Education ∪ Math ∪ Technology

Month: March 2010 (page 1 of 2)

The Role of Immediacy of Feedback in Student Learning

Update: There has been some recent research that suggests that while the timeliness of feedback is one aspect of good feedback, it may not be the most critical aspects of feedback. Awful feedback given immediately is much less useful than carefully constructed feedback given later.



A review of the literature on the role of feedback in learning shows that student feedback is critical to student learning.  Although different studies emphasis immediacy in feedback to different degrees, all of the studies reviewed agree that timeliness in feedback is important.

The Role of Immediacy of Feedback in Student Learning

Without feedback of any kind, we would not learn at all, period.  We would end up doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again, as the fable of Sisyphus (Camus, A. & O’Brien, 1975) demonstrates.  As teachers then, one of our primary roles for our students is to provide opportunities for feedback, preferably in different forms.  Examining the literature on student feedback, we can see that this claim is supported.

According to Nicol and Macfarlane (2006, p7), there are seven principles of good feedback practice.  Good feedback:

1. helps clarify what good performance is (goals, criteria, expected standards);
2. facilitates the development of self-assessment (reflection) in learning.
3. delivers high quality information to students about their learning;
4. encourages teacher and peer dialogue around learning;
5. encourages positive motivational beliefs and self-esteem;
6. provides opportunities to close the gap between current and desired performance;
7. provides information to teachers that can be used to help shape the teaching.

When Nicol and Macfarlane (2006, p9) clarify these expectations, they indicate that “high quality information” about student learning means “that feedback is provided in a timely manner (close to the act of learning production), that it focuses not just on strengths and weaknesses.”  Quality feedback includes a provision that the feedback is provided close to when the students are learning the material.

Chickering and Gamson (1987, p2) also have seven principles of good practice in practice for education.  They indicate that good practice in undergraduate education:

1. Encourages Student-Faculty Contact
2. Encourages Cooperation
3. Encourages Active Learning
4. Gives Prompt Feedback [emphasis mine]
5. Emphasizes Time on Task
6. Communicates High Expectations
7. Respects Diverse Talents and Ways of Learning

Note that here, Chickering and Gamson have indicated that feedback needs to be prompt to be included in their list of good practice for undergraduate education.  It is fair to assume that good educational practices at an undergraduate level of schooling are also good practices at any level of schooling.

Learners themselves have an understanding of the importance of feedback in learning.  According to a study done on the expectations of students as to levels of support provided by the educational service provider, Choy, McNickle, and Clayton (2009, p8), found that the services found most highly regarded were:

1. clear statements of what I [the learner] was expected to learn
2. helpful feedback from teachers [emphasis mine]
3. requirements for assessment
4. communication with teachers using a variety of ways, for example, email,
5. online chat, face to face
6. timely feedback from teachers [emphasis mine]

Note that feedback from the teachers was listed twice with the qualifiers of helpful and timely.  Clearly the students in this study felt that feedback was important enough to mention twice.

McTighe and O’Connor (2005, p5) reiterate from Wiggins (1998) that “To serve learning, feedback must meet four criteria: It must be timely [emphasis mine], specific, understandable to the receiver, and formed to allow for self-adjustment on the student’s part.”  They have only four requirements for feedback, and the first of these they list is how timely the feedback must be.

One could argue that timely feedback is most critical in student learning.  “[T]imely, detailed feedback provided as near in time as possible to the performance of the assessed behavior is most [emphasis mine] effective in providing motivation and in shaping behavior and mental constructs” (Anderson 2008). Students need the feedback for learning to happen near to the event of learning, according to Anderson (2008), in order to learn effectively, which is what he means by “providing … mental constructs.”

If we view the analogy of learning a physical act, we can see how obvious it is that timely feedback is important.  Although feedback from the learning of sport, or even the act of walking is not necessarily directed by teacher, the very world around us provides us with feedback.  If we fail to walk properly, we fall down!  Kick the ball with your toe, and it is sure to go over the goal.  We learn physical actions very quickly because we receive lots of timely feedback about everyone of our actions.  The only physical actions which are difficult to learn for some people, assuming capability of performing the action, are the ones where the feedback is delayed.

