Improving Teacher Feedback To Students

Not too long ago I was at school, and came around the corner to find several students crowded around one kid’s cell phone screen.  They were laughing…so naturally…I assumed the worst—that they were sharing something salacious and titillating.  I yelled, “Freeze!  No one move a muscle!” I confiscated the phone with the students looking at me in confusion.    I soon discovered why.


I looked at the screen expecting something profane or pornographic.  But what I found surprised me…and got me thinking.  It turned out that these students were actually looking at a free app that one of them had downloaded called K-D Calc.  It’s designed to provide feedback on how well you play Call of Duty, Battlefield, Halo, or any other multiplayer series game.  It provides stats that help you track your progress and see where you can improve with a simple ratio calculator that allows you to quickly see your win-loss ratio, detailed historical statistics, and links to a number of YouTube channel resources to help improve your game.


This is the world that students and their teachers live in—a world permeated by feedback.  We always seem to know exactly how we are doing.  The treadmill at the gym, for example, tells us our current pace, how many calories we have burned, and how much further we have to run to meet our workout goal. We get regular updates on our data and Internet usage throughout the month.  The GPS on our phone or built in to our car tells us where we are, where we are headed, and delivers timely step-by-step instructions.  Should we happen to take a wrong turn, a GPS immediately makes a quick adjustment, and delivers modified directions to get us back on track.


But in schools, there is much room for improvement in the ways in which we seek to provide students with meaningful feedback.  In the early grades, teacher feedback seems to serve as verification that someone cares enough about our work to read and think about it.  But feedback should be much more than that.  It should match specific descriptions and suggestions.  It should be just-in-time and just-for-me information delivered to students when and where it will do the most good (Brookhart, 2008).


Dr. Judy Willis is a neurologist turned classroom teacher.  She now works with Edutopia and lectures around the country to promote the incorporation of neuroscience in classroom learning.  She has spoken often about the feedback and scaffolding that are needed to support students’ in difficult learning tasks, and posits that we might look towards video gafeedbackmes as models for our classrooms.  After all, gamers are making errors 80% of the time.  But, games give hints, cues, and other feedback so players’ brains have enough expectation of reward to persevere.  Why couldn’t a classroom feedback model follow suit.  Games provide timely, corrective, and progress-acknowledging feedback that allows the students to correct mistakes, build understanding progressively, and recognize their incremental progress.


Dr. Willis insists that good games give players opportunities for experiencing intrinsic reward at frequent intervals when they apply the effort and practice the specific skills they need to get to the next level. Games do not require mastery of all tasks and the completion of the whole game.  Instead, the player gains points or tokens for small incremental progress and ultimately the powerful feedback of the success of progressing to the next level (Willis, 2011).


John Hattie publishes very large books that put together several people’s research from around the world. A substantial amount of what he has aggregated focuses on improving the use of feedback in schools.  Hattie (2009) states that educators need to keep three questions in mind when it comes to their students:  “Where are they going?” “How are they going?” and “Where to next?” (p. 37).


In other words, the feedback we provide to students needs to go beyond the normal grades, punitive action, and occasional rewards that we usually offer in the classroom.  Instead, educators should take a lesson or two from steady, flowing feedback embedded in the apps and games that our students use so habitually.


As a kid, I remember one of my teachers in high school, Mr. Jefferies, who always went to great lengths to grade our essays the same night that we handed them in.  He said that he wanted to be able to discuss our performance with us…before the relevance of the assignment ‘leaked out of our brains.  Other researchers agree with him on the sense of urgency with which educators should seek to communicate with their students.  They insist that in or for feedback to be effective, it must first be timely.  By timely, we mean that learning is enhanced based on when feedback is given and how often it is used.  According to Gee (2007), human beings learn best when feedback and information are given ‘just in time’ (when they put it to use) and ‘on demand’ (when they feel they need it).  Like other researchers, Gee acknowledges that the powerful in feedback built into video games.  In a game, a person makes predictions, choices, and takes action while simultaneously receiving a steady flow of feedback that proves helpful for future decision-making.   Like games, teachers can explore ways to provide students feedback when they need it, and…to give them feedback designed to increase their chance of success.


As educators strive to improve their feedback practices, they can better address those three crucial questions for their practice and students… “Where are they going?” “How are they going?” and “Where to next?” (p. 37).   The real key, however, is not seeing feedback as something that we provide to students…but rather as a dynamic and timely way of improving their learning.










Brookhart, S. M. (2008). How to give effective feedback to your students. Alexandria, Va: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.


Dean, C. B., & Marzano, R. J. (2012). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement. Alexandria, Va: ASCD.


Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.


Willis, j. (2011, April 14).  A Neruologist Makes the Case for the Video Game Model as a Learning Tool.  Edutopia.   http://www.edutopia.org/blog/video-games-learning-student-engagement-judy-willis


One Comment

  1. After reading the article I’m exciting about sharing with teachers in two of my Small Learning Communities. Feedback allows studentt to have more responsibility of their learning.

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