be improved.

Whether it’s giving students instructions on how to complete an assignment or feedback on how well they completed it, Sadler says this feedback before and after the fact shares an important characteristic. “As one-way messages from the teacher to the student, they are essentially about telling, or disclosure. Yet despite the teachers’ best efforts to make the disclosure full, objective and precise, many students do not understand it appropriately because … they are not equipped to decode the statements properly.” (p. 539) Most teachers understand that how they deliver the feedback is very important, and so they spend time thinking about the best way to phrase the messages. Sadler counters, “Complementary attention should be directed to what students make of the feedback, rather than just its composition.” (p. 539)

In order for students to be able to act on feedback provided by the teacher, Sadler contends that they must develop appraisal expertise and that relies on knowledge of concepts in three areas: task compliance, quality, and criteria. Task compliance refers to whether the student does what the assignment requests. Haven’t we all read student answers, sometimes even good ones, that don’t address the question? It doesn’t make sense that a student would go to the effort to construct an answer that purposefully doesn’t answer the question. When confronted, students are often surprised and don’t seem to understand what the problem is. That means they did not understand the question or the task they have been asked to complete.

Quality refers to the ability to make holistic judgments that differentiate excellent work from work that is not. Sadler points out that quality is often difficult to define in the abstract but easy to see in examples. Teachers grade so much student work, the quality judgments are made easily. But when a student compares his answer with that of a fellow student who received more points, the student frequently objects that his answer is just as good. He made the same points but didn’t get as much credit. The issues here involve quality and the student’s inability to see what distinguished the colleague’s answer from his own.

Some criteria teachers use in assessing student work are simple and straightforward. Either the spelling is correct or it is not. But most criteria are considerably more abstract, according to Sadler. He uses “coherence” as an example. “How well do students understand this concept? Can they recognize low and high levels of it in particular works? Do they effectively recognize this property but use different terminology for it (such as ‘linked together’)? Can they sense and work towards building coherence into their own productions while construction is under way?” (p. 545)

Reference: Sadler, D. R. (2010). Beyond feedback: Developing student capability in complex appraisal. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 35 (5), 535-550.

Excerpted from The Teaching Professor, 26.2(2012): 4.

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  • Colin

    In a sense, we're talking about "user-centered" feedback — making sure instructional advice considers the knowledge and goals of the student.

    At the same time, writing is a communication tool, so it's important for students to understand how their writing is impacting their audience. During assessment, I find it helpful to simply respond as a reader — what is clear to me? what is difficult to understand?

    Of course, there is always a danger of writing too much. Other research on writing feedback suggests focusing on just one or two things for students to work on in their next revision. So the most important thing may be prioritizing feedback and making it actionable.

    I've compiled some other great research on writing feedback here:

  • karen mahon

    There's no question that feedback is necessary, though true that it may not be sufficient. Feedback alone may not result in a learner's skill improving. I think that feedback, paired with adaptive curriculum, is the solution to help most learners. Great article, thanks.

  • RAMobley

    Very interesting article. From a student perspective, it can be challenging understanding instructor feedback. From an instructor perspective it appears that students aren't receiving or reading the feedback.

    Especially in an online environment, more needs to be done in this area. More examples given and clearer instructions could help.

  • Thanks for raising an important question and giving some hints for solving the issue. I really like the comment about "user-centered-feedback". What i always considered important in feedback is to ask the student what he/she does with the feedback. What are important aspects from his/her point of view, what will be changed. You can also go a step further and ask for the next steps that are resulting from his/her point of view.

  • T Day

    Mostly I believe student feedback is less productive than it should be because the wrong people are asking the questions. In our "organization" (loosely used in most academic situations), Administration creates the questions and forms without input from instructors. The questions are designed to be used as salary evaluation points, not to assist instructors in any way. I always recommend my students use, instead, where they can write anything they feel might be useful and where all students can see what has been said in the past and reinforce or correct advice.

    The folks in administration are too busy building empires to be bothered with improving student performance or instructor value.

  • Dylan Wiliam

    Almost all the published research on feedback is a waste of time, because hardly any studies take into account the reaction of the recipient of the feedback. Most studies try to answer questions like "should feedback be immediate or delayed?" when the real question should be "what will the recipient do with the feedback?" The same feedback given to one student might cause her to increase effort, while to another, might cause him to give up. Only by knowing the student can the teacher make these kinds of judgement calls, and only when the student trusts the teacher will the student risk the investment of effort needed to improve.

  • Randall Hughes

    I hand-write comments on papers for my English composition students and encourage them to ask me about any comments that they don't understand. Near the end of one semester, after not asking about any of my comments, one of my students finally admitted that my cursive writing amounted to "just so many meaningless squiggles on the page." She'd never learned to write let alone read cursive! So much for all the feedback I'd written on her five papers. I fear a growing number of future students will suffer the same "handicap."

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