What do we really know about feedback?

Feedback is an intrinsic element of learning. In fact, some have claimed that a key purpose of higher education is fundamentally to facilitate high-quality feedback exchanges (Evans, 2013).

Key skills and understanding don’t just spring up in students without input from an instructor. Feedback is essential to developing many skills to a level of competence. Even with unlimited trial and error, there’s no way to ensure that students will gain a thorough understanding or grasp the full scope of a subject on their own (Jensen, 2005). In fact research has shown that it is common for students to only recognize that they need to modify existing work after receiving feedback (Liu & Lee, 2013).

Our understanding of feedback is growing. Research on the depth and breadth of feedback remains incomplete (Shute, 2007). But the scientific link between feedback and learning is so strong that some researchers suggest that unless it actually has an impact on learning, it can’t even be called feedback (Evans, 2013).

“Feedback is a crucial feature of the teaching and learning process (Askew, 2000).” Feedback-driven learning makes more accurate and more complex neural connections in the brain. The neural connections are made more efficient by feedback-driven learning. They are made stronger by usage. Combine feedback and practice and you’ve got the perfect recipe for learning (Jensen, 2005).

“Feedback … improves learning… compared to control conditions (Shute, 2007).” Students generally understand that feedback is a tool that will improve their learning and they are responsive to it from both instructors and peers (Liu & Lee, 2013).

It’s not just that feedback helps students understand how to score or perform correctly. Increasingly, research is showing that the right kind of feedback can be critical for students to develop the ability to self-direct their own education, that is to become independent learners who monitor, evaluate and regulate their own learning. This self-direction is what carries students into lifelong learning habits post-graduation and makes them effective professionals (Evans, 2013/Ferguson, 2011).

As Morpheus says to Neo, “I’m trying to free your mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door. You’re the one who must walk through it (The Matrix, 1999).” The right feedback primes a student’s telic initiative.

What is the “right kind” of feedback?

Research supports that not all feedback is created equal. It’s common for research studies to includes the caveat that feedback creates significant improvement in learning processes and outcomes but only if delivered correctly (Shute, 2007). The “right kind” is not so much one type of feedback or another as it is the kind that matches the circumstances and state of the student. To figure out the right feedback, let’s take a look at what types are out there.

The most basic type of feedback (and also often the least helpful) is yes/no. It’s the ding of the bell or the buzzer. It’s simply whether an answer—or a performed task—is correct or not.

As a 4th grader, I participated in my school’s spelling bee. Don’t get the wrong idea, I was NOT a precocious spelling phenom. I remember standing sweaty-palmed at the microphone looking at the judges, who mostly looked down at their notes.

My turn came. I boldly misspelled the word “demeanor.” The judges continued looking at their notes for several uncomfortable seconds. I didn’t know if I had spelled it right or wrong. Finally, one of them looked up at me and said simply, “Incorrect.”

That was it.

Just, “Incorrect.”

I took my seat with the other non-winners and puzzled, then how DO you spell it?

The simplest form of feedback is like that.

It’s an indication that the performance or the answer given was correct or incorrect, good or bad. It’s feedback, but it’s low-utility feedback because it doesn’t contain much in the way of information about how to change. It’s an evaluation, not mentorship.

A more instructive form of feedback, which is intended to modify the student’s behavior or thinking and thereby enhance the learning, is called formative feedback (Shute, 2007).

Formative Feedback

Strategy 1: Deliver formative feedback along the way to maintain students’ focus and attention and to keep students from wasting energy feeling uncertain and stressed about how they are doing.

“The main aim of formative feedback is to increase student knowledge, skills, and understanding in some content area or general skill (Shute, 2007).” In other words, formative feedback doesn’t just tell you how you did, but what you can do about it.

Students tend to embrace formative feedback because of its usefulness.

