Getting the Buggers to respond: The complexities of feedback and what we can learn from Mr Miyagi.

Teaching is a frustrating business, and perhaps there is nothing more frustrating than marking.  Firstly because you see where students have misunderstood your teaching, secondly you spot silly mistakes and finally after writing what you think is clear and accurate feedback the buggers don’t respond! or they respond with ridiculously frustrating but well intentioned comments such as “thank you for your comments I will try harder” or even when you have spent  DIRT  (Dedicated Improvement and reflection time) they seem to have only mimicked your comments by saying ” I shall make sure that I include more wow words in my writing”  which is not your intention when you wrote ” Use some of the wow words we have explored in order to create interest” especially when you see in their next redraft that they have indeed used more wow words… badly.  Indeed getting the buggers to respond well (if at all in some cases) is frustrating.

But there is often as reason that students respond badly to feedback, and there are things which we can do about it.

Feedback is complex and knowing this will help. 

Feedback is complex. Students respond in a number of ways depending on their perception of their own ability, you and the task. Not to mention the time of day or the mood of the teenager reading your comments.

It often seems that the word “Feedback” has become more used in schools than “Student” “Teaching” or “lesson”, and perhaps for a very good reason. If feedback is done correctly it can dramatically increase achievement, in fact in terms of effect size it is at the top the league table of things you can do.

It is no surprise then that schools have often taken the approach that more feedback is desirable. But just doing more of something does not mean that you will getting better results, feedback is no different. In fact the complexities around the impact of feedback on learning are well, complex. Very complex. Consider the table below:


Of the eight ways that student can respond to feedback only two (italics) are desirable. The others are results at best with no improvement or at worse a lowering of learning. All feedback that is given should come with a cautionary note “This may or may not improve learning”  the Growth Mindset ideas that are based upon Carol Dwecks work came out of extensive research  spanning 30 years into how students make sense of their successes and failures resulting in the promotion of a growth mindset which would combat the problems in the table.

Clearly the problems of feedback are a concern for teachers “marking” books. Investing time in reading and then giving students feedback is only beneficial if students use the feedback to improve their understanding. The comment(s) that a teachers make on a students work is crucial for all the reasons in the table.  In addition if a teacher has spent a substantial amount of time marking a set of books and students do not respond appropriately the opportunity cost of that time is huge;  the teacher would have been better off spending that time planning resources.

In addition to the problems of feedback in the table above student often don’t respond to feedback well because:

  1. The Feedback given is accurate but not helpful
  2. Mistakes are treated the same as errors (and how do you know which one is which)
  3. Students are not given enough time or instruction to respond.

Feedback is often very accurate, but of no help to the student. For example an accurate piece of feedback on a science assignment might be “You need to be more systematic in planning your experiment” if the student doesn’t know what systematic means then or where to be more systematic the feedback is next to useless. (Example taken from Dylan Wiliam: Embedded Formative Assessment) Students will then often just mimic what the teacher says with no clue of what that means.

Another problem with written feedback in particular  is that often comments are based around mistakes  and not errors. A mistake is something that the student knows but has just not included ( or has run out of time to include) so for example explaining a final cause of world war two. If the teachers feedback is that they need to include this then the student may reject the feedback as they already know the answer but just couldn’t do it in the time frame.  Knowing if the student has made a mistake or has genuinely not understood something and has made an error  effects the feedback that should be given and how that feedback is received. This is sometimes easy to see, but sometimes is not. Be aware of it.

Linking both of these problems is that students are often not given enough support to respond and correct their errors. Feedback is only useful if it changes the actions and understanding of the student. Any feedback given will invariably need explanation and re-teaching.

Feedback and particularly written feedback is complex. There are a few things though that can make marking more effective. Mr Miyagi can be a source of help (weirdly) and guidance


The Mr Miyagi’s approach to feedback. 

For those of a certain vintage the Karate Kid would have featured as part of their teenage pop culture.  The wise old man Mr Miyagi teachers wimpy  bullied kid Daniel Larusso in the art of karate. Mr Miyagi is so effective in his teaching that Daniel is able to win a State level championship in a matter of months. What is Mr Miyagi’s secret? Well in the scene below it appears to be two things:


Firstly the student Daniel has had to practice constituent parts of a skill to the point of being achingly and frustratingly bored (wax on wax off) by painting Mr Miyagi’s house, cleaning his car, creosoting the fence etc.

Secondly Mr Miyagi gives Daniel very precise feedback by showing him the correct way when he gets it wrong – by modelling for example “sanding the floor” “Wax on Wax off” etc.

What lessons can we take from this about written feedback, and how to get the buggers to respond?

  1. Firstly written feedback should be given once students have completed enough learning for it to be meaningful. Feedback can hinder learning if it is given too soon in the learning process.  Perhaps consider marking second drafts as opposed to first drafts. Let students struggle and get frustrated before jumping in with feedback.
  2. Comments should be specific, accurate and helpful. Mr Miyagi could have said to Daniel “You need too improve the way you wax on wax off” that would not have been helpful but it would have been accurate and specific. The feedback was only helpful because Mr Miyagi showed Daniel how to do it. So in written feedback give examples of what you mean.
  3. DIRT time is only useful if students are retaught or instructed how to improve. Imagine Mr Miyagi had not instructed Daniel but had instead posed a series of questions, would it have worked as effectively as instruction – with examples?. Use exemplars in feedback just like Mr Miyagi did.

In essence Feedback is only as good as the action it creates. The reason the “Buggers” aren’t  responding is because they are not been given the framework, the time, the skills or the teaching to effectively engage in that feedback.  Find ways to navigate around this complex and subtle part of teaching and learning.






























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