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How to give feedback to develop great learners

Posted on: March 1, 2022

This article by John and Kyle Hattie focuses on a key attribute of successful parenting – the skills of giving and receiving feedback. Feedback plays a critical role to support and enhance learning, but while research evidence shows it is powerful, it also shows that it's variable in its effectiveness. 

After reading the article you’ll learn how to ensure the feedback you give is heard, understood, and actioned by your child. You'll also understand the critical role of errors and mistakes and how parents need to make failure your child’s best friend in developing their learning. Actionable Feedback works better when errors are seen as welcomed and expected in their learning. It has been adapted from their new book publishing April 2022 entitled 10 Steps to Develop Great Learners: Visible Learning for Parents.

In this short,  two-minute video Kyle and John Hattie explain more:


Three common myths about giving feedback Icon Three common myths about giving feedback

You will all have received feedback at home or at work – some of it is wanted, some not, some valuable, some not . . . and therein lies the dilemma of feedback. It can be powerful but it is variable. Extensive research in schools has found feedback remains one of the more powerful influences on learning, but again it is variable. There is a lot from this school research that applies to the home. For starters, the following three commonly held beliefs are in fact myths: 

  1. We should use the feedback sandwich – give praise followed by corrective feedback, and then more praise. Instead do not dilute the corrective feedback by adding praise, as your child will recall and focus on the praise. Nothing wrong with praise, just not at the same time as corrective feedback.  
  2. Feedback should be immediate. If the feedback refers to a task where it can be immediately corrected then maybe; but for a longer lasting impact often delaying feedback can be more powerful.  
  3. The more feedback the better. Quantity is not the key, ensuring the feedback is heard, understood and actionable is – and sometimes we can reduce the amount of feedback (which is not actioned) to make our feedback more actionable. 

What Does Feedback Look Like Icon What does feedback look like?

Feedback is information provided to reduce the gap between what the child now understands or is doing, and what we want them to understand and do. So the first message is (a) the power of feedback is higher when you have a great understanding of what the child is now doing, (b) when you have a clear understanding of when ‘good is good enough’ (that is the desired performance or action), and (c) when your feedback helps your child move from now to the goal.  

Note, nothing in the above says anything about praise, about whether positive feedback or negative feedback has been given, or the timing or the tone or body language of the feedback, but rather the feedback is simply information that moves the child closer to the desired outcome.  Effective feedback that moves the child’s learning on will depend on several factors:  

a. You must know where the child is now – what is the baseline, what is their current state. The child will feel disappointed and aggrieved if you ‘do not understand’ their current emotional state, their beliefs about what is occurring. Not knowing where your child is at leads to inappropriate or irrelevant feedback.  It is simple, ask and listen to their beliefs about their “now”.

b. You have a clear idea of what is desired from the feedback, and the child is also clear about the outcome. Feedback is more powerful if the child has understood, up front, what the desired outcome is. This gives them direction, so that they can interpret the constructive feedback as helping them get to the outcome, and they see some value in achieving the outcome.

c. It helps if the child has some commitment to the outcome, although this is not necessary (otherwise many rooms would never be tidied, and homework never completed). 

Powerful feedback is about how to improve Icon Powerful feedback is about how to improve

In our research, we have asked thousands of teachers what they mean by feedback and the following captures their answers:  

  1. Comments – give comments on the way a child is doing something 
  2. Clarification – answer your child’s questions 
  3. Criticism – give constructive criticism 
  4. Confirmation – tell your child they are doing it right  
  5. Content development – provide deeper information 
  6. Constructive reflection – give your child positive and constructive reflections on their work or performance  
  7. Correction – show what the child did right or what they did wrong 
  8. Cons and pros – identifying the pros and cons of their work 
  9. Criteria – give guidance relative to a standard 83 Feedback and success thrives on errors  

All these nine forms of feedback help the child know ‘Where they are meant to be aiming’ and ‘How they are going’ towards the goal. What is fascinating is that when you ask children what they mean by feedback, they rarely name the above. Instead, they want to know ‘Where do I go next’? and ‘How do I get there?’  They want specific feedback to help them improve. 

There is nothing wrong with giving the above nine forms of feedback, but to make this feedback all the more effective, make sure you also give ‘where to next’ feedback – your child is  more likely to welcome honest feedback that helps them move forward to the goal.  Consider this specific example: ‘No, that’s not right, do it again’. There is no information in this statement to move the child forward, so no wonder it has a low to negative impact. ‘No, that’s not right, let me show you how to do it’ has information to move forward to the goal. It is not the negative or positive, it is the information to feed forward that matters.  

Three levels of feedback  

You do not want to turn your child into a ‘feedback junkie’ who becomes so overly dependent on feedback that they continually say ‘what do I do now?’. In most situations there are at least three levels for which you can provide feedback: 

  1. Feedback about the task itself – feedback that identifies whether the task has been done correctly or incorrectly, reshows the child how to do it, and provides more information and direction on how to do it.  
  2. Feedback about how the child is accomplishing the task (the processes) – feedback that is more related to the processes and actions the child uses (or used) to accomplish the task. Such feedback helps the child understand the mistakes they made, can provide different strategies to accomplish the task, and points out relations and connections between what they are doing and how best to move forward.  
  3. Feedback about the child thinking and evaluating their own actions – feedback that helps the child monitor and evaluate their own performance provides confidence in the correctness and direction they are taking and teaches them to ask for feedback rather than waiting for it. 

The major message on giving feedback is: Feedback needs to be aimed at either the task, the processes, or letting the child make their own decisions about moving forward. Be clear when giving feedback you choose the optimal form of feedback.  

If you say, ‘You have made an error, fix it’ and they are still learning to do the task and have little understanding of the processes, the feedback is not going to have an impact (other than lead to a negative emotion). If the child has become reasonably accomplished at the task and you say, ‘No let me show you how to do it’, similarly the effect will be lower as they are at a mastery stage and want to learn to do it themselves. 

Giving feedback sometimes can lead to difficult conversations, so it matters that you build great feedback skills, make sure the feedback is clear and meaningful, and show you also can hear, understand, and action your child’s critical feedback. 

A major message is that children are more likely to welcome feedback that they can action to improve or complete the task.  But it is particularly valuable to check that your feedback has been heard and understood  - kids (like us) are very good selective listeners and hear what they want to hear, or not hear.  So be sure – ‘what did you understand about the feedback I just gave you?’. If the feedback is heard and understood, it is more likely to be actioned.

Giving Feedback: Concluding Comments 

Feedback is effective when it: (i) clarifies success; (ii) informs the learner of progress relative to success; (iii) offers guidance about the next steps to improve; (iv) when it is not mixed with praise; (v) is given and received in a high trust environment; and (vi) when it is heard, understood, and actionable.

The Research Evidence  

10 Steps to Develop Great Learners

A word about the research from which the messages in this article are derived. The evidence is drawn from John’s extensive research program of the past 25-plus years on the influences which have the greatest positive effect on students’ school-related learning. The research, known as the Visible Learning program, involved a synthesis of more than 1,600 meta-analyses composed of 100,000-plus studies, and involving 300 million students. 

While the emphasis was on school-related student learning, the book includes an Appendix of a similar synthesis of many parent-child studies and the messages on the importance to student learning of teachers’ mind frames apply equally to parents’ mind frames towards learning.

Source Appendix: There is evidence of high impact parenting.