It is clear that any informed educational practice should take into account how feedback will be provided to the students.  Feedback needs to be timely and relevant to the learner’s needs in order to be effective.  Educators must therefore provide assessment opportunities for students with timely and relevant feedback built into the assessments or these assessments are limited in value. 


Anderson, T. (2008). “Teaching in an Online Learning Context.” In: Anderson, T. & Elloumi, F. Theory and Practice of Online Learning. Athabasca University.

Camus, A. & O’Brien, J., (1975). The myth of Sisyphus, published by Penguin books

Chickering, A. & Gamson, Z., (1987) Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education, AAHE bulletin, 39, 3-7

Choy, S.; McNickle, C. & Clayton, B., (2009). Learner expectations and experiences. Student views of support in online learning, National Centre for Vocational Education Research

Higgins, R.; Hartley, P. & Skelton, A., (2002). The conscientious consumer: reconsidering the role of assessment feedback in student learning, Studies in Higher Education, Routledge, 27, 53-64

McTighe, J. & O’Connor, K., (2005), Seven practices for effective learning, Educational Leadership, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 63, 10-17

Nicol, D. & Macfarlane-Dick, D., (2006). Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: A model and seven principles of good feedback practice, Studies in Higher Education, Routledge, 31, 199-218

Wiggins, G., (1998). Educative Assessment. Designing Assessments To Inform and Improve Student Performance. Jossey-Bass Publishers


Professional collaboration and courtesy

Today I got a LOT of work done.  Our school is doing student led conferences soon, which is currently a lot of work for us as teachers because it is only the second time we have run the conferences, and a lot of the preparation work is falling on our shoulders.  Hopefully this will change in the future.  Anyway, the reason I got so much work done is because another one of my colleagues saw me working late at school last night, and when he found out the reason why, he volunteered to cover one of my classes for me today.  So I had an extra 90 minutes to work on grading my assignments, and my students got to practice learning material from their textbooks.  Not an ideal substitute lesson plan, but I did really use the extra time effectively, so I don’t feel too guilty.

It occurred to me that there are a lot of schools where the staff don’t support each other as well as they could.  Some schools have administrators and staff which are downright unprofessional, and everyday I go to work, I’m glad I’m working with fellow professionals.  This kind of give and take is extremely important, not just because it helps us out from time to time but because it establishes a culture of respect and mutual support in the school.

I’ll happily volunteer to co-teach with another teacher when they are planning a technology heavy lesson, or cover someone’s class so they can go to a conference.  I know that they would do the same for me, and by giving each other mutual support, we all win.

If I worked in a school culture which does not accept that teachers need to be flexible and willing to provide support to each other, then I would be extremely unhappy.  I worked in a culture like this a few years ago in NYC, at least at the administrative level, and it was a nightmare.  Although my colleagues tried their best to be totally supportive, they were constrained by a system which had no flexibility, and no creativity provided by our school administrators.

I also met with teachers about different projects we are working on at three different times during the day, for three different issues.  It was really nice to have a quick 5 or 10 minute meeting and just manage to plan and collaborate so easily.  It would be nice if our school day fit more breaks into the schedule so we could meet more often, but I really appreciate working with people for whom working with other teachers comes so easily.  These tiny meetings helped clear up a bunch of potential problems and laid the ground-work for some very exciting projects in the future. 

How are teachers participating in our new collaborative culture?

I’m reading Don Tapscott’s and Anthony Williams’ "Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything"[1] for the first time, and loving it.  In the book, Tapscott and Williams focus a lot of their examples on the ways businesses are changing rather than on how teachers are adapting.  I thought it would be appropriate to list some ways teachers are participating in the new mass collaboration culture.

First, it’s important to note that as a profession, teachers have always had collaboration, all that has changed is the scale of the collaboration.  Rather than collaboration within a school, teacher’s are now collaborating on a global scale[2][3].  Teachers collaborate to build curriculum, write textbooks, examine student work, build lesson plans, investigate issues related to school improvement, all of this with other like-minded educators from across the planet, all on a scale not seen before.

Collaborative curriculum and textbook writing is changing the way educators gather their resources.  Connexions is "an environment for collaboratively developing, freely sharing, and rapidly publishing scholarly content on the Web." according to their about page.  It is more than that though, because of the way the site is structured[4][5][6].  Anyone can download the publicly accessible textbooks from their site, and can ask permission to join any open projects because the materials are licensed under a Creative Commons attribution license.  The site is very successful with 16141 modules developed as of the writing of this post.  Each module is equivalent to a unit of study in a course, so there already many more modules available than the typical student will ever learn in the course of their lifetime.  Even the state of California has joined in on the action, estimating that they will save taxpayers $350 million by choosing open textbooks.

