Feedback is seen as a key feature of good teaching, yet precise research and theory is hard to find. Black and Wiliam published a well-researched and influential paper, Inside the Black Box, that recommended methods of feedback, making it the sweet spot in improving productivity in schools, even beyond lower class sizes.
Inside the Black Box
The classroom is the ‘black box’ and they attempt to change teaching with clear advice on ‘formative assessment’. This is the powerful lever, they claim, that unlocks potential through good teaching. Most educational policies focus on ‘summative assessment’ yet this is an end-point, when it is often too late to influence the learner. Even on formative feedback they researched the common practice of straight or primitive marking as opposed to constructive guidance and feedback from teachers. Marking as formative assessment, they claim, may do more damage than most educators realise.
Praise the work not the child
Too many students ‘get by’ and seek tactics that lead to good marks not good learning. ‘Never praise a child, praise what they did’ says Professor Black, and by this he meant praise the work of the learner and not the learner. To praise the student encourages two ideas that are powerfully corrosive in learning; a) the idea that it is all down to ability, b) the idea that the ‘teacher’ likes me. To counter this, teachers must praise the work and effort, not ability of the student. Nor should teachers compare students with other students. Praising the person also stops students from trying harder. Learners must believe they can change for the better.
Avoid ‘hands up’ techniques
They observed that teachers jump in too early after asking questions (often less than a second), often prematurely answering their own questions. They are critical of teachers that rely on ‘hands up’ techniques, as it encourages the extroverts and achievers but discourages the rest. It also encourages, not diagnostic or ‘hinge’ questions that reveal understanding, but the simple knowledge of facts.
Constructive, formative feedback
Their advice is to target questions to individuals, then wait, for at least three seconds. Tasks should elicit thoughtful reflection, students be given time and asked to express their ideas. Do not pass judgment as every answer deserves a positive response in terms of building confidence and not knocking students down. To steer, not being too dominant or too open, but steering students in the right direction, is the real art of feedback. Asking the right questions gets the right answers, so teachers must reflect in depth on the questions they ask. Many questions just fill time or don’t stretch the students or probe understanding. Hinge questions are carefully structured to diagnose students, which is why coloured cards and clickers can accelerate a teacher’s diagnosis of whole class performance. Comments on students’ work is hard work but some simple rules help. Avoid vague, general, ‘Needs more detail….expand…add a few thoughts of your own’ comments. Be specific about errors and recommend a specific positive action. A good comment would be, ‘You’ve used ‘particle’, ‘element’ and ‘compound’ in your answer, look at the glossary in your textbook to see how they differ’.
Evils of marking
A terminal test promotes the idea that it marks an end-point. Tests are therefore seen by learners as terminal. You have passed or failed, a success or failure, bright or dim. It is far better for teachers to deliver feedback in the form of specific comments that point to improvement. For many learners, marked tests are literally the mark of Cain, as they leave their psychological mark, for the majority a mark of failure. The mark is seen as a score on fixed ability, fixing in the mind of the learner, a rigid view of their ability. It says nothing meaningful about how they can change and improve. Even for high scorers, full competence is rarely the aim, so they see a high mark as ‘having done enough’ and take their foot off the pedal. A score, rather than understanding and improvement, becomes the goal. It promotes the idea that you need to pass the test, not master the subject. In short, for Black and William, we need to focus more on ‘formative’, not ‘summative’ assessment. They recommend high quality, small, frequent tests that require good feedback. It is the feedback on what they don’t know, not that which the student got right, that leads to learning.
Black quotes an important study of 132 mixed ability, Y7 students in 12 classes across 4 schools. The students were given three types of feedback:
3) Marks plus comments
The ‘Comments' only group had a significant attainment gain with NO gain in the 'Marks' only and 'Marks plus comments’ groups. Increased interest and motivation was positive with all in the ‘Comments’ only group but only positive with high achievers in the ‘Marks’ and ‘Marks plus comments’ groups, where low achievers registered lower interest and motivation. This is at first puzzling. Why does more feedback 'Marks plus comments' have such a negative effect? The researchers concluded that ‘marks’ signaled the end of the matter, a terminal test, which stopped learning and further interest. The message is clear - hold back on marking in formative assessment.
They see teachers’ traditional views of learning (transmission) and traditional views on ability (fixed IQs) as being the main barriers to effective formative feedback. For Black and William it is quite clear that teachers should not be left to their own devices on this subject. They need professional development and support. Self and peer assessment also raises the quality of formative assessment while taking pressure off the teacher.
Online learning and formative feedback
Technology, in the form of self-paced, online learning content, simulations, games and adaptive learning have all contributed to increasing the level of feedback in learning. In real time simulations and games, such as flight simulators, the feedback is continuous and in real time. More recently, in adaptive learning, powerful back-end algorithms have supported sophisticated feedback, based on what the learner has done, where they want to go, presenting the right content and feedback, dynamically on their learning journey.
Is there evidence that improving formative assessment raises standards? Yes. Is there evidence that there is room for improvement? Yes. Is there evidence about how to improve formative assessment? Yes. Black and Wiliam shone a spotlight on a critical weakness in educational theory and policies – the lack of focus on effective teaching and, in particular, formative feedback, which they believe is the key to increasing the effectiveness of teaching and learning.
Black P & Wiliam D (1998) Inside the Black Box Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment http://weaeducation.typepad.co.uk/files/blackbox-1.pdf
“Assessment in Education” (Black and Wiliam, 1998)
Wiliam, D. (2010). An integrative summary of the research literature and implications for a new theory of formative assessment. In H. L. Andrade & G. J. Cizek (Eds.), Handbook of formative assessment (pp. 18-40). New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.