What the research says – Feedback

The first and very likely last of my attempts to see how easy/difficult it is for a classroom teacher to research evidence using only online resources on various ELT questions.

Many teachers are interested in the question posed by Chris Wilson/@MrChrisJWilson – What makes feedback good? (Wilson, 2013).

The commenters to the post all more or less agreed that generally feedback should aim to improve the learner – what is known as formative feedback.

What does the research tell us?

A 2008* review article titled Focus on formative feedback by Valerie Shute used between 170-180 sources resulting in some interesting tables of recommendations based on the unequivocal results that were reviewed. e.g. one recommendation discourages the use of praise:

from Table 3, p 31, Shute (2007)
from Table 3, p 31, Shute (2007)

Another advises against interrupting a student whilst they are engaged in a task which contrasts somewhat with Adrian Underhill on giving feedback during tasks (Underhill, 2012):

from Table 3, p 31, Shute (2007)
from Table 3, p 31, Shute (2007)

One table lists some guidelines related to learner characteristics. It is difficult to tell Chris’s learner’s characteristics but let’s assume that this learner’s goal is to show her competence rather than increase her competence, one of the guidelines state:

from Table 5, p 33, Shute (2007)
from Table 5, p 33, Shute (2007)

There is a lot to dig in Shute’s article which I may come back to as updates to this post.

A more immediate classroom conceptualization is provided by Tony Lynch** who talks about making the distinction between slips and errors and getting students to notice the difference (Lynch, ?).

Students are able to correct slips on their own whereas errors need the help of a teacher.

His work recommends the use of student self-transcription of speaking tasks and student recorded audio logs. Teachers can then use the transcriptions and logs to give feedback.

*I initially found the Shute 2008 article on JSTOR repo, but during my search came across the Shute 2007 report for ETS, which the screenshots of the tables are taken from.

**I found initial references to work by Lynch from a search on the British Council directory of UK ELT research 2005-10. It’s a shame that I can get access to a US researcher’s paper but not to a UK one. My google-fu is weak, found article eventually.


Lynch, T. (?) Tips from the Classroom: Student-responsible correction of spoken English. Retrieved 10 January 2013, from http://www.sfu.ca/heis/archive/20-2_lynch.pdf

Shute, V. J. (2007). Focus on formative feedback. ETS Research Report, RR-07-11 (pp. 1-47), Princeton, NJ.

Shute, V. J. (2008). Focus on formative feedback. Review of Educational Research, 78(1),153-189.

Underhill, A. (2012 Dec 19) Demanding higher in a conversation class [Web Log Post]. Retrieved from http://demandhighelt.wordpress.com/2012/12/19/demanding-higher-in-a-conversation-class/

Wilson, C. (2013 Jan 7) Your accent is terrible – Destructive feedback [Web log Post]. Retrieved from http://www.eltsquared.co.uk/your-accent-is-terrible-destructive-feedback/

Update 1:

In the comments to this post by Chiew Pang/@@aClilToClimb, Dale Coulter/ ‏@dalecoulter gives some solid reasons why immediate feedback is necessary.

This reminded me that I did not include any information on timing in my initial post.

The review found that immediate feedback is preferred choice, particularly for relatively difficult tasks but research has also shown that delayed feedback helps with transfer of learning, so one should match feedback with learning goals:

Shute 2008 feedback-timing
from Table 4, p 32, Shute (2007)

Update 2:

Thanks to a tweet by @cdelondon that linked to article on Where are university websites hiding all their research I learnt of this great tool – Institutional Repository Search which claims to look through 130 UK repos. Fab!

Update 3:

Yazikopen, an online directory linking to more than 4000 modern languages articles, brought to my attention by Alannah Fitzgerald ‏/@AlannahFitz.

9 thoughts on “What the research says – Feedback

  1. Great Stuff Mura,

    I know I am too guilty of saying “Great” after almost every feedback and looking at the Demand Higher stuff challenged me on this. I think I use it as a marker though (much in the way I use “OK” and “Right” to get a groups attention when they are in a group activity) to show my feedback is over.

    Number 31 was the most interesting for me. Does that mean if the student has a clear eye on learning goals then specific feedback isn’t necessary or just that if they aren’t focused on a learning goal then we MUST be specific and point to the learning goal?

    Thanks for the research notes. I’ve been completely overwhelmed by how people have got behind that post and contributed. Thanks.

    1. hi chris

      thanks for commenting and for getting me thinking about this question.

      note that the recommendations are based on the clearcut results that the review found not on equivocal results.

      and in the review there is no report on effects of feedback specificity on high learning oriented students, will need to dig the cited article to find out – Davis, W. D., Carson, C. M., Ammeter, A. P., & Treadway, D. C. (2005). The interactive effects of goal orientation and feedback specificity on task performance. Human Performance, 18, 409–426.

      what is recommended in the same table of learner characteristics is that for high-achieving learners – use delayed feedback; use facilitative feedback such as hints, cues and prompts; although another recommendation seems contradictory saying that verification feedback (knowledge of results) may be enough.


  2. Great stuff Mura.
    (Just noticed Chris opened his comments in the same way) I have two quick thoughts.
    1) I think the issue with praise is that it is generally not-specific. To me praise itself is not the problem but rather unspecific praise so students don’t know what to try to replicate.
    (It often just becomes a habit for the teacher, totally devoid of meaning)

    2) I think there might be something to consider regarding the type of task when we think about whether to interrupt or not. I think certain tasks lend themselves more to interruption more than others. I am thinking the objective of the speaking task and how it is set up (timing/partners/ect) could be key factors.

    Thanks for the (as usual) interesting post.
    Thanks also for compiling the research!

    1. hi mike

      thanks for popping by!

      both your points are well said. i am very guilty of lapsing into point 1, hoping that what i read about the research will help to impact on that poor habit!

      it’s a shame that it is still, using online resources for an independent person, far from easy to access relevant research, though there does seem to be a slight improvement recently?


      1. Thanks for the reply!

        I can’t say that I never do it but when I do a “good job” without reason or specifics it sort of rings out in my ears and my temperature rises. It is all very unpleasant. I think this all starts with awareness and then we can start to think about how/if we want to change our behaviour.

        As for research, I think it is slowly marching towards getting easier for individual people but obviously not easy, right.


  3. I enjoyed reading this and completely agree that research should be more easily available- after all, in our field at least, it has generally been paid for by the taxpayer.
    Related to the use of praise, there has been a lot of research in child psychology which shows that indiscriminate praise is actually damaging to children- I think there’s a lot of crossover here http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-power-prime/200909/parenting-dont-praise-your-children

    1. hi rachael

      many thx for yr kind comments, and thx for that link.

      it is interesting from that article the focus on praise over things you can control rather things you cannot control. a kind of parallel with literature on focusing feedback on task rather than on learner.


  4. Do studies seriously divide and conquer ‘summative peer assessment’ and ‘formative peer feedback’? And, if they don’t, why not. It seems so obvious to me that they are completely different entities with completely different purposes.

    1. hi thanks for commenting,

      in language teaching i think the “summative” approach has been dominant no?

      i certainly was not clear about the differences in my initial teacher training hence the reason research seems to demarcate the two approaches?

      if that is your question?


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