Just like you need sensory feedback to keep your bearings, formative feedback provides a “check-in” for students about how they are doing. It turns out that for students, not knowing whether they are performing well or not on a task can disrupt their attention and reduce performance. On the other hand eliminating uncertainty can increase motivation and keep students in a state where they are able to perform at their best (Shute, 2007).

Similarly, another study found that the demands of high performance tasks can be overwhelming for students and that formative feedback can lessen the cognitive load so their performance and learning won’t be negatively affected by the stress (Shute, 2007).

The majority of students reported that they didn’t care whether feedback was positive or negative as long as it was formative and helped them improve (Jones, Blankenship, 2014).

Formative feedback is not a silver bullet. It isn’t the answer for every student and every situation (Evans, 2013). But it’s clear that it is helpful in many, many cases.

Strategy 2: The most effective feedback is timely, useful, and in line with student’s motives for learning.  

One author described the elements of effective formative feedback as the same as those detectives look for in a good murder case: motive, means, and opportunity. Motive centers around the student’s need, opportunity describes the timeliness of the feedback, and means indicates that the student can actually make use of the feedback given (Shute, 2007). When students see feedback as helping them achieve their outcome as opposed to passing judgment on their final performance, they are more receptive (Ching, 2014).

Strategy 3: Consider what you want your students to be able to do that they currently cannot.

One conversation in the contemporary evolution of education centers around knowledge-led vs. skills-led learning. I’m not going to give a comprehensive treatment of this debate. But in overview, the technology-driven age in which we live highlights that a purely knowledge-based education is limiting because knowledge becomes out of date (Askew, 2000). Skills and competencies influence what a student becomes and what he or she can do with what they know.

The International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century published a report in 1996 that outlined four types of learning: learning to know, learning to live together, learning to be, and learning to do. It suggested that (at the time) educational methods were paying most attention to the first (Askew, 2000).

When educators see their role as only the conveyance of knowledge and not as being involved in training students to develop competency in certain skills, the perspective on how to incorporate feedback is limited.

Strategy 4: Consider how feedback may influence a student’s motivation.

The impact of feedback on student learning and performance is significantly impacted by their learning goals and motivation (Jones, Blankenship, 2014). Are they motivated to pick up the knowledge and skills? Do they have a reason to care? Why are they here in the first place?

Fortunately, motivation is not a fixed attribute.

It can be influenced and one of the ways to do that is through feedback. Just as motivation has an important impact on learning, feedback (especially on goal-driven work) can create strong motivation (Shute, 2007). Formative feedback can be given in such a way that learners feel empowered and “in command” of their learning, which reinforces their motivation (Ching, 2014).

Strategy 5: Use thoughtful feedback to induce a physical and mental state of receptivity to more feedback.

One author suggests that motivation and engagement are easy to achieve if you can create the right state in your students.

He used the example of a marriage proposal. The right state heavily influences the likelihood of receptivity and a positive response. The key takeaway here is that “states are the body’s environment for making decisions. If you think you’re going to get a negative response… change their state first. Then ask them to do the activity while they are in a state to say yes” (Jensen, 2005).

Among suggestions for how to change states in students, the giving of feedback is shown as one of the best ways to evoke intrinsic motivation (Jensen, 2005).

There is a certain level of sensitivity and precision required for feedback to enhance motivation. Student goals or objectives are typically more motivating than specific granular tasks. Feedback that is goal-oriented addresses the learner’s progress toward the global goal. Motivation is strongest when the learner’s goal and their anticipation that they can reach the goal are tightly matched. If goals are too lofty and the chance of success is low, motivation is replaced by discouragement. If goals are so easy that there is no doubt of their being accomplished, then motivation falls below what is required to drive greater effort (Shute, 2007).

Feedback given to students needs to formative, timely, considerate, motivating, and thoughtful. Feedback that fit these criteria will help students, both specifically and generally, acquire, develop, and apply the skills you’ve taught them, while also developing students receptiveness to more feedback—it’s the never-ending feedback awesomeness cycle!

To learn even more about giving feedback, check out our Ultimate Guide to Feedback for Educators.

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