Teaching students to create and use feedback

Over the past few weeks, we have been exploring the Five Elements of Effort. We began by noting that although we are interested in student “effort”, we often lack a coherent definition of what we mean by “effort”.

“Effort” is often associated simply with the amount of time and energy a student expends on a task, rather than how effectively that time and energy was expended.

Because of this confusion, our assessment mechanisms for effort are usually summative rather than formative. And we provide students with little practical information about how to improve their effort.

The Five Elements of Effort clarify the way we understand effort, giving teachers a purposeful framework to evaluate student effort, and guide them in how to improve their effort.

We’ve explored the importance of students spending time and energy in their Learning Zone. This requires students to develop their Habits of Mind to meet the demands of increasingly difficult tasks and “raise the bar” of their performance. Consequently, it is the teacher’s role to ensure students are in their Learning Zone, then to teach them how to identify and target this zone for themselves.

Attempting to “raise the bar” inevitably comes with its fair share of mistakes. By helping students understand the nature of mistakes, we can help students to more effectively use mistakes to inform their learning. In this way, students use mistakes to give feedback, rather than getting feedback on their mistakes.

Of course, mistakes aren’t the only source of feedback available to students. Useful feedback can also come from experts, including teachers, who have experienced the same or similar learning before.  These people can make informed observations that help students to progress.

The most efficacious learners not only seek this sort of feedback, they also specifically tailor it to their learning needs. They seek individuals and mechanisms that provide them with the most clear-cut and informative feedback that is tailored to their specific learning goals.

The scientific process is one example of how an effective learner can transform mistakes into clear-cut feedback. When scientists develop a hypothesis, they control the variables, and then test in a manner designed to create “mistakes” that are highly informative. In this way, they get the best possible information to further their learning.

As teachers interested in helping students become better learners, we must move beyond simply giving feedback to students to teaching them how to create and use it for themselves in the most effective ways.

Of course, it is impossible to spend ALL your time above the bar, stretching yourself, developing your Habits of Mind and responding to mistakes and feedback.

There are times when we need to get things right and produce our most reliable, error-free (or almost error-free) results. These performance situations are important. When I go to a surgeon, I want her to be at her best, not beyond. I want her to produce a reliable, high-level and error-free performance!

Similarly, as an experienced driver, most of my driving is spent well within my comfort zone. Simply because I could drive faster, brake harder and corner more quickly doesn’t mean I should. I don’t want or need to be at the edge of my abilities in my day-to-day driving. Staying well within my abilities in normal driving situations is appropriate.

There are also times when it’s necessary to learn the “easy things we haven’t done yet”.  Sometimes, we move into new areas where we need to “cover the basics” before we can move on. Although this learning may not challenge us or demand that we develop new or more mature Habits of Mind, we nonetheless learn something more.

For example, most adults have basic cooking skills. When we learn a new recipe, we apply our existing skills and learn one more dish. We learn something new but we are not any closer to becoming a master chef. We have not become better cooks.

In this way, the final of the Five Elements of Effort is to understand how we distribute our time and energy. Our intention is not to spend all our time above the bar but to know when it’s appropriate to do so.

Effective Effort MatrixThe Effective Effort Matrix helps us think about four different types of effort.

Low Effort is when we are cruising. The task we are engaged in is well within our current abilities.

Performance Effort is about doing our best. It’s when we perform at our (current) peak.

Ineffective Effort is about struggle. We all need to go here from time to time. It’s our first venture above the bar, stretching ourselves beyond our current best. It’s where we typically start making mistakes and require feedback.

Finally, there is Effective Effort. As we develop our Habits of Mind, our struggle becomes productive struggle. We begin to exercise our newly developed Habits of Mind and see significant growth. We learn to do better, not simply to do more.

As we help our students become better learners, we must help them become familiar with the Effective Effort Matrix. The most effective learners minimise the time they spend cruising – to the point where some adult learners will pay other people to do their below-the-line work, such as cooking or driving, because they understand their time is better spent in other ways.

The most effective learners spend the amount of time they need to and no more in Performance Effort. They are quick to push themselves into their Learning Zone when opportunities present themselves. Perhaps more importantly, they can identify when to use mistakes to guide their progress and when they need to seek outside support. These learners maximise the amount of time they spend growing.

Taken together, the Five Elements of Effort help define what we mean by effort in schools. Understanding these five elements allows us to give more instructive and formative feedback to students about the type of learning they are engaged in. We can move beyond simply asking students to apply “more effort” and guide them towards engaging in “better effort”.

If you’d like to learn more about how to apply these ideas in your classroom and are willing to trial some of these ideas and share your experiences with me, please contact me for more information.


James Anderson is a speaker, author and educator who is passionate about helping fellow educators develop students as better learners. James’ work combines Growth Mindset with Habits of Mind and Practice to create Learning Agility. He puts the growth back into Growth Mindset. And through creating and describing the Mindset Continuum, he provides the cornerstone for effective Growth Mindset interventions.

James is a Certified Speaking Professional and speaks regularly at conferences around the world. He has published several books including Succeeding with Habits of Mind, The Agile Learner, The Mindset Continuum and The Learning Landscape.

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