Is the Feedback You’re Giving Students Helping or Hindering?

Is the Feedback You’re Giving Students Helping or Hindering?

In 38% of well-designed studies, feedback actually made performance worse—one of the most counterintuitive results in all of psychology.

If there’s a single principle teachers need to digest about classroom feedback, it’s this: The only thing that matters is what students do with it. No matter how well the feedback is designed, if students do not use the feedback to move their own learning forward, it’s a waste of time. We can debate about whether feedback should be descriptive or evaluative, but it is absolutely essential that feedback is productive.

Add to that concept a second related principle: Feedback should be more work for the student than it is for the teacher. Teachers who internalize and practice feedback based on these precepts will be well on their way to teaching that improves learning.

What the Studies Say

In their review of feedback studies conducted between 1905 and 1995, Kluger and DeNisi (1996) found that in 38% of well-designed studies, feedback actually made performance worse—one of the most counterintuitive results in all of psychology.

Let’s examine what must be the oldest and most common forms of feedback in public education: grades, rankings, and written teacher comments on tests and papers. Letter or numerical grades on papers give students information about their current performance. Class rankings give students information about their performance compared to others in their class. But grades and rankings do not in themselves give students one iota of information of how to improve.

When teachers pair grades with comments, common sense would tell us that this is a richer form of feedback. But our work in schools has shown us that most students focus entirely on the grade and fail to read or process teacher comments. Anyone who has been a teacher knows how many hours of work it takes to provide meaningful comments. That most students virtually ignore that painstaking correction, advice, and praise is one of public education’s best-kept secrets.

The importance of a growth mindset

Feedback will be most effective when students are fully engaged in learning. Good learners, we know, tend to attribute both failure and success to internal, unstable causes—in other words, they know that it is within their power to get better. It’s therefore essential that teachers help students understand that “ability” is not a fixed quantity. Students must understand that they are not born with talent (or lack of it) and that their personalities do not determine whether or not they are “good at math” or “good at writing.” Rather, ability is incremental. The harder you work, the smarter you get. Once students begin to understand this “growth mindset” as Carol Dweck calls it, students are much more likely to embrace feedback from their teachers.

However, the thing that really matters in feedback is the relationship between the student and the teacher. Every teacher knows that the same feedback given to two similar students can make one try harder and the second give up. When teachers know their students well, they know when to push and when to back off. Moreover, if students don’t believe their teachers know what they’re talking about or don’t have the students’ best interests at heart, they won’t invest the time to process and put to work the feedback teachers give them.

Ultimately, when you know your students and your students trust you, you can ignore all the “rules” of feedback. Without that relationship, all the research in the world won’t matter.

Learn more about techniques for effective feedback. Bring Dylan to your school, or visit our store for professional development packs, books, and resources. And look for professional development services coming in spring 2015.


  1. Stacey Shields

    Dylan couldn’t be more dead on with this approach to feedback and the importance of the teacher-student relationship. I truly believe excellent teachers innately educate in this manner, but that training of lesser naturally inclined teachers and administrators is lacking in these fundamental elements. Furthermore, emphasis on standardized testing, feedback in the form of grades, and the improper use of formative assessment has led our educational system down the wrong path. Kudos to Dylan for aggressively bringing things to light. Any educational institution would benefit greatly by including Dylan Wiliam in their professional development plans.

  2. Fabulous. I have thought this since before I got my teaching degree (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth…or, in other words, the 80’s). Knowing my students is my #1 priority. Thank you for working to make this a priority in our school system. People are listening.

  3. There has been some discussion in the UK recently about the expectations that OFSTED does or does not have regarding written feedback to students. Whilst this is an interesting discussion in terms of accountability, I think it highlights a key issue. Schools often argue themselves into a position or policy whereby we try to provide feedback on every facet of everything, all of the time. And then, when we’ve done that, we add an overall comment. Given the ambiguous nature of feedback, it seems better – as you suggest – to focus on the effect. One or two clearly made points of a specific nature that are received and acted upon by a student will have a far greater impact that lengthy, multi-focal feedback that students are unlikely to be able to process.

  4. Brilliant! The importance of the right feedback can’t be emphasised enough in today’s school, not least in Sweden where I live. Here the balance between teachers’ work on giving feedback and students’ response to feedback has gone in the wrong direction. Also, thanks for pointing out the importance of the relational aspect (teacher-student) as an integral part of the feedback system.

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