The secret to effective teaching

Once during a job interview I was asked “What does the effective teacher look like”. I paused, stumped – not because I didn’t know what an effective teacher was – that was easy – an effective teacher was a teacher who got results. No I paused because I knew that the effective teacher had many different faces. I knew effective teachers who were back-to-basics traditionalists, I knew effective teachers who were innovators, I knew effective teachers who integrated technology into every facet of their teaching, and I knew effective teachers whose most advanced technology was a transparency overhead projector.

I realized that I didn’t now much about effective teachers after all. Well that’s not entirely true – I could walk into a class and tell almost straight away if what was going on was an effective lesson, if what was going on was effective instruction. Problem was, I could not really articulate what I saw in those effective teachers.

So after a dramatic pause, I said something brilliant like “effective teaching is difficult to pin down to one or a few characteristics – but I know it when I see it”. I’m surprised I got the job!

There are many different instructional strategies that seem to be working, from direct instruction, to project based instruction, to modelling, to using worked out problems to solve other problems, guided reading, mental math instruction and on and on. Two things all these strategies have in common though – they involve lots of task specific student activity, and lots of teacher feedback. This post is not so much about the student activity, everyone recognizes the importance of ACTIVE student learning.

Active student learning is only one half of the equation, the other is teacher feedback. The evidence is clear on two things:

  1. detailed formative feedback is one of the most effective things teachers can do to promote learning.
  2. as a rule we as teachers are not doing it. What we are doing when we think we are giving feedback is usually INEFFECTIVE or even harmful.

FEEDBACK IS: detailed information about a learners’ perfomance. FEEDBACK IS NOT: praise, criticism, reward, punishment.

Effective feedback addresses three questions: Where am I going (learning goals)?, How am I going (how does my performance relate to my learning goals)?, and Where to next (what do I need to do to fix anything that needs fixing or what’s next on the way to my goal)?

Feedback can be on any one of four levels: feedback about the task, feedback about the process, feedback about self regulation, and feedback about the student as a person.

Task Feedback – also known as corrective feedback, this is the most common type of feedback and gives information about how well a task is being performed. Task feedback promotes student learning when it corrects student misperceptions. If task performance is poor because of lack of information, however, task feedback is unhelpful. Re-teaching is needed.

Process Feedback – this type of feedback often involves information about the methods or processes a student uses to perform a task – error detection strategies, strategy choice, or application of strategies to a particular task: eg. “Try using difference of squares rather than factorization to solve that problem”; or “that was a good use of describing words (adjectives) to help paint a picture in the reader’s mind”. Process feedback can be particularly effective for promoting deeper learning especially when used in combination with Goal setting.

Self-Regulation Feedback – this is information that encourages the student to use knowledge that he or she already has to evaluate and improve the work: eg. “you know the important parts of an argumentative essay. Use the rubric to check your work to make sure that you have included all of them in your essay.” This is important because this develops effective self-directed learners who are able to evaluate and select appropriate strategies, self assess their learning, adjust when needed, and seek external feedback for further learning.

Personal Feedback – this is information about the student as a person. For example: “you are such a smart boy!” or “don’t be silly.” It is rarely effective in promoting learning and is often harmful as it can promote a belief that success or failure is dependent on inborn characteristics rather than student effort. It is often used in combination with task feedback – particularly damaging for short and long term learning effectiveness. In essence this equates performance with personality. The student is labelled with the grade. We’ve all heard teachers say things like: “That student is an A student.”

This is not to say that we should not praise our students. Not at all. We need to praise our students continuously to help build their self-confidence and to let them know that we value and care for them whatever their performance.

Praise must be distinguished from and not confused with feedback, though. Feedback provides information on performance. Praise provides encouragement.

So what’s the secret to effective teaching? Lots of feedback: feedback that addresses how students did, what students did, and how students can evaluate and give feedback to themselves.

Please read John Hattie and Helen Timerley’s 2007 article “The Power of Feedback,” in the Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81–112.

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