To my husband, a musician and producer, feedback is a nasty word—think of that screeching sound which makes you cover your ears and wince in pain when the guitarist gets too close to his amp. It can ruin an otherwise beautiful song. Yet musicians seek feedback all the time—applause from the audience, downloads from a music streaming platform, album reviews, etc. The value of feedback, then, is all about context.
In terms of teaching and learning, feedback is a necessary and often dreaded component of instruction. Teachers know they have to provide feedback to students so that students can learn their areas of challenge and strength, and yet it can prove to be so difficult sometimes! Think of those papers that look like, as one teacher told me, there was an explosion at the red ink factory. Too much critical feedback is overwhelming and defeating. And simply pointing out every single mistake may not even be useful: the student may not know why their mistakes are wrong, nor how to fix them.
For feedback to be useful to both the teacher and student, it must be contextualized within an effective feedback system. Fisher and Frey (2009) refer to three distinct components of a feedback system: Feed Up, Feed Back, and Feed Forward. Hattie and Timperley (2007) refer to these three components as three questions in the feedback process: Where am I going? How am I going? And, Where to next?
Orienting constructive criticism within a feedback system means that the learner knows what the goal is and how to get there (Feed Up), how she is progressing along the learning journey towards that goal (Feed Back), and what she must do to continue making adequate progress towards mastery (Feed Forward). Feedback that is not connected to either the learning goals or to an appropriate learning plan is simply criticism, and does little to help the student grow and much to motivate the student to give up.
The starting point of the system is to Feed Up. Up, because this establishes the goal to which we are aiming our efforts. Think of shooting a free-throw in basketball: identify the target (basket) and aim accordingly. To Feed Up effectively, a teacher must clearly and explicitly establish the learning objective (goal) and the criteria for success to attain that goal. Such must be communicated to students so that they know and understand the goal and criteria.
Next, of course, is Feed Back. Teachers and students must periodically pause to assess the current learning situation. What part or how much of the objective has been learned, and what data supports these findings? It is important to remember that effective feedback must be directly and clearly linked to the learning objective and success criteria. Consider a writing task in which a student was asked to write a persuasive essay. If all lessons in the unit plan are focused on developing a claim and logical subclaims, and supporting claims with valid and relevant evidence, then getting a paper returned with nothing but red ink on grammatical errors does nothing to help the student understand his strengths or challenges in developing an effective argument. Feedback that is not linked to the learning target is, essentially, useless criticism.
Finally, of course, a teacher must incorporate the feedback and data to Feed Forward; that is, to modify instruction accordingly so as to continue to develop learners’ skills and knowledge. Once the Feed Back stage accurately assesses where students are on their learning journey, the teacher must provide appropriate modification to or continuance of the instructional plan to progress students to mastery. Are the pre-planned instructional supports still viable, or do new supports need to be added? Frequent checks for understanding provide the skilled teacher with in-the-moment data to best meet learners’ needs, and gives everyone a sense of hope and confidence in the process.
When unit planning and lesson planning, it is a best practice to remember the components of the feedback system and intentionally build each into units and daily lessons. Skilled instructors are also mindful of what and when will be the final summative, evaluative assessment of learning, and working backwards from there to construct the learning plan.