Teachers have also been forming their own social networks. Classroom 2.0, EduPLN, and other similar regional social networks have sprung up as teachers recognize the value in a diverse set of opinions on education.  Rather than being closeted in the isolation of their individual classrooms, teachers are meeting virtually with other educators in order to improve their practice.  On a weekly basis on the social networking site, Twitter[7], teachers have been chatting on a wide range of topics, using the hashtag #edchat to manage their conversations.  Less formally, teachers are collaborating on the site in smaller groups, and finding interesting uses for the microblogging site in their classrooms[8].

This new form of mass collaboration between teachers is crucial for our survival as a profession, given the rate at which knowledge is growing[9].  Our ability, in small groups or as individuals, to process the information available to us is limited and as a result, we will soon no longer be able to choose the most appropriate curriculum for our students because the amount of information to sift through is too much.  Working on the large scale, in peer groups, we may have a chance to avert this fundamental crisis in education as each member can contribute to the solution, allowing for a much wider range of information to be processed.  Essentially peer collaboration allows teachers to work in networks and increase their individual efficiency, much like networking computers increases their computational power.


1.  Tapscott, D. & Williams, A. (2008). Wikinomics: How mass collaboration changes everything from Portfolio Trade

2.  Riel, M.  (1995). Cross-classroom collaboration in global learning circles, The cultures of computing, Wiley-Blackwell, 1995, 219-242, retrieved from Google books on March 28th, 2010.

3. Zong, G. Developing preservice teachers’ global understanding through computer-mediated communication technology, Teaching and Teacher Education, Elsevier, 2009, 25, 617-625

4. Baker, J.; Thierstein, J.; Fletcher, K.; Kaur, M. & Emmons, J. (2009). Open Textbook Proof-of-Concept via Connexions, The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10, retrieved from Google Scholar on March 29, 2009

5. Frydenberg, J.; Matkin, G. & Center, D. (2007). Open textbooks: Why? What? How? When?, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, retrieved from on March 28th, 2010.

6. Hylén, J. (2006). Open educational resources: Opportunities and challenges, Proceedings of Open Education, 49-63, retrieved from on March 28th, 2010

7. O’Reilly, T. & Milstein, S. (2009). The Twitter Book O’Reilly Media, Inc., retrieved from Google Books on March 28th, 2010

8. Grosseck, G. & Holotescu, C. (2008). Can we use Twitter for educational activities, 4th International Scientific Conference, eLearning and Software for Education, Bucharest, Romania, retrieved from on March 28th, 2010

9. Kurzweil, R. (2001), The Law of Accelerating Returns, published on, retrieved from on March 28th, 2010

What building strong student relationships can do for you


When I first started teaching, I worked at a tough school in Brooklyn called "The School for Legal Studies."  I moved to NYC just before I started working, so I felt lucky to have found an apartment a couple of blocks from the school.  The people I worked with mostly thought I was crazy to live in the same neighbourhood as our school, but to be honest, it really wasn’t that bad of a place to live, except possibly for the hundreds of 6th legged "roommates" with whom I was always at war.  It had some fringe benefits as well.

The most immediate benefit was that I had a very short trip to school.  I could roll out of bed, shower, and throw on some clothes and be at the school in 10 minutes.  This meant I had a bit more spare time available to me and I needed all of it, starting teaching was a very time-consuming task for me.  It also turned out to have another fringe benefit, something that never would have occurred to me.

In the middle of my second summer in NYC, I lost my roommate and realized I was going to need a new place to live.  So I looked around and found another apartment which was still close enough to school that I could walk, but was a lot nicer looking.  I rented a U-haul van and arranged for a buddy of mine from school to come and help me move my stuff.  I parked the truck in front of my house and had just opened up the back to put in a box, when I heard a voice behind me say, "Yo! Mr. Wees, what up son?"

I turned around, and saw 8 of my students standing behind me on the sidewalk.  It wasn’t that unusual for me to run into students from my school in the neighbourhood, many of them lived near the school too.

