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Feedback – the Breakfast of Champions

posted Sep 5, 2014, 11:09 PM by HSD Principal

In this chapter in Applying Science of Learning in Education, John Hattie (University
of Melbourne) and Gregory Yates (University of South Australia) trace the history of the term
feedback and offer a basic definition: “information allowing a learner to reduce the gap
between what is evident currently and what could or should be the case” – in other words,
guiding students to the next step they need to take.
But feedback doesn’t always work smoothly in the real world of classrooms. Researchers have three observations:

- Teachers say they routinely give lots of helpful feedback to their students.
- Trained classroom observers, however, see very little teacher-to-student feedback, even
with expert teachers.
- When students are asked, many report very little feedback from their teachers, typically
a few seconds a day. Students do get quite a lot of feedback from their peers, but much
of it is incorrect.

Hattie and Yates call this an “empathy gap” – teachers believe they’re giving helpful feedback
to the whole class, but students (when interviewed) say that group-level feedback “is largely
irrelevant to those who have mastered an objective, and often is ignored by those who have
not... many within the class are bored, tuned out, or simply focusing on other things in their
life more important at the time.” 

Praise is a common form of feedback, but it is often unhelpful. Praise can be overdone,
so that students learn, this is a teacher who praises a lot. “This is not a commodity you can
increase and expect the effects of praise will increase,” say Hattie and Yates. “Psychologically,
praise within the classroom can become problematic in that it fails to convey any genuine
feedback information. Even worse, it can shift the students’ attention onto irrelevant, even
destructive, factors, such as excessive attention to the self or one’s ability, thus discouraging
further effort or listening to feedback about the task.” 

Effective feedback, on the other hand, can double the rate of learning and is among the
top ten influences on achievement. One of the hidden effects of feedback is the way it
influences how much effort students are willing to commit. One study found that college
students devote considerably more time and effort to tasks where specific and timely feedback
is available, perhaps because that shows the importance the teacher places on the learning

Hattie and Yates suggest that computer video games and GPS devices are excellent
feedback-givers. Video games know each player’s past history, pose challenges at the
Goldilocks level – slightly beyond past accomplishment, not too hard, not too easy – and give
feedback as the player persists for hours at a time. A GPS device guides a driver through
unfamiliar territory, doesn’t growl at mistakes, and maintains a patient, unemotional
disposition as the driver finds his or way. Both technologies are good at knowing three
important facts, all of which transfer to classroom feedback:

• Where is the student going? What’s the goal? ...A challenging goal – knowing what success looks like – is essential to getting students to apply effort, but knowing there will be feedback along the way is equally
important. Teachers also need to lay out a series of stepping-stone goals
on the way to the eventual target. Providing “worked examples of the goal” is also helpful.
And of course it’s essential that teachers convey the idea that the goal is attainable and
students will get there.

• How is the student doing right now? What progress is being made? Feedback on progress is much more
helpful than grades or comparisons to how other students are doing. Lots of errors are made at
this stage, and teachers have to inculcate a positive view – errors are feedback on the road to
success. “Feedback must engage a learner at, or just above, the current level of functioning,”
say the authors. 

• What is the next step? This builds on the first two. The GPS device is a good model – it “can only
look forward,” say the authors. “It remains unconcerned about any past streets, suburbs, or
erstwhile errors passed through on route... We may get to a location through using different
roads and we may take longer or shorter to get there. But such differences are superficial since
options are constrained severely by reality. At some point, all routes to one goal will converge,
even though the starting points vary.”

“Using Feedback to Promote Learning” by John Hattie and Gregory Yates in Applying Science
of Learning in Education: Infusing Psychological Science into the Curriculum, American
Psychological Association, 2014 (p. 45-58),

Excerpt taken from Marshall Memo 550, August 30, 2014