Quality feedback as important as ever during COVID-19

By Dave Smale – Across School Leader for Pupuke Kāhui Ako and Head of Scholarship and Extension Pathway English, WBHS

Despite being unexpectedly thrust into distance learning and all the challenges that come with it, one thing remains the same – quality feedback is a key influence on student achievement.

Whether you’re physically in the same classroom as your students or engaging with them online in a Zoom meeting, the feedback you provide is key to increasing their engagement, understanding and achievement.

At New Plymouth Boys’ High School (NPBHS), roughly thirty years ago, I had two teachers, Alan Elgar and Terry Heaps, who influenced me enormously.

Both were English teachers, quite different operators in many ways, but they shared many vital attributes.

Both were experts, oozing competence. How could we tell? We just could. Students always can.

Both were enormously passionate about their subject. This was apparent in the books and writers they introduced us to, the analyses and explanations they offered and the discussions and interpretations they guided us towards having.

Humour and compassion were further key reasons why we looked forward to their classes; student-teacher relationships being always at the heart of effective teaching and learning.

Continuing to inspire

Over recent weeks, teachers, students and parents, across our Pupuke Kāhui Ako community and around the world, have been forced into a learning space of teaching and learning remotely. The adaptability and character displayed by everyone involved in this sudden shift has been incredible and something we should be collectively proud of.

Clearly, however, many of the key things which make learning enjoyable and powerful for students can be tricky to replicate digitally. The things that I mention above, those things which made Alan and Terry so great, were predicated on their ability to relay their expertise in an authentic interpersonal way, in other words, physically and in the classroom.

Many things can be achieved remotely with digital meetings or online tasks or check-ins, but only to a point.

Back at NPBHS, my friends and I used to joke about how far superior the comments were Terry wrote on our essays compared with the essays themselves. It was not a laughing matter, though, we were all motivated and inspired to improve our writing at an accelerated pace as a direct consequence.

Quality not quantity

There are, of course, many types and shapes of feedback which vary according to the subject, task and level, alongside countless other factors. And, it is important not to equate quantity with quality.

But, as John Hattie, Helen Timperley and other leading voices in New Zealand education have stressed over the better part of the last two decades:

“Students learn best when they receive very specific feedback about what they need to do to improve.”

And, if teacher feedback leads to an enhancement in a student’s facility to self-assess and peer-assess, then Hattie et al. argue that this is an even more powerful form of learning.

Hopefully, schooling will return to a level approaching normality in the coming weeks, and students and teachers will again enjoy all its full benefits.

Until then, teachers providing effective feedback on significant student work seems to me to be one measure that will help them enormously. And, when we return, it will continue to be at the top of the list.


Selected examples of quality feedback on senior students’ literature essays:

Student A’s essay – marked

Student B’s essay – marked

Student C’s essay – marked

Student D’s essay – marked


Suggestions for further reading:

  • The Power of Feedback, J Hattie, H Timperley – Review of educational research, 2007 – journals.sagepub.com
  • Visible Learning: Feedback, J Hattie, S Clarke – 2018 – books.google.com
  • Analysis of New Zealand primary and secondary student peer-and self-assessment comments: Applying Hattie and Timperley’s feedback model, LR Harris, GTL Brown, JA Harnett – Assessment in Education …, 2015 – Taylor & Francis
  • https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/09/business/online-learning-virus.html