"Mister, you movin’?  Let us help you," said one of the boys.  10 minutes later, every single one of my boxes and pieces of furniture from my apartment was carefully carried from my apartment and placed gently in the truck.  They wouldn’t let me lift a finger to help them, "We got it Mr. Wees, you lay back," they told me.  The students didn’t ask for a thing for their help, but I gave them some money to buy a couple of pizzas because it was near lunch time.  They wandered off happily, and just after they had left, my friend showed up.

The reason those students helped me was not because they thought they had something to get out of it, but because I had built a strong relationship with them over the previous two years.  They respected me, and saw me as someone who respected them.  We really had nothing in common at all, I was from a small island off the West coast of Canada, they were kids who grew up in the more dangerous parts of Brooklyn.  This didn’t stop me from building a solid rapport with them and I know it was a large part of why I was successful in the classroom.

Participation in school culture

Just recently we had a very different type of auction at our school. Some teachers and many of the 12th grade students auctioned off various services for charity.  For example, one of my colleagues agreed to dress up in drag and take some kids for an ice cream.  Another pair agreed to set up a pizza lunch for the kids.  The funds at the end of the event are going to our global humanitarian fund.

I agreed to have my head shaved, and three 8th grade girls paid for the right to shave my head for $30.  I also had to carry around their books for the day, which ended up being a bit of a logistical nightmare and was abandoned after a couple of periods.

It is important that teachers participate in school culture and at some schools, events like this one just aren’t possible.  If the teachers are unwilling to see that building relationships with the students is crucial to school success, then the school will fail.

Now I’m not saying that every teacher has to shave their head, but some sacrifices might be necessary in order to help your school function.  If we rigidly stick inside what our contracts tell us to do, then a lot of the relationship building crucial to school climate and culture may not happen.  I gave up one of my lunch hours so that these students could create a memory that they will probably have forever.

As they were shaving my head (after some demonstrations and lessons from an experienced head-shaver), one of the girls said, "This was TOTALLY worth $10."  I was thinking the same thing.

Moderating external projects

For the past three years, I’ve been an official IB Assistant Examiner.  This means that each May (or November, but I usually don’t sign up for the November sessions, too busy), I get sent a whole bunch of external exams or projects, and I have to grade the assignments.  The money isn’t great, it’s a huge amount of work, but I see it as really valuable.

I had just received yet another package this morning, which one of the administrative staff gave to me, so I felt obligated to explain to her about my role as an assistant examiner for the IB.  Her response was "Wow, that’s cool, it must really give you some perspective into your own students’ work."  

This really is true, I love being able to see what other schools do.  I can’t share it directly with my peers for confidentiality reasons, but certainly I share the principles behind how student work is arranged, and what the expectations are around the world.  I’ve now observed a few dozen different school’s work, which means that I have a few dozen perspectives on what it means to produce a student project.  The best part is, almost all of these projects are based on the same small set of projects, so I can actually control for type of project.

I highly recommend moderating other school’s work, the perspective you gain is totally worth it, even if the money is not.

Miscommunication through minutes

So had a minor incident happen today. I was taking minutes for our weekly meeting, trying desperately to keep up and summarizing as I went. One of the things I wrote was apparently too much of a summary, and missed the gist of what was trying to be said.  As a result, someone else got into trouble for something that they probably would not have, had they been able to keep track of what was said.  This happens as a result of the failure of the written word, especially the poorly written and quickly done written word, to actually capture what everyone means.  It also happens because as human beings we often mean to say something, or phrase something in a certain way, and oops, out comes something else.

Anyway, a solution we are going to try is to make the process of creating the minutes more open.  I’ll post a Google doc (that everyone can edit) and people can add their agenda items to the Google doc as the week progresses.  This way, we will all have control over what is published about our meeting, and as the week unfolds, people get updates and information on an ongoing basis, rather than in a short 20 minute meeting before a busy school day.  At the meeting itself, we may find that we are discussing issues more rather than giving brief summaries of things going on and trying to jam them into 30 second blurbs.

This process won’t replace the meetings we have, which I think are a great way to connect during the week, and reduce some of the teacher isolation that normally occurs.  I’m just hopeful it will help clear up misunderstandings, and oversimplification of complicated ideas that are conveyed in these meetings.

