Making Feedback a Dirty Habit

It is the time of year where for many schools assessments are in full force, be this mock exams or in-class tests. As a consequence, departments will also be thinking about how best to feedback on their students’ performance. A common strategy is to use what is referred to as DIRT lessons, or in other words directed improvement and reflection time. This usually follows a pattern of giving students their assessments back with or without a grade but always with a target for improvement. Lesson time is spent looking at how to act on these targets with students then practising the same or similar tasks with those targets in mind.

There are, of course, many positives to this approach if it is done well:

  • The teacher has identified what the student has and has not understood.
  • Information is given to the student about their performance in relation to specific goals.
  • Crucially, the student is able to use that information to redirect their actions so that they can get closer to achieving those goals.

However, if we dig a little deeper we can start to unearth some potential flaws in the DIRT design that seem to counter what we know about how students learn best. Firstly, the abundance of very secure research evidence from the field of cognitive science tells us students should avoid cramming and instead space out their practice. In doing so, students are much more likely to make the knowledge that they need to know (be that declarative such as facts or procedural such as how to structure an essay) part of their long-term memory – ready to use as and when needed. A DIRT lesson that happens post an assessment (and that’s it) runs the risk of being very quickly forgotten.

Secondly, as with anyone, students are experts at creating habits. Teachers across the land can probably empathise with the frustration felt when a student repeatedly makes one seemingly small mistake that nevertheless has a huge effect. However, habits are habits because they are hard to break. Furthermore, a habit that comes out in an assessment is likely to be one that has been well and truly embedded during the student’s revision because they have been acting out this habit time and time again. We know from research on human behaviour that in order for habits to change, they need to be pinpointed with sharp precision and worked on over time with lots of controlled rehearsal. One-off DIRT lessons are the antithesis to this principle.

Finally, and linked to the above, is the notion that DIRT lessons are just too late. It is much easier and much more beneficial to deal with mistakes and misconceptions as they occur rather than waiting for them to become entrenched. This is not to say that summative assessments do not give useful feedback that can be acted upon. Indeed, as outlined below, assessment work is often a very rich source of information about how well students really know and understand what they are being taught. However, what can be a risk is having a timetabled termly DIRT lesson and, as a consequence, not teaching responsively enough for the rest of the time.

So what can we do instead? It’s not a case of scrapping DIRT altogether but making a few tweaks so that it becomes as fertile a ground for learning as possible. A possible DIRT structure could look like this:

  1. Identify the habit: Use summative date to pinpoint a repeated or critical error that impacts the student’s performance. Triangulate this with other areas, e.g. classwork and homework. Is it a common ‘habit’ that a student needs to break?
  2. Redirect the student: Make the unwanted habit explicit and model to the student how to improve.
  3. Self-monitoring: Get the student to practise identifying the habit in their own work and then improving as you have shown. The first part of this is critical. The student is very likely to use that habit again despite it being pointed out to them (that is why it is a habit!) so they need to take control of checking for this and fixing as appropriate.
  4. Practise: Provide plenty of controlled rehearsal, e.g. opportunities in multiple later lessons (not just one) for students to go through steps 1-3 using as many different contexts as possible.

How might this look in real life? Below is an example of the common errors that I identified when marking a set of Year 10 assessments.

  1. I took this information and worked on changing one habit at a time, starting with the last one about ensuring accurate reading of the question as this was having the greatest impact on the students’ outcomes and is relevant to all other assessments, too.
  2. I then showed the students the assessment question again and a) told them the ‘habit’ they had to change and b) modelled how to do this with a specific example. In this case, the students needed to spend longer reading, re-reading and checking their understanding of the words in the question.
  3. In all following lessons, when we came across a question I asked students what they needed to remember about reading exam questions. This is when I then gave them directed time to check that they had read the question accurately. In addition, I often checked their understanding by asking what a likely misreading could be and why that would be wrong.
  4. Finally, I made sure that over the next few weeks there were multiple opportunities for students to practise ‘breaking’ this habit by purposefully giving them lots of questions to read, especially ones that were easy to get wrong.

Aristotle tells us, ‘it is impossible, or not easy, to alter by argument what has long been absorbed by habit’. It would, therefore, seem prudent for teachers think carefully about how to the academic habits required for their students’ success.

Fran Haynes

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