Five tips for effective feedback

Are you teaching on the edge? Torsten Payne provides strategies and examples for effective (and time-saving) feedback

Author details

Torsten Payne is the G&T coordinator at St Luke’s Science and Sports College, Exeter. He is also a writer and trainer, focused on classroom strategies that make a difference. He is the author of...

I once estimated that, if you price teacher’s time appropriately, in England we spend about two and a half billion pounds a year on feedback and it has almost no effect on student achievement. (Dylan Wiliam in What does this look like in the classroom?)

And yet, in his hugely influential work, Visible Learning, John Hattie has stated that a wealth of research shows that effective feedback is the single most effective strategy to improve progress in teaching.

So which is true?

The answer is both. The key word here is effective. Feedback is an exceptional tool when it is used well and a waste of everybody’s time when it isn’t. The good news here is that doing it well involves no extra work.  In fact, the really good news is that doing feedback more effectively can transform both your pupil’s progress and your work-life balance.

Here are my top five tips for effective feedback. I've also put together some examples to illustrate.

1. Find the edge of success

If I want to swim a bit faster, it would be a waste of time for someone to teach me how to swim as I already know. Equally, it would be a waste of time to teach me how the world’s fastest swimmers shave milli-seconds off their times as I’m nowhere near their level.

The beginning of any teaching has to be an assessment of where learners are now and what they can already do

The only feedback that will actually help would come from a coach watching to see exactly how well I can swim already, then telling me what the next step would be.

The same principles apply to all feedback. It is only effective if it comes at the edge of success (or if you’re a pessimist, the point at which people fail). So the beginning of any teaching has to be an assessment of where learners are now and what they can already do.

Here are some ideas for finding the edge of learning.

  • Start with the most difficult question. Those who can do it sit to one side (an expert’s table) and get on with it while you teach the rest how it’s done.
  • Graduated questions – this means a selection of questions which gradually get harder and pupils can choose the point at which they start. These also make a good exit card (see examples); reviewing them is a good starter for the following lesson.
  • Start with a test to ascertain the level of knowledge and skills that learners already have. It may be that some simply don’t need this lesson and are ready to move on.
  • Four from nine – have three sets (easy, medium and difficult) of three questions on the topic and let students choose which four they’ll answer (see examples).

2. Make your time count

Cut your workload by using your time more effectively. To quote Dylan Wiliam again, 'feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor'.

  • Self-assessment
  • Peer assessment
  • Group review (e.g. Which work is best? What makes it better than the others?)
  • Whole class marking (especially good if you have a visualiser to live mark one piece)

Student apathy is the single biggest waste of teacher’s time

If this is followed by a chance for pupils to review and improve their own work, it’ll cut your work in half. Not only that, but if students figure out improvements for themselves, they are more likely to remember them for the future.

3. Maximum effort (from the pupils!)

Realising this is another great time saver for the teacher. Unless a learner has put their best effort into their work, the only useful feedback is 'must try harder'.

To return to the swimming analogy, if the coach wants to see how fast I can swim but I just doggy-paddle as I can’t be bothered, any advice the coach gives will be a waste of breath as I already know how to do it better myself.

Student apathy is the single biggest waste of teacher’s time. If a student doesn’t put their best effort into the work, there is no point in the teacher putting their best effort into the feedback.

4. Don’t just identify possible improvements: make them do it!

The trouble with WWW (what went well) and EBI (even better if) feedback is it doesn’t actually show any progress and is likely to be forgotten as soon as the page is turned.

Make sure feedback needs a response so you can see that progress has been made. For example, if your feedback is 'EBI you'd given an example', make sure that an example gets added. 

Top tip

Even when feedback is personalised, you’ll normally find a few pupils who are at the same stage and so need to do the same next step. Numbered feedback (see examples) saves time by eradicating duplication.

  1. Write your feedback comments on a piece of paper and number them.
  2. Write the relevant number on the pupil’s work.
  3. When returning the work to the class, put the numbers and comments on the board/screen.
  4. Pupils look up their number, copy down the appropriate feedback and then respond to it.

5. Make the pupils think for themselves

Whenever possible, make learners figure out how to improve their work themselves – they are far more likely to remember it and it saves you time.

Top tips

  • Make sure success criteria are stuck into books. If the work isn’t perfect, just highlight criteria that haven't been met (see examples).
  • Wherever there’s a literacy or numeracy mistake, put a dot in the margin to let them know. They can figure out for themselves what went wrong and fix it (see examples).


I choose a lazy person to do a hard job. Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it. (Bill Gates)

Happily, I think that’s what I’ve done here, but for the best of educational reasons. By putting the onus on the pupils to find the faults and improve their work, we are encouraging and guiding them to show:

  • independence
  • diligence
  • reflection
  • progress.

All are key traits to succeeding in education and life generally. And the really great benefit is that the more work the students do, the less the teacher has to do for them. An Ofsted inspector once summed up a school by saying: ‘the teachers work too hard. The students don’t work hard enough.’

If that sounds familiar, then for everybody’s sake, it’s time to redress the balance.

Last Updated: 
23 Nov 2020