Whole class feedback: Strategies and experiences

Written by: Robbie Burns | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Whole class feedback reduces workload and ensures we are responsive to student need. Robbie Burns considers research into effective practice and describes his school’s strategy for whole-class feedback


There are very practical reasons for adopting whole-class feedback as a school-wide approach: it reduces teacher workload, focuses the attention of teaching to being responsive to student need, and enables all to think about small-step development for their whole class (for further reading, see blogs by Daisy Christodoulou, Jamie McNamara as well as Hattie and Clarke’s 2018 book Visible Learning: Feedback).

But as teachers and leaders, we must never be pure pragmatists; we must also consider both evidence-based principles and the views of our students when making strategic decisions.

In this article, I will briefly summarise some of the research into effective feedback, describe our strategy for whole-class feedback, and then draw on the experiences of my talented colleagues to discuss how this is being developed in practice.


Defining what feedback really is: Teacher and student perceptions

In their book, Hattie and Clarke (2018) asked teachers to answer the following question in a short sentence: What do you mean by post-lesson feedback? Typical responses from teachers included “commentaries”, “pros and cons” and “corrections”.

However, Hattie and Clarke do not stop there. They then asked thousands of students the same question and by far the top explanation was: feedback after a lesson helps me know where to go and what to do next. When students were asked about their teachers’ responses, they often said that these things were not feedback.

In other words, the only time students, particularly of primary age, felt like they were receiving feedback from their teacher in the classroom was when they were told what their next steps were and how they could get there; the other things that teachers told them were not as important or significant.

This research reveals the differences in perception between teacher and student about what post-lesson feedback really means and when it is most meaningful. It also draws out what our students think regarding what kind of feedback makes a difference them; in essence, our students need to know where they are going and where they need to go next.

This is the overall aim of whole-class feedback: being clear with our students on the progress they have made so far and giving them the chance to respond and consolidate learning before they move forward. But with so much learning to take place, what should we focus our attention on?


Four ‘sharp focuses’ for whole-class feedback

If our students need to know “where to go and what to do next”, we need to break this down into small steps and sequence it according to their needs. Hattie and Clarke (2019) suggest four areas of focus:

Whole-class feedback must be sharply focused on deepening learning towards a known goal: Hattie and Clarke discuss how feedback is probably the most effective way to move student learning from “surface” to “deep” understanding. The feedback we give, embedded in the goals, learning intentions and success criteria we create must be focused on the deepening of the learning of our students, not their performance in one lesson. If they manage to write one relative clause once, then we must not stop there in our feedback: we must deepen the feedback we provide.

Whole-class feedback must be sharply focused on a known goal:Where we are and where we need to go next” implies a journey with a destination. This hidden metaphor is striking. If our pupils don’t know where they are going or how they will get there then the feedback we give is, to them, totally meaningless. Goals should be focused on the overarching curriculum knowledge that is to be learned. For example, if they are studying the four operations, the goal might be for students to be able to problem-solve using addition, subtraction, division and multiplication.

Whole-class feedback between lessons must be sharply focused on learning intentions: Learning intentions, or objectives, are what students need to learn in that discrete lesson. Within a unit of work on the book Holes, the learning intention for a lesson might be to describe the emotions of a character; in a unit on the four operations, the learning intention might be to fluently add four digit numbers using the columnar method.

Feedback between lessons must be sharply focused on what success looks like: Success criteria helps students to conceptualise the learning intention and, alongside models of great work, can be powerful in ensuring that students fully understand where they are and what they need to do next. For example, it might be that there are some “non-negotiables” for writing, such as finger spaces or capital letters and full stops, that are not explicitly taught in this year group but they were last year and they are therefore expected of students.


What does this mean in practice? Our current strategy

At my school, we have broken down whole-class feedback into four steps: Read, Reflect, Review, Respond.

Read & Reflect: Read all student work with the learning intention and success criteria in mind. As my colleagues have noted, often themes emerge when reflecting. It might be in specific parts. There may be themes of shaky key knowledge that needs to be recapped, it might be grammar errors or spelling mistakes. All of these are underpinned by the understanding that all feedback given needs to be directly linked to curriculum goals.

Review: Sometimes the “reflect” part is completed on a whole-class feedback template sheet although as a school we don’t require staff to complete one every single time they give feedback. Furthermore, the reflect stage of this process often bleeds into reviewing content for the coming lesson, which almost always includes one or two feedback slides to share with students. These include excellent work, common spelling mistakes and possibly a key task that students do to ensure they relearn or deepen understanding of a particular area of learning.

