Sunday, February 28, 2010

John Hattie and Helen Timperley’s “The Power of Feedback”

Last fall SNL hosted some folks from All Hallows College in Ireland who are putting together a program for adult learners at their school. One of our visitors recommended John Hattie and Helen Timperley’s article “The Power of Feedback.” In this review article, Hattie and Timperley show that "Feedback is among the most critical influences on student learning" (102), but they also show that not all feedback is equally valuable.  While most of the research on which they base their conclusions comes from studies with younger students, my research with adult students at SNL suggests that their conclusions often apply to our students. Therefore, I’d like to share some of their conclusions with you.

Hattie and Timperley argue that feedback should help answer three overlapping questions: Where am I going? (goals), How am I going? (performance as measured against goals), and What next? (future goals). Most usefully, Hattie and Timperley distinguish between four types of feedback: feedback on task (FT), feedback on process (FP), feedback on self regulation  (FR), and feedback on self (FS). The first three are for progressively more sophisticated learners. They are designed to help students move from the correct performance of a specific task to being self directed, internally motivated, critical learners with high self-efficacy. Feedback on self they see as almost entirely useless and sometimes counterproductive.

They claim that feedback is more effective when it tells students what they have done well and how they have improved than when it tells students what they did wrong (85).  However, they also assert that disconfirming feedback is very powerful: "Feedback has its greatest effect when a learner expects a response to be correct and it turns out to be wrong" (95).

They nuance the question of when to offer positive or negative feedback by looking at the types of feedback. For example, they argue that positive feedback on self works best when accompanied by feedback on task, but that negative FS is generally more useful than positive FS because it can challenge self perceptions (although they note that people have lots of ways to discount negative feedback about themselves) (98). Feedback on task is best given immediately, while feedback on process works better when there is a delay, giving students time to process what they have done (98).

For feedback on self-regulation, a student’s commitment to goals and self-efficacy effect determine whether positive or negative feedback is most useful. If a student has high goal commitment (something they want to do), then positive feedback is best. If a student as low goal commitment (something they have to do), then negative feedback is more effective (99). They argue that negative feedback can prompt students to respond to a challenge, be dissatisfied with their previous work and raise goals, but that positive feedback can increase persistence and engagement (99). For students with high self-efficacy, positive and negative FR both help (99). For student with low self-efficacy, positive FR can have positive (motivating) or negative (afraid to mess up) effects, while negative FR seems to be only negative (prompting avoidance) (99).

While people like feedback because it is "psychologically reassuring," that does not mean it is always useful (95). Feedback that is "off topic" -- that is not focused on helping students attain their goal -- is not useful. They use as an example of this feedback on writing: "Too often, the feedback given is unrelated to achieving success on critical dimensions of the goal. For example, students are given feedback on presentation, spelling, and quantity in writing when the criteria for success require, say 'creating mood in a story'" (89). Feedback on writing also tends to focus on the paper (the task). However, feedback on process (such as how to go about finding sources or proofreading) will frequently provide bigger gains. Feedback on task can be used to support feedback on process or self-regulation (90-91), such as "I noticed that you have many typos and small grammar errors in this paper. Here is a place to find strategies for proofreading:  Try some of these and then return the paper to me." 

Hattie and Timperley confirmed that feedback is effective when it specific and focused. The cite several studies which show that lack of detail can be a major issue with FT when it leaves students unclear on how to use it (100). This is true whether the feedback itself is positive or negative. Vague, overly general positive feedback leaves students unsure about what worked and why so they cannot transfer their success. Unclear negative feedback leaves them in the dark about what to fix and why.

Written feedback is much more useful for students than grades or points. Studies indicate that comments rather than grades lead to significant improvement, while grades by themselves and even comments combined with grades did not improve performance (92).

This information on feedback also leads to conclusions about the construction and presentation of assignments and assessments. Well-defined assignments with specific criteria lead to more focused and so effective feedback, while overly general or nonspecific goals leave students and feedback unfocused.  Teachers can enhance student learning by "providing appropriate challenging and specific goals" which are then "more likely to include information about the criteria for success in attaining" the goals (87). While assignments should be focused, they also should be challenging (88).

Interestingly, the one point at which they distinguished between younger and older students was in the discussion of students’ perception of praise. While younger students tend to like praise, older students are much more wary: "older students perceived praise after success or neutral feedback after failure as an indication that the teacher perceived their ability to be low. When given criticism after failure and neutral feedback after success, they perceived that the teacher had estimated their ability to be high and their effort low " (97).

For more on giving feedback on writing, see

Work Cited

Hattie, John, and Helen Timperley. "The Power of Feedback." Review of Educational Research 77.1 (2007): 81-112.

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