Does Your Feedback Help or Hinder Learning? An Inquiry into Effective Feedback

 “We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.” 

-Bill Gates talking to business leaders

Initial thoughts

There are two basic forms of feedback. Numerical or letter grades rank a student’s relative standing among classmates. The student feels good with a high grade or poorly with a low grade, but it has nothing to do with consciously improving the learning. Written or spoken comments, relating to the student’s performance, provides information about their performance and are thus aimed at improving the student’s ability to learn, 

According to Bloom and associates, feedback to be positively received and acted upon by the mentee (the receiving student) has four aspects which can be paraphrased as having a positive class culture, giving feedback that is short and specific, highlighting the student positives, and indicating specific changes that will lead to mastery. Avoid overkill. Look at my blog After the Conference and identify one core idea at a time. Implied here is the teacher being both aware of the student’s past knowledge and aware of how feedback comments encourage students to be creative, imaginative and innovative, as two basics of becoming a continuous learner. 

Developing a Nurturing Culture

Big ideas are fine, but unless they have a classroom and school culture in which to grow, they will wither and die, perhaps even be stillborn. A nurturing culture is one that is open to many ideas and possibilities but not in the sense of “anything goes.” Teachers must still be in charge, still take responsibility for the quality of curriculum delivery, and for providing a physically and emotionally safe and disciplined work environment; but they must do this more as a collegial facilitator than as autocratic dictator. Teachers need to be doing with rather than dealing to their students. They need also to overtly project the belief that every student in the class is important to them. Managing impulsive students will be an important part of this. Slow thinking, avoiding impulsive responses is a key teacher responsibility too.

Two and a half decades ago Daniel Goleman drew our attention to the importance of emotional intelligence. “Know yourself,” he said. For a teacher this means being aware of how they react to their students such as being aware of the voice they use. Is it conversational and friendly or commanding and cold? Likewise, with body language. Do you wear a kindly face, or, “one of cold command?” The ultimate is to change the language or change a face for different students. Never underestimate the importance of a teacher’s actions on the class culture. 

Feedback is more complicated than one might think. Stone and Heen in their book, Thanks for the Feedback, bluntly state,

“When we give feedback, we notice the receiver isn’t good at receiving it. When we receive feedback, we notice the giver isn’t good at giving it.”

Do the teacher’s actions change when they give feedback, giving the impression of doing to? Does the way that feedback is given encourage acceptance and attitude, or a reaction, “The teacher is picking on me again.” If the teacher perceives the student ignoring the feedback, the teacher reflection needs to be on how to alter the presentation of the feedback in a manner palatable to that student. The teacher, even an experienced teacher is as much a learner as the student and is to some extent a novice—maybe even unconsciously incompetent. However, the teacher is responsible for making the learning environment safe: a nurturing collegial one.

“The students are the fish. The school is the sea. If the sea is not kept at the right temperature, the fish will die.”

Such a culture needs to signify order and security, but it also needs to signify a relaxed flexibility that encourages experimentation, creation, innovation, and an openness to continuous learning. Such an approach likely removes the opportunity to see feedback as a threat and therefore to shut the feedback out as the fight flee or freeze reaction kicks in.

Teachers too need feedback, as Gates implies in the quotation above, and it needs to be in the moment, not for assessment purposes. Who better to provide the teachers with feedback than their students: their customers? This needs careful planning perhaps using the model described briefly  in my article, After the Conference. Start small but do start immediately, at least once a week with an organising question, that gives the feedback clarity and precision. 

This teacher modelling is highly visible and helps the students understand the relevance of feedback in an authentic concrete way. The students may not always hear what the teacher says but they will remember what you do: your actions.


Some years back I was featured in a video prepared for the first module of a Six Seconds course designed to train 25,000 teachers round the world in emotional intelligence. The guy on the top left of the video, is Joshua Freedman, the CEO of Six Seconds, The big picture is the implications of the Fight, Flee or Freeze physiological reaction in the classroom. Those familiar with this will find the video as a useful refresher, those who are unaware of it will find the video gold. Note Joshua talking about stress in the classroom and how teachers are often unaware of how they are responsible for this. When this happens, the student is not going to accept even the best designed feedback, and the teacher, will likely wrongly think the student is at fault.

In 2007 I gave a presentation to the 13th International Conference on Thinking in Sweden. 

It uses authentic classroom incidents and practices, which can be applied at any school, class level, or subject. In the section on Being there, the fifth para down Cate’s story, illustrates how the teacher working with an individual student illustrates how thinking interdependently can be done as a pair as well as with a group. Further how a simple teacher behaviour, sitting beside the student, (doing with) is both peer tutoring and differentiating the learning. When this happens, not only is successful feedback going to be given, but the student is more likely to act on it. This is the link to the full paper on the Thinking Conference website. (The email address no longer exists.) 


Silver and McTighe in their recent webinar on teaching for deeper learning recommend the proforma beneath as one note making visual format that encapsulates the elements of deep learning.  Do a reflective audit of how, one aspect of this article when implemented will increase the value of the feedback you give. Great teachers reflect too! Keep it brief and to the point. The best is not the biggest number of notes, but the quality of a few. Do not overload. Start with one small aspect that appeals to you, thus making it personal.





Alan Cooper is an educational consultant based in New Zealand. As a principal, he was known for his leadership role in thinking skills, including Habits of Mind, learning styles and multiple intelligences, information technology, and the development of the school as a learning community. Alan can be contacted at

Read more from Alan Cooper.


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