Collaborating for end of year assessments

This year we are collaborating at my school for our end of year assessments. Our objective is to create assessments which are somewhat open ended, while providing opportunities for the students to demonstrate that they understand, and can use, what they have learned this year. In my 9th grade class, it looks like we will be collaborating in Science, Math, and Design & Technology to produce an assessment. I’m pretty excited about it, it’s actually my first time doing a collaborative end of year assessment.  I can’t tell you what it is yet, don’t want to let the cat out of the bag for my class.  Every other school I’ve worked at the end of year assessment meant "Let’s give the students a final exam."

Although I’m still not convinced that these assessments are truly representative of everything the students have learned, I think they strike a much better balance between our need as educators to find out what the kids know, and the kids need to express themselves creatively.

Some sample assessments which could span multiple disciplines that could be used include:

  • Create an eco-friendly model for our new school and find the cost of this new building. Present your findings to your peers, critically analyzing the process you went through. (Math, Science, Design & Technology, English)
  • Determine if the water from the local lake is safe to drink. Present your findings to your peers. (Math, Science, English)

Please comment below if you have any other ideas as I am sure there are lots and lots of good ideas out there.

Observing other educators working

After school today we had our monthly Middle Years Program meeting.  One of the things we worked at this meeting was vertical planning, which is when a bunch of people teaching the same subject at different levels meet to attempt to ensure continuity within that subject.  They are themselves very useful meetings, and if you aren’t having them yet at your school, you should be.  One of the things that I brought up in this meeting is how much I’d like to be able to observe everyone else teaching.

I remember when I first started teaching I used to go an observe other teachers all the time.  I probably did 20 or 30 informal observations of my colleagues in my first 2 years teaching.  I found these sessions extremely useful as they allowed me a chance to see what other educators did.  Not everyone I observed was awesome, but to be honest, watching someone else make mistakes helps prevent you from making the same mistakes.  

I never really got the same opportunity in the last two schools I worked at, so I decided to bring up the topic of peer observation and see how it went. My colleagues, who are awesome, were totally into it. So I borrowed a copy of the master teacher schedule, which for some reason I just found out about today, and am going to plan some sessions asap.  I’m very excited.

Without being able to see what other educators DO, my own practice will stagnate.  I may be able to prop up my practice by experimenting with the usefulness of new technologies, but I’d really like to improve my own practice, both through observing other educators, and by having my own practice critiqued.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Student assessment choices

A student of mine recently was interested in finding out if a selection technique another teacher uses to choose a random "volunteer" was in fact fair.  One of the teachers in my school uses a simple finger game to choose a student who then has to be the first person to do their presentation.  Each student puts up between 0 and 3 fingers, the total number of fingers is found, and then the teacher chooses a person (usually someone in the corner of the room) and starts counting out students, until the total number of fingers up is reached.  This is supposed to be a random way of selecting a student, my student wanted to verify that this is in fact true.

He did a bunch of research on probability theory, learned about tree diagrams, conditional probability, and a few other more advanced probability techniques, all with the aim of understanding the notion of random selection.  He came to me for some help, and with about 30 minutes of discussion, we outlines a method for solution, with the idea in mind that in fact the random selection technique is not fair.  It turns out that in the two player version of this game, odd numbers come up more often than even numbers, out of 16 possible outcomes, odd numbers come up 8 times, even numbers 8 times, but one of those even numbers is 0, which if it comes up has to be discarded and the process restarted.  If there was agreement that one was going to add one to the final answer, and include 0 as a possible response, perhaps this game would be fair.

He also observed that each possible outcome for each student doesn’t happen with equal frequency because of human selection bias, and moreover that some students will tend to always choose the same number.  Given this additional information, it seems clear that this technique is far from random.  The student plans on writing up his analysis of this idea and presenting it to the teacher to open a dialogue about his practice.

Students need freedom to explore these kinds of ideas. At the end of the year we will be doing a unit on probability, and I have agreed that if the student writes up an analysis of this problem and submits it, I’ll use that analysis as his assessment for our unit on probability, regardless of whatever other projects I have planned.  His project definitely fits within the sphere of probability and is more advanced than what I plan on covering, so why not use it?  Clearly he is demonstrating his understanding of the concept.  If we provided this amount of flexibility in all of our courses, it seems clear to me that students will benefit.