March 26th, 2013

Why Doesn’t Teacher Feedback Improve Student Performance?

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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.