EEF Blog: Integrating evidence into mathematics teaching – Focus on feedback

This monthly series supports teachers and maths leads in implementing the evidence from the EEF’s Improving mathematics in Key Stages 2 and 3 guidance report. The last in the series of seven focuses on feedback.

What are your existing beliefs and assumptions about feedback?

  • What is the right balance between verbal and written feedback in the classroom?
  • When is it best to give feedback to pupils – is it best given immediately or is delayed feedback more effective?
  • Should we give pupils marks and grades, or are written comments likely to have a bigger impact?

If all teachers of mathematics in your school were asked these questions, would there be broad agreement in their answers?

The EEF recently published our latest guidance report, which focuses on the feedback teachers give to pupils to support their learning. It highlights that the debates framed in the questions above, which focus on the methods and timing of feedback, can be unproductive. Rather, we should be focusing on what really matters: the principles of good feedback, rather than the delivery methods we choose to use in the classroom.

High-quality initial instruction

The report suggests that a focus on high-quality initial instruction, backed up by formative assessment strategies, will reduce the work that feedback needs to do. The EEF’s ‘Improving Mathematics in Key Stages 2 and 3’ guidance report, together with our recent blog series pulling out key classroom-facing aspects of this report (links below), can support schools in ensuring their mathematics teaching aligns with the best-available evidence. We would recommend using our audit tool as a starting point to help identify the areas of practice in your setting to prioritise.

Blog 1: Addressing assessment

Blog 2: Minimising misconceptions

Blog 3: Making sense through modelling

Blog 4: Developing a rich network

Blog 5: Making use of manipulatives

Blog 6: Guiding problem-solving

Formative assessment

A key component of effective initial instruction – used before feedback is given – is the use of two formative assessment strategies.

First, we should consider the sharing of learning intentions. In my maths classroom, I make frequent use of two strategies in particular – discussion of strengths and weaknesses, and the modelling of high-quality work.

For example, I might present the class with two solutions to the same mathematical problem and ask them to identify the strengths and weaknesses of each. This draws out discussion about strategies used, the efficiency of approaches, the quality of the working out, and whether mathematical arguments are clear. Together, we can use this to construct a rubric for successful work.

Similarly, high-quality examples of previous pupils’ work can be used to start discussions around what makes their work successful and how this might inform individual pupils’ approaches to their own piece of work. Over time, a bank of these can be and shared, using Google Drive for example, and they can also form an effective basis for discussion in department or phase meetings.

The second strategy is the use of in-the-moment assessment, which provides information about learning gaps that feedback will then target. Teachers could deploy diagnostic multiple-choice questions (with carefully designed ‘distractors’ which reveal misconceptions).Practical resources that have helped improve my own classroom questioning, include ‘Thinkers’ from the ATM. In addition, carefully designed tasks which reveal what pupils are thinking can also make feedback more meaningful, as it will be better targeted to a pupil’s specific areas for development.

Moving learning forwards

‘Great work—you’re brilliant at maths!’

I must confess that I have given feedback like this myself in the past, but general feedback which is about the person, and lacks specificity is unlikely to have a positive impact on pupils’ learning.

Focusing on moving learning forwards by targeting the task, the subject, and self-regulation strategies – whether in written comments of via verbal feedback – is much more likely to be effective.

For example, if we notice pupils are misapplying the order of operations, we might use a carefully constructed series of teacher-led worked examples and then ask pupils to find the problems from the last lesson (where they incorrectly ordered operations)before correcting them. Or we might choose to focus feedback on a pupil’s self-regulation, such as their approach to using a problem-solving strategy productively. 

Five ‘big questions’ for discussion

  • Are you clear on the purpose of your feedback policy and is it designed with pupil learning in mind, rather than teacher observation or parental expectations?
  • Is your feedback policy designed to promote and exemplify the principles of effective feedback?
  • Is your policy overly specific about features such as the frequency or method of feedback?
  • Have you considered the ‘opportunity cost’ of your feedback policy – will teachers spend excessive time delivering feedback at the expense of other areas of their practice?
  • Is professional development time allocated to develop teachers’ understanding of feedback?