Respond: The final step is crucial. If students are not given time to respond immediately to the feedback that the teacher gives, the feedback is likely to be ineffective. That is why my colleagues will not give whole-class feedback every lesson; they choose the right times throughout the unit of learning to respond to their students’ needs and address them accordingly. If they know there is not time for them to respond, the feedback is not given.

These four steps are fluid and do not always work sequentially, but they are always present. When we started, I gave staff a whole-class feedback template sheet but they increasingly told me that these were not needed: while they read through student work, they instantly adapted and developed lessons for the next day, either through retrieval practice starters or dedicated slides.


Our teachers’ reflections: High impact…

In upper key stage two, my colleagues have found the strategies to be having a positive impact. Andrea Jeffrey, assessment lead and year 6 teacher, explained: “I used to spend hours making individual comments on each student’s work. Often these were not understood by the student and therefore ignored. It is easier to explain misconceptions than explain in a written comment.

“With whole-class feedback, I can give individual attention to those who need extra help while other students are editing and redrafting independently.”

John Raine, writing lead and year 6 teacher, agrees, but also feels it has improved the focus of the feedback he gives on the writing process: “I have found the shift to whole-class feedback has helped to streamline and focus my feedback so that it feeds more naturally and purposefully into the next lesson.

“Student response is becoming more meaningful as it puts more of the responsibility on the students to identify their own errors and this is reducing repeated mistakes.”

It has also been encouraging to note the improvement in feedback in subjects other than English. Sarah Craig, humanities lead and year 6 teacher, commented: “Whole-class feedback has had a really positive impact on foundation subjects. Previously, marking in these subjects didn’t always feel like a productive use of time. Whole-class feedback allows time for students to edit and improve their work as well as correct misconceptions. Students also love when their work is chosen as a good example and displayed on the board.”


Our teachers’ reflections: …but still work to be done

Although there has definitely been a marked improvement in teacher experience, legitimate concerns have been raised. Questions around how we support learners of all attainment levels in a whole-class session, without leaving our most vulnerable behind is essential.

In addition, leaders have asked how we might still hold teachers accountable for feedback if there is limited written comments in books.

To overcome the challenge of supporting all ability groups, other teachers described how they had overcome this: “Individual comments are sometimes needed, especially when students have specific needs or difficulties. Sometimes I write on a sticky note rather than in the student's book so the reminder of their next steps is visible during the lesson. Learning support assistants (LSAs) play a crucial role in providing one-to-one or small-group feedback.”

Although this might seem contradictory to whole-class feedback, the important element here, of which we have learned, is that although the method of whole-class feedback works for most students, there is still work to be done to adapt it effectively to our lowest attaining learners in the younger year groups.

Developing the capacity of our LSAs to improve their ability to give quality feedback during lesson time is also an area to improve in the years to come.

As leaders, we firmly believe that all our policies should promote high standards of teaching and support the workload and wellbeing of our colleagues. By ensuring that students respond in green pen when they are asked to improve their work, we are able to see where their improvements have been made, rather than expect teachers to write lengthy comments for each piece of work.

Helen Kennedy, assistant vice-principal and year 4 teacher, explained: “The evidence is clear in their books. You can see where they have taken on-board the feedback and improved their work by using green pen to edit. You can see the progress they are making in their writing; it is clearly evident. Possibly one of the greatest achievements is the enthusiasm and commitment that my students have demonstrated during this process. They take more pride in their work and there is a definite increased level of engagement and effort within lessons.”


Conclusion

By no means have we perfected our feedback policy, but we are on the way to developing a strategy that will have a significant impact on student attainment and the willingness of all our students to improve their work, day after day after day.


Further information & resources

  • Burns: Three strategies to create instant classroom culture, Headteacher Update, May 2021: https://bit.ly/3uSDYSs
  • Christodoulou: Whole-class feedback: saviour or fad?, The No More Marking Blog, March 2019: https://bit.ly/3uKOZoD
  • Hattie & Clarke: Visible Learning: Feedback, Routledge, August 2018.
  • McNamara: Using comparative judgement to assess primary writing, Wordpress Blog, October 2017: https://bit.ly/3vMkhgl

Curriculum Design Online Conference

  • Robbie Burns will be presenting during the Headteacher Update two-day curriculum design conference which takes place online on July 6 and 7. For the full programme, visit www.curriculumconference.com


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