Nicola Walsh notes that feedback facilitates student learning

What exerts the greatest influence on learners and makes a difference when we teach children? Feedback is the teacher’s individual response to a learner upon completion of a task; and its positive influence on students has been well documented.

As early as 1924, Sidney L. Pressey – a leading psychologist on human behaviour at the Ohio State University – invented a teaching machine that administered multiple-choice questions to students with the learners not being able to progress until they selected the right answer.

Pressey recognised that learning took place when feedback was offered in the form of the correct answer. Later in the 1940s, American psychologist and social philosopher B. F. Skinner recognised the value of feedback, and advertised his teaching machine under the banner ‘Reinforcement for the right answer is immediate.’

Unfortunately, its use was short-lived as it was cumbersome and expensive, and required the administrative effort of a teacher. Today, computers are doing much the same thing. Instant feedback reaps rewards.

Research in 2011 by the Sutton Trust in the UK revealed that of 34 factors considered feedback has a very high effect on learners. Recently, the University of Melbourne’s Professor John Hattie attempted a visible measure of ‘what has the greatest effect on student learning?’ Topping his list is feedback.

Hattie suggests that with effective feedback, a learner can gain more than a year’s learning. But he cautions that “feedback is one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement but this impact can be either positive or negative. So we need to ensure it is used positively if it is to have the greatest benefit.”

Oliver Twist received some negative feedback when he famously said: “Please Sir, I want some more” when he asked for more gruel.

Instead of more gruel, he received a blow to the head from his teacher.

Maybe we all have memories of a teacher whose feedback was detrimental to our progress but let’s dwell on the positives.

Positive feedback is the communication of praise, constructive criticism or advice to a learner in the form of spoken, written or non-verbal interaction. And it is common in schools in a variety of forms.

Questions are essential. Oliver asked a question and received feedback. Teachers ask questions to ascertain the understanding of students while students question the teacher for clarification. Questioning is a useful tool to generate feedback but the most established form of feedback in schools are the grades provided by the teacher.

The marking of exercise books is a daily and onerous task. Good teachers realise the benefits and complete it without delay. Without this form of feedback, how are learners to know if their efforts to record their learning are accurate or more importantly, inaccurate?

Moreover, to enable teachers to plan their teaching to match the capability of students, teachers must grade the exercise books.

When a teacher comments ‘try again,’ it means the educator has recognised that the student hasn’t fully understood the lesson. Conversely, pages full of correct work indicate that the tasks set lack challenge and are too easy. Where the teaching is well matched, there is a balance of errors and success.

By monitoring the feedback of the entire class, a teacher can seek information about the effectiveness of the teaching methods. When errors occur across a class of students, the teacher must rethink the approach. So marking offers feedback to the teacher too regarding the quality of his or her teaching as well comprehension by the learners. Grading doesn’t need to be detailed for every task but some form of it is imperative. It needs to be completed no matter how minor the task is. Students need feedback on tests or if their presentations are good enough. And a teacher can set standards if the work is marked routinely – and work can be redone if the standard isn’t good enough!

Nonetheless, feedback can only be effective if the student is receptive. How many times is feedback ignored? A clever teacher will pose questions and expect answers. This way, the teacher knows that the hours spent marking are having an impact.

The importance of the work produced by students has a high priority in monitoring the performance of a school. Senior leaders and evaluators are able to quickly ascertain the strengths of a teacher based on the quality of the work in books and feedback provided.

If work that is produced over time provides evidence of progress, then that’s the sign of a good teacher. A student who routinely receives quality feedback will progress more than one who isn’t offered any.