EEF Blog: Applying the key principles of effective feedback to science teaching

Secondary science teacher and EEF specialist Dr Niki Kaiser explains how the evidence-informed recommendations from our latest guidance report can be integrated into science teaching. 

Recently, I had to write a personal statement for a job application. I asked a trusted colleague for some feedback, and they said:

“I’m sorry, Niki, but this reads like an Oscars acceptance speech!”

When I re-read my statement, I realised they were right, but I wasn’t sure how to change the style and make it better. Luckily, they also gave me some constructive advice for how to improve it.

Importantly, I trusted my colleague, which meant their comments were well-received, and I was motivated to act on them. As is reflected in the recommendations from the EEF’s new guidance report, these are all important aspects of effective feedback.

Feedback is “information given by a teacher to pupil(s) about their performance that aims to improve learning”, and ‘Teacher Feedback to Improve Pupil Learning’ gives some key principles for ensuring it is as effective as possible. It is important to understand that these are principles, rather than instructions; feedback is likely to look different, depending on the situation, subject, class, topic, day or individual pupil.

Key principles of effective feedback

One key principle, recommendation 2 from the guidance, is that feedback should be appropriately timed, and should focus on moving learning forward. For example, in a practical lesson, I would have to give immediate feedback if I noticed a student had left a beaker containing an acidic solution close to the edge of the bench. 

However, I might also prompt them to think about the hazards associated with acids, and ask them to articulate how they’d arrange their practical equipment next time. This supports self-regulation and subject knowledge, as well as preventing potential accidents, hence helping the student to progress.

Another reason I might give immediate feedback is to prevent incorrect ideas becoming embedded. For example, if a pupil answers a question in a lesson using the word burned when they mean melted or reacted, I would pick up on this straight away. Again, I could simply correct them, but I might also ask them to think of the correct word themselves. I could also prompt them to think about the difference between melting and burning on a particle level, so they are able to differentiate between them in a new context.

In the above examples, decisions about the timing and format of feedback are taken by me as the class teacher. I respond to each situation and pupil individually— even the most detailed school feedback policy would struggle to anticipate each case and context. This underlines the importance of trusting teachers to understand and enact the principles of effective feedback, rather than seeking to adhere at all times to a set of overarching rules.

Another key principle from the report is to plan for how pupils will receive and use feedback (recommendation 3). This includes practical considerations, such as making time for pupils to act on feedback or making sure they can read it, but it also emphasises the importance of relationships we have with pupils. I need to make sure my students trust me, they understand that I care about them doing well and think they can do it. And I want them to feel motivated to do well, to see Science as important to them, and to believe it’s worth putting the effort in.

This forms an important part of the above examples: picking up on an incorrect keyword or a misconception would have had a limited impact if my students thought I was always picking on them, or had decided that they don’t really care about Science enough to bother correcting their language.

Feedback also needs to be specific to the learning intentions set during initial teaching, and I often use past examiner’s reports to anticipate the aspects of topics and questions students will struggle with, and then structure tasks and feedback opportunities around these. 

I also find it useful to give students concrete examples to support feedback. For example, if I’m feeding back on how students set out a calculation, I might talk through the decisions I make by working through a similar example under a visualiser. Visualisers are a useful way of exemplifying the points you are trying to make in ‘real time’ using work from peers.

Immediate verbal feedback, given continuously, can be very effective, but at times, it will be most appropriate to give written feedback. But however you choose to give feedback, you need to strike a balance between being responsive, having a sustained impact and considering workload. Would the time spent writing feedback be better spent planning next steps for the class?

The most important principle from this report is that any feedback ought to be tailored to the context: the class, the pupil, the subject and the topic will all influence the choices teachers make. If you understand the principles that characterise effective feedback, this will give you the flexibility to make the most of any opportunities that arise.