The Feedback Process and Mindfulness

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Feedback is more than identifying correctness or incorrectness.

In a recent post on assessment, I spoke about feedback, a term we educators frequently invoke although not always with shared meaning. My point in that post was about the importance of feedback in relation to formative assessment and student growth. Students need an opportunity to respond to instruction through a demonstration of their learning followed by an executive or expert response to that learning. The executive or expert response or feedback should not be assessed with grades but rather with descriptive feedback stimulating the learner’s further reflection, clarification, and refinement of learning. This mindfulness in both offering and accepting feedback leads to a deeper understanding of current mistakes and reduction in future error as well as rewarding a job well done and motivating improved engagement.

Using feedback to mitigate future error is considered by many educators to be new or somehow cutting edge. However, error correction as a form of feedback has a relatively long history in research, dating back to the early 1900s (Mory, 2004). This early research resulted in the development of programmed instruction and the development of the “teaching-machine” (EdtechWiki). Essential to both the theory and the practice, programmed learning is an instructional approach leading learners through a series of “baby steps” in their acquisition of new knowledge. After being presented with new information, learners are tested on that knowledge–retention and/or application–through a series of small tasks. Each task (or item) receives immediate feedback by providing the correct response. Learners are not be able to progress unless they respond correctly. Learners who respond incorrectly may review the instruction previously given and then provided a second stimulus for response. Depending on the program, the loop continues or directs the learner elsewhere. I personally experienced the teaching machine during my early college days when enrolled as an accounting major. Finding the lock-step nature of the process reiterative, the explanations lacking, and the absence of an intellectual demand, I left the business college and entered the university’s school of education.

The introduction of the teaching machine, Morey suggests, may be the source of “confusion in the feedback research” (746). The teaching machine focused on informing the learner of the correct answer but taking no steps to understand the source of the misunderstanding. Rather than causing the learner to process the cause of errors, the feedback machine simply provided answers, a practice still evidenced in many of our classrooms. There may not be literal teaching machines (but there may!), too many teachers return student work merely checkmarked, corrected with the “right” response, and/or decorated with smiling yellow facial stickers. This approach lacks mindfulness. Correction of student work is typically redundant and mundane, winnowed down to the easiest means of getting papers back quickly.

What then is mindful feedback? In a the broadest sense, instructional feedback “…can be said to describe any communication or procedure given to inform a learner of the accuracy of a response, usually to an instructional question” (Morey, p. 745). Hattie and Timperley, likewise, view mindful feedback broadly but add, “[t]o take on this instructional purpose, feedback needs to provide information specifically relating to the task or process of learning that fills a gap between what is understood and what is aimed to be understood” (2007, p. 82). That said, in the pair go on to explain,

to be powerful in its effect, there must be a learning context to which feedback is addressed. It is but part of the teaching process and is that which happens second—after a student has responded to initial instruction—when information is provided regarding some aspect(s) of the student’s task performance. It is most powerful when it addresses faulty interpretations, not a total lack of understanding.

Absent in too many classrooms is the practice of feedback as an information source. Mindful feedback embraces the “cognitive and metacognitive processes within the learner” (Morey, p. 747), a major shift away from understanding feedback as merely a step in the correction loop. This changing theoretical stance recognizes and empowers the position of the learner to reflect, sort-out, reorganize cognitive thoughts and self-correct understandings.  Viewing feedback as an opportunity to build on early learning and not merely correct early learning is far different from the lock step of programmed instruction. Mindful feedback builds on a variety of feedback forms and values the variety of learners situated in a variety of learning contexts.

The history and theory of feedback as briefly summarized, leads to question of effectiveness. Oftentimes, researchers look to effect sizes to determine what promotes the greatest student growth and therefore deserves education time. Simply put, across the time of one school year, a general expectation of effect is 0.4. Practices with less than one year’s payoff may not be worth the time spent on implementation. On the other hand, practices with a greater effect size than 0.4 have stronger effects than on the average expected: make use of those approaches.

Hattie is a reliable source for research on effect size in educational practices and indeed, Hattie has documented the effect size of feedback separating programmed instruction separate from mindful feedback. Hattie’s research shows programmed instruction, feedback of the narrowest kind, to have an effect size of .23, among the the lowest among types of feedback researched. On the other hand, mindful feedback–informational feedback, feedback addressing faulty interpretations–has an effect size of .70 and sits at #33 among the 2018 Rankings: 252 Influences And Effect Sizes Related To Student Achievement. This type of feedback, feedback informing an aspect of instruction and addressing interpretations–therefore applications and analysis–is the type of feedback required by formative assessment in the process of strengthening learners’ understandings and thereby resulting in the strongest performance on summative assessments, those assessments typically providing only right answers as a form of feedback. Why? Because the learning loop is complete, summative assessment evaluates student work as an end product and therefore, though feedback may be valued by some, for most students the grade the outcome of summative assessment. Work that is graded is not further improved or refined but filed and often in file #13.

Knowing the impact of mindful feedback on future performance, the timing and modes of delivery should be clear. Educators need to provide instruction, then provide a stimulus prompting learners to respond to that instruction, and next share mindful feedback on the resulting response. Only after learners have processed the instruction and feedback and then shown the synthesis of that experience should they be assessed for learning.  Learners need descriptive feedback to improve learning–not at the end of the learning loop but early in the loop, prior to grading, when learners recognize the process is a beginning. Grading should not occur in the beginning. If students knew the material the teacher was teaching, they wouldn’t need the teacher. The time to grade students is after the teacher’s work is done and that work includes providing descriptive feedback about individual learning process and outcomes.



“feedback.” (2018). in

Hattie, J. & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81-112.

Killian, S. (2016). How to know thy impact using effect size.

Morey, E. H. (2004). Feedback research revisited.  In D. H. Jonassen (Ed.), Handbook of research on educational communications and technology (pp. 745-783). Mahwah, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

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