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A teacher is being hassled by students for their marks.

The importance of timely feedback

We can all agree that quality feedback directly benefits student learning. This principle transcends the classroom: how do you get better at anything, without taking stock on how you have performed? As teachers, we anecdotally experience how the effectiveness of feedback changes based on a variety of factors: the level of detail offered, the method of delivery, the nature of the student themselves. 

Another well-observed factor is timeliness–the time lapsed between the submission of student work and the provision of constructive guidance. If you have noticed a correlation between how receptive your students are to feedback, and the timing of when that feedback was received, you’re not alone. The research is emphatic in stating that feedback is most impactful when the students’ recollection of their task is still vivid, and they are able to integrate the feedback into their ongoing learning process immediately.

One such study provides quantitative data that specifically interrogates the efficacy of immediate versus delayed feedback during the language learning process. The study tracked the progress of learners playing an AI-grammar game and receiving feedback at various timings. The outcomes of this study are summarised below.

Table 1: Correct Response Rate (%) Across Immediate and Delayed Feedback Groups

These results illustrate the impact of feedback timing on learning efficacy. Over the four learning phases, the Immediate Feedback Group demonstrated a consistently positive learning curve–indicating greater information retention over time. In contrast, although still showing improvement, the Delayed Feedback Group lagged in both learning speed and final outcome–suggesting that both retention and application of knowledge were less effective compared with the Immediate Feedback scenario. The change in performance relative to the baseline is observed in the graph below.

Image 1: Overall Change (%) Against Baseline Results

In addition to tracking academic performance, the study also observed changes in neural activity across the two groups. For Delayed Feedback, there was an increase in P300 activity, which is associated with attention and working memory processes. This suggests that students receiving delayed feedback required a greater level of cognitive resources to process and integrate that feedback–compared with students receiving immediate feedback, who were able to more easily recall and implement the feedback whilst the material was fresh in their minds.

These findings reinforce what we as teachers intuitively understand: that feedback is more impactful–and more readily implemented–when students can quickly see its relevance to their recent work. 

In fact, it is the immediacy of the drafting process that can make it so powerful. For me, at least, there is usually a mad rush to return the assessment to the student before they complete their final, summative assessment. I do not have the privilege of extending the deadline out to the standard three weeks, as the students need my feedback more urgently in order to study effectively. Hence, students receive the feedback at a point where they do not need to expend additional cognitive load to understand it, apply it, and adjust their schemas.

Under these conditions, where feedback is received more immediately, students do not need to make guesses about where they stand–they are able to use class-time and homework time more effectively to focus on the areas needing the most attention. To this end, by intervening earlier and making it clear to students where they are performing, we can prevent students from repeating the same mistakes and forming bad habits–leading to a more accurate and effective learning process.

In my teaching experience, one of the most impactful methods of providing feedback is what I like to call the ‘in-the-moment guidance’. This involves a hands-on approach where I weave through the desks, pausing to sit beside students, offering insights and support as they work. This practice transforms the classroom into a dynamic space of immediate learning.

Written feedback, however, does offer students something concrete–a physical reminder of where they are and what they can aspire to achieve–that can be digested at their own pace.  I have observed that, in the hustle of classroom dynamics, not all students are comfortable engaging in an open dialogue about their performance. Written feedback respects this individuality, offering a private space for students to introspect and plan their next steps.

Offering both oral and written feedback caters for the diverse learning needs of students–though, as I am sure you are thinking, also imposes huge demands on our time as teachers. In striving to make commentary clear, concise, and above all, encouraging, prioritising timeliness can feel impossible–particularly when you are 85 exams deep in early June. There have been times in my career where I have very much struggled to meet even a three-week deadline (particularly in the year where I had five English classes!). So whilst we can agree on the importance of timely feedback, it is essential that we also provide teachers with the support and systems required to realistically deliver this for their students. 

Thankfully, purpose-built support–such as that offered by Mark My Words–is becoming possible. It is with tools like this that the pull between timeliness and quality of feedback can be overcome.