Feedback is a word we use unthinkingly and inaccurately. We smile at a student, say "good job!" and call it feedback. We write "B-"at the top of a paper and consider it feedback. We share a score on the state test with a student and his parents and consider it feedback.
But feedback is something different. It is useful information about performance. It is not praise, it is not evaluation, it is not a number on a standardized test. So, true feedback is critical—perhaps the key element—in effective learning. No goal worth meeting is ever met without good feedback and opportunities to use it. What, then, is "useful information about performance"?
First, we need to recall that too much of schooling acts as if initial learning of content is all that matters. This is a pre-modern view of learning: we teach content, students learn, tests reveal what and whether they learned. Too rarely teaching aims for genuine performance with content, and thus closes the loop via "formative assessment" to provide specific and useful information that students need in order to master worthy performances.
"Good job!" is not feedback. "You used many interesting details to make your characters come alive in this story," is feedback. "B-" is not feedback. "Your thesis is an interesting one, but you have not provided sufficient evidence to support it," is. "Approaching mastery" is not feedback. "John is able to perform the basic algorithm for two-column multiplication, but because he does not yet understand the reason for it, he often makes avoidable errors," is.
Feedback is thus not about praise or blame, approval or disapproval (despite our casual way of talking as if it were). Feedback is not evaluation, the act of placing value. Feedback is value-neutral help on worthy tasks. It describes what the learner did and did not do in relation to her goals. It is actionable information, and it empowers the student to make intelligent adjustments when she applies it to her next attempt to perform.
Sometimes, feedback comes from teachers. In the most powerful cases, however, it comes from the activity itself. After winning his first Masters Tournament, Tiger Woods explained how he turned his early performance around. He described how he knew from his putts on the back nine that he was not playing well, and said to himself that he had to adjust his performance. But to know you need to adjust, you need on-going feedback. Tiger knew, on the basis of effects: the path of the ball, not because some test specialist gave him a score a month later. Too often we do not build such self-adjustment into the assessment, even as life typically does.
Similarly, the young clarinet player receives feedback when her high C squeaks, so she adjusts. The young math student receives feedback when he realizes he has come up with a solution that cannot possibly be correct, so he adjusts. Each of these students receives feedback from the performance itself—something has gone wrong. Each, then, has other timely chances to act on the feedback – to demonstrate their learning, in other words. Sometimes, the student can self-correct based on that feedback: I need to loosen my lips when I play a high note, re-check my early calculations. Other times, though the student knows that there has been an error or a falling short of excellence, the teacher must clarify: "See? You read the word problem backward, so your denominator was far smaller than your numerator." The long-term goal, though, is to make the teacher-coach obsolete.
Of course, each of these students had been taught what to do. But it's not teaching that causes successful, eventual learning – i.e. accomplishment. It's the attempts and adjustments by the learner to perform that cause accomplishment. And without feedback, all of the teaching, no matter how extensive, remains theoretical to the learner. While teaching can answer the question, "What should be done?" feedback answers the question, "What did I just do here, and what should I have done just now?" The next step is advice or guidance: "How do I learn to do that move better?" Feedback honors the individual and actual performance, not some theory about how one plays soccer or the clarinet or how one solves a difficult arithmetic problem.
We need to teach, of course. And we need to formally assess. But unless we build a strong feedback loop into our teaching and learning—providing for individual, targeted, specific feedback to each student, followed by opportunities to use it—then we will lose all except those students who would learn even without our help. For the student, the question is very simple: given my attempt, what did I do that worked and what did I do that didn’t work and why? Then: how can I improve? Too often, the answers are insufficient and unclear. This is the kind of transparency completely missing from most of schooling – to the detriment of our students.