“Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”
Feedback is the perfect opportunity to show your commitment to those who matter most: your students.
It’s also the easiest thing to get wrong. Done badly, it can backfire with unintended consequences.
Even Winston Churchill, as the quotation below illustrates, did not like being told.
“Personally I’m always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught.”
When giving feedback, the best teachers tread very softly.
I’d like to focus on some of the things I learned – often the hard way – when I taught Maths.
Firstly, I was aware that written and face-to-face feedback are two very different animals.
Let’s begin with one-to-one in-person feedback.
Pick your moment
Like comedy, feedback is all about … timing.
There’s a period of forgetting after anything, so immediate feedback works wonders, especially when it’s good news.
Sometimes, however, it’s best to let the dust settle.
A cooling off period is required.
We made a similar point in our last blog, which was about The best ways to involve parents in homework.
Different strokes for different folks
You know in your gut to treat pupils differently. It’s not a matter of favouritism. It’s human nature.
One pupil loves public praise; another would wilt on the spot.
So much of teaching is about working out what makes each pupil tick.
This isn’t always easy to get right, but it’s clear as day when you do.
Feedback begins with empathy for the learner
We all struggle with criticism.
Learning shouldn’t be about feeling like you’re falling short all the time.
For too many, this is how school feels, and feedback consolidates their view that school life is a litany of failures.
Shared goals are the great motivator
As we wrote in our last blog: “Emphasise common ground from the off. We’re all pulling at the same end of the rope.
“We all want young people to succeed. And young or old, pupil, parent or teacher, we all need encouragement.
“Praise and positivity go a long way.”
Tone of voice
Sometimes, in their keenness to get things right and get results, teachers’ voices betray their frustration.
There is no separating emotion from teaching, but a calm, considered tone suits feedback best.
Tone of voice matters. For some pupils it’s a barometer of their own performance. They keenly listen to gauge how pleased you are with how they’ve done.
In a much-cited study by psychologist Albert Mehrabian, tone of voice accounted for 38% of a listener’s assessment of the speaker’s feelings.
Body language accounted for 55%.
The words themselves? A mere 7%.
Keep this in mind.
KISS – keep it simple, stupid
Clarity and concision go a long way. Avoid cognitive overload.
There’s only so much students – or indeed we as adults – can take in one conversation.
Think about the half-time pep talk from the coach in football or netball. They know to pick out two or three salient points and make them stick.
This is even true of written feedback, which I’ll soon get onto.
Some students misremember. They’re selective. They hear only the negative.
This is often true of pupils with mental health issues or low self-esteem.
It’s great to start with what they did well, but watch out for the word “but”. “And” is gentler when “but” raises alarm bells for those more sensitive to criticism. You could say:
“I love the pains you took with your graphs and next time you’ll remember the key.”
When you have those difficult conversations
Let’s say after a child has struggled with a piece of work, emphasise how far they’ve come.
Foster a growth mindset. Get enthused about what they are doing right.
Take pains to remind them of all the things they couldn’t do a month or a year earlier.
“It’s not always people who start out the smartest who end up the smartest.”
Professor Carole Dweck
I’d begin with this: don’t mark substandard work which has not had sufficient time taken over it.
I made this mistake a few times in the early days, until an older, wiser colleague put me straight.
It saved me hours, if not weeks in the long run.
Do you have to correct every mistake?
Be selective. Build safety into a task. Allow them to focus on certain skills in isolation, free from judgement or your red pen.
Where should the ink go?
Lots of ticks set a positive tone, and highlight what students are getting right: above the correct use of key words or technical terms or relevant quotations, for example.
Refine marking symbols, as we said in Top ten time-saving tips for teachers:
“Train your pupils early on. Explain the rationale. Make the most of mark schemes, assessment criteria and AOs. Reinforce this with posters. It makes sense to look at what colleagues have done in the past, and therefore what symbols pupils are used to and know well.”
Be specific with your praise.
Avoid clichés such as “good effort”, which students filter out. Better to highlight where their effort has gone: “Really enjoyed this, Mike. You’ve worked especially well on …”
Addressing the pupils by name seems warmer and far less impersonal, and yet so few teachers do this.
SMART targets – specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely actionable steps – move things forward and ensure clarity.
It’s worth saying that Milk (My Interactive Learning Kit) allows you to quickly share links to answers, model essays, AOs, checklists, and the like.
The teacher can use the comments box to give feedback, individually or to the whole class.
This allows for cutting and pasting (rather than writing the same thing on 30+ exercise books).
For more on “How to make the most of Milk (My Interactive Learning Kit)”, click here.
Practice makes better
Give the student the chance to redo work, or practise the same skills with other exercises.
Mindful repetition leads to mastery.
If they have struggled, give them a chance to get back on the bike as soon as possible.
And if they’ve done well …
Tell parents how happy you are
We ring to complain, but how much better to finish the week with a couple of happy phone calls home.
Younger pupils love this, and while older students may feign indifference, they’ll welcome the credit when it comes to bargaining for their latest tech purchase.
We all need Brownie points once in a while.
Regular, rigorous feedback works wonders.
And how they’ve done the homework is feedback for you.
Don’t forget that Milk enables students to rank the difficulty of each homework, allowing you to identify problems early on.
Let’s face it, if no one understood this week’s homework, then perhaps it’s time to return to the lesson plan.
Mike Dowling and the team at Milk
There are no quick fixes in education but at least Milk makes feedback easy and immediate.
“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”