Feedback: How do we know if it makes a difference?

We know that feedback is potentially powerful in its effects on learners. We know far less about how the information given to learners by peers and teachers, in the form of verbal or written comments, actually translates into learning gains. We have a general understanding that learners need to engage with and take action upon feedback information to inform learning, but what does this process of feedback ‘uptake’ entail, and what processes are most effective?

In their seminal work Black and Wiliam (2001) compared the typical classroom to a black box, in which some inputs from the outside flow in, certain outputs follow, but what is actually happening inside remains unclear. In other words, what causes changes in student performance and learning or in teacher attitudes and behaviours – and under what conditions, has yet to be explicated. Black and Wiliam (2001) attempted to crack the black box open by describing the practice of formative assessment, which, as they suggested, was at the crux of effective teaching.

Since their publication the field has made substantial progress examining characteristics of teachers, students, and contexts that made formative assessment most beneficial for all involved in the process. We also now realize that feedback is situated at the very core of formative assessment, and despite substantial research into ways in which feedback may promote student improvement, our understanding of the uptake of feedback by students is lacking. How do students interpret feedback? How do they respond to it? Can we map specific forms of feedback to student cognitive, behavioural, and affective responses? Without knowing the answers to these important questions, the actual processes by which feedback supports learning are largely hidden inside a ‘black box’ of its own. Think of a Matryoshka nesting doll. With our program of research we will attempt to crack open a series of nested black boxes.

So how do we plan on doing it?

The ways in which feedback supports learning requires us to look at its processing through three complementary lenses. First, what are the affective dimensions of feedback processing? That is, what is the emotional impact of engaging with feedback, and how do different emotional responses have an impact on the potential for feedback uptake? Second, what are the cognitive dimensions of feedback processing? This requires us to consider processes such as attention to feedback information and subsequent recall of that information when we have a chance to enact it. Third, what are the behavioural dimensions of feedback processing? What actions support effective uptake of feedback, and how can we capture evidence of the impact of these actions?

There is a wide research literature on the use instructional feedback, but the vast majority of studies employ self-report measures such as surveys or focus groups to assess how students use feedback to inform learning. The tools, methods, and measures from Psychology and Cognitive Science offer us new ways to understand the processing and implementation of feedback. For example, methods such as eye-tracking enable us to understand attentional processes when engaging with feedback in real-time, and measuring the electrical activity of the brain through EEG methods give us the opportunity to track the impact of various factors on the processing of feedback.

It is within this context that we are delighted to launch this Emerging Field Group following the awarding of funding from the European Association for Research into Learning and Instruction and The Jacobs Foundation.

The group consists of 24 researchers from 16 different Universities in 11 countries, across North America, Europe, and Australasia. Over the next two years, are aims are:

1. To develop new research paradigms that can advance research in the area of instructional feedback, through bringing together a network of researchers in education, psychology, and cognitive science, to encourage the cross-fertilisation of ideas from different domains of inquiry.

2. To conduct pilot studies and share data drawn from these new research paradigms in order to underpin future research and provide initial description of the affective, cognitive, and behavioural mechanisms governing effective feedback processing.

We will also be sharing our work and seeking feedback from the broader community of educational researchers and practitioners. We are excited to crack this black box open.

By Naomi Winstone and Anastasiya Lipnevich

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