“It’s OK not to know!”: Professor John Hattie and the power of feedback

Hands holding up mobile phones showing various smiley face emotions from 'sad' to 'neutral' to 'love'

Hayley Johns ~ Learning Designer 


Feedback, according to Professor John Hattie, is ‘one of the most powerful notions we have’ in education – and also one of the most variable.

Earlier this year, I joined an instalment of Phil Anthony’s award-winning Digitally Enhanced Education webinar series to learn more about how institutions around the world are prioritising feedback as a key part of learning. Amid a wide variety of talks on assessment and feedback, a few really stood out. I’m particularly excited to share with you some of the wisdom of Professor Hattie on the power of feedback as a process of constant learning, of asking questions, and of low stakes ‘failure’ in a supportive environment.

At its core is the concept of improvement. Improving can mean a variety of things; you might be asking students to stop something, start something, do something differently. Feedback too can come in all shapes and sizes: from a teacher, from self-reflection, from another student in a peer feedback activity, or – increasingly – from a technology.

Professor Hattie is keen to impress upon us that research suggests that giving feedback in a ‘nice’, encouraging way isn’t always effective.

What’s our message?

As educators, we like to think of ourselves as warm, encouraging people but the problem of effusive praise is that it can dilute the feedback we’re trying to give. What message are we trying to get to the student? Not only how they did, but what they can do next to improve. Too much praise here can affect the message that our students hear, understand, and ultimately action. We’re looking for the perfect trio: praise, critique, and advice.

As human beings, we can sometimes look for evidence that we’ve succeeded and disregard the rest – a phenomenon known as confirmation bias. Sometimes we’re terrified to tell people we don’t know! However, Hattie argues, our job as learners can (and should) be to look for evidence that we did not succeed, because that’s how we improve. It’s OK not to know! It’s a phrase that so many of us have heard, and it’s one that educators are fond of using to try and reassure students. But we should also be doing our best to internalise the message ourselves. Feedback loves errors. This kind of environment, where students and teachers alike can make mistakes in safety, can be so helpful, creating a climate which is rich both in feedback and students’ questions. (Hattie quotes an astonishing figure: teachers ask around 150 questions a day which require roughly three-word answers. A class – a class, not a student – asks 2-3 questions a day!)

How do we go about constructing this sort of classroom, whether virtual or physical, to maximise feedback opportunities? Because, as Hattie kindly notes, educators are nice people, we like to give students things they don’t struggle with – things that they know and can get right, with minimal struggle. But that doesn’t serve them at all. Curiosity about what you don’t know is key. Often, we can grow out of this as we get older but, to improve, it’s really important that we retain our roles as learners – that we take on difficult tasks, and we fail, and that’s OK. The ‘feedback cauldron’ climate in our classrooms makes all the difference.

Because of the inequity in classroom dialogue, Hattie is very much an advocate of a ‘teach less, learn more’ philosophy. The more we talk about teaching, the more we’re talking about ourselves as educators and what we’re doing; the more we talk about learning, the more we’re talking about the students. It’s about them, not us; it’s their education, after all.

Evaluative thinking

The key issue is how we think about what we do, using a notion of evaluative thinking, constantly looking for impact; it’s a kind of feedback in itself, that metacognition of reflecting on what we do and how. Incidentally, Hattie’s biggest tip is to pause and ask your students ‘how am I doing?’ Seeking the feedback from them will help you to make decisions. Happily, this is a key focus for us in Learning Design too, as evidenced by our Curriculum Design Student Panel (CDSP) and Real-Time Student Feedback (RTSF) initiatives. The CDSP gives module teams an opportunity to find out students’ opinions on their activities, as a dedicated, representative panel road-tests parts of a module in production and provides their feedback on it. RTSF, meanwhile, is used in presentation, to gather students’ opinions and implement measures to assist them during the current academic year, for maximum impact.

Finally, Hattie tackles the question on everyone’s mind in the wake of the disruption wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic: is there a difference in how we should give face-to-face feedback compared to online?

Encouraging feedback via technology

Hattie has observed interesting action by students using social media; while students may avoid seeking help or admitting misunderstanding in a ‘live’ classroom setting, in his experience, students are more likely to ask questions online, to both their fellow students and their teachers. This is, in his view, the biggest power of technology which is currently untapped. Again, this has positive implications for our own work here in Learning Design on aspects such as VLE tools and activity types.

The OU’s forum platform is a powerful asset here; students can ask questions and take part in discussions with both their peers and their tutors, encouraging communication and forging relationships in a virtual learning context. Likewise, technology can lend itself to anonymous feedback, enabling students to freely share their thoughts or feelings without worry of being identified; this might be useful in a tutorial context, where a tutor can use anonymous polling to gauge a group’s understanding without fear of causing individual students embarrassment, or in RTSF, where module teams might gather anonymous students’ assessments of their own wellbeing, so that they can work out how best to support a cohort.

The last few years, and in particular the COVID-19 pandemic, fundamentally changed dynamics in classrooms. Shifting to this virtual way of working, rather than standing at the front of a physical classroom, teachers couldn’t ask those 150 questions requiring three-word answers – they had to learn a new way of working, to teach students to truly be learners and to work with each other. The biggest travesty, he thinks, is perhaps that there’s been such a rush back to the old normal, and that we don’t seem to be learning much from our pandemic experiences. They turned our teaching and working practices on their head, requiring the way in which our students experience education to be completely rebuilt in a short space of time. Rather than turning back to the way things were, Hattie frames this as an opportunity for education to move forwards. Similarly, the recent ‘Blended learning review’ from the Office for Students (OfS) recommends that learning design should support students to access feedback in interactive and collaborative ways, both from module teams and their peers, and that this should be a real focus for staff development.

With this in mind, how can we as learning designers (or other education professionals) support each other to create these opportunities for our students?

Related links

You can watch Professor John Hattie in conversation with Phil Anthony here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HbHt1OecP0U

The full Digitally Enhanced Assessment and Feedback playlist is here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLAbF8wnSF-e_Bxkcf6G9hTUG-XDnq-74d

Details of future Digitally Enhanced Education webinars can be found here: https://www.kent.ac.uk/education/elearning/news-and-events#events