Turning Feedback into Feedforward with the REPAIR Method
As teachers, most of us abhor likening education to business. Nonetheless, certain management and business-related strategies can be relevant in an educational setting. One such concept is feedforward, an assessment technique advocated by communications consultant Joe Hirsch, which may prove particularly useful for teachers giving formative feedback as part of a competency-based assessment strategy. This article synthesizes Joe Hirsch’s book The Feedback Fix as well as his blog posts on the topic, and applies the main concepts to a pedagogical context.
What Makes Traditional Feedback Ineffective?
Hirsch cites research conducted at Columbia University pointing out that on average, only 30% of the feedback individuals receive is acted upon. This may seem particularly shocking given the amount of time and effort teachers spend on providing students with feedback and correction. How can we make sure students act upon the comments and input they receive?
First, Hirsch pinpoints 5 common pain points of traditional forms of feedback:
- It is time-consuming. Time spent on commenting student work comes at the expense of supporting learners in different ways.
- It focuses on the past. Past errors cannot be undone, which may lead to resistance and frustration.
- It may come across as judgmental. Submitting work with the sole purpose of receiving an evaluation exacerbates hierarchy.
- It perpetuates or even reinforces negative attitudes. Focus on past errors can lead to a sense of helplessness instead of empowering students to improve.
- It emphasizes grades and ratings instead of growth and development. Research shows that once students receive a grade or other form of quantitative feedback, they pay less attention to qualitative comments.
People can’t control what they can’t change, and we can’t change the past. And that happens to be the focus of most of the feedback that we give or receive.
Adopting a New Evaluator’s Stance
If teachers want students to act on their suggestions for improvement, curating how much information to share is more important than pointing out every single issue observed, Hirsch claims. While it’s tempting to try to fix all the identified mistakes, providing bulk feedback will yield comparatively few results.
At the same time, teachers should resist the temptation to engage in what Hirsch calls bike-shedding – focusing on many small details that can easily be corrected, while knowingly leaving more complex yet crucial issues unattended. Individual indicators on an evaluation grid relate to performance while pointing out more nuanced observations will encourage development.
To explain this change in attitude, Hirsch uses the metaphor of window-gazers becoming mirror-holders. Window-gazers’ field of vision is hyper-focused, for instance by closely referring to an assessment grid. The resulting feedback, Hirsch argues, is narrow, subjectively framed, and limited in its perspective. Mirror-holders, on the other hand, deliberately shield their view. Meaningful information must come from the person on the other side – the student. Mirror-holders guide students toward a self-discovered view of their own performance, reflected in their mirror.
Window-gazers tell others what to see. Mirror-holders challenge others to see it for themselves.
Providing Feedforward, Not Feedback
In order to alleviate some of the problems mentioned above, Joe Hirsch proposes a paradigm shift from feedback to feedforward. He defines the latter through a set of 6 characteristics which he regroups under the acronym REPAIR (regenerates, expands, particular, authentic, impact, refines):
- Feedforward regenerates talent
- The most effective feedforward helps student grow. While receiving positive feedback may be satisfying and rewarding, it is result-focused and merely confirms what the student already considered to be correct. Feedforward encourages students to further develop a strength, for instance by evoking challenging questions, or by suggesting further action the student can take, even if the submitted answer or task already satisfies the evaluated criteria. This helps students think about ways they can grow beyond the course requirements.
- Feedforward expands possibilities
- Feedforward expands on what is possible, rather than on simply identifying problems. Hirsch calls this plussing. This is first and foremost a semantic change. Instead of using negative language (“incorrect answer,” “yes, but…”), the evaluator uses positive expressions to amplify possibilities (“What if you considered…?” “How might this affect…?”). This approach facilitates pondering possible solutions to an issue, rather than identifying ideas that do not work.
- It is particular
- Feedback is often given in bulk at certain moments, after various criteria have been measured. There is a limit to how much information students can absorb and operationalize at any given time. Feedforward is more strategical and selective. This can be easily achieved by making it an ongoing process embedded in day-to-day work, and by only focusing on a few elements at a time, so students can process and act on them immediately. Active learning and project-based learning approaches facilitate this type of interaction.
- It is authentic
- When giving feedback, we usually aim to be balanced, pointing out positive as well as negative elements in a student’s work. The problem with that approach, Hirsch explains, is what is called the recency effect. When students receive praise after getting constructive feedback, they do not really absorb the critical aspect. Therefore, Hirsch recommends a more direct approach: describing the issue, explaining why it is problematic, then prompting the student for a solution. Locating the problem and looking for solutions together achieves the same effect of balance yet does not turn the student’s attention away from the essential point of critique.
- It has impact
- The main reason why students don’t progress after receiving feedback is that they don’t know what to do with it. Hirsch emphasizes the importance of formulating comments in terms students can operationalize. This is especially important when developing descriptive assessment grids. Providing students with a plan for improvement, ideally broken up into manageable steps, will make a bigger impact than merely pointing out what they need to improve.
- It refines group dynamics
- Although student evaluations are mostly individual, feedforward should be a team sport, according to Hirsch. Abandoning the traditional format of hierarchical and teacher-controlled feedback allows for more collaborative feedforward involving peers and external resources, which leads to a positive climate of shared information and knowledge. This allows the teacher to act as a mentor rather than an ominous source of all truth.
Small Changes Lead to Big Results
For teachers already using formative feedback, many of Joe Hirsch’s recommendations may not seem revolutionary. Yet most of us will agree that telling students how to improve is not always an easy feat. Creating a positive environment where students get to focus on what’s ahead rather than dwell on what went wrong will build not only confidence, but also skills. What are your tips and tricks?