Using Feedback for a Deeper Learning Experience

We can teach less, provide more feedback, and cause greater learning than if we just teach.   — Grant Wiggins 2012

As educators we use feedback (or at least what I used to think of as feedback) constantly to adjust our presentations, discussions, and to improve our student’s performance. Regardless of whether we deliver our content online or face-to-face, this feedback plays an important role in the effectiveness of our teaching. After reading several articles on feedback, I’d say that instructors often provide their students with:

  • Evaluative information such as scores on papers and exams, gold stars and rejection for unacceptable work.
  • Advice on ways to improve such as comments on papers “needs more work” or “you forgot to include your sources”.
  • Praise for work well done, “good job” or “excellent analysis”.

Grant Wiggins, in his Seven Keys to Effective Feedback, suggests that this information may be interesting and useful, but strictly speaking, it is not “feedback.” In fact, he goes further and states that in general, we give far too much advice and not enough critical feedback to our students. Wiggins defines feedback in a 2012 PPT as “useful information about what you did, given a specific goal.”

In his post What feedback is and isn’t Wiggins provides the following examples as a quiz: which of the following 4 statements is feedback?

  1. “Nice job on the project, Sheshona!”
  2. Next time, Sam, you’ll want to make your thesis clearer to the reader”
  3. The lesson would be more effective, Shana, if your visuals were more polished and supportive of the teaching.”
  4. You taught about ants,Stefan? I LOVE ants!”

Ready with your answer? Wiggins states that NONE of the above are feedback! (1) and (4) are evaluative statements and (2) and (3) provide advice. Feedback does not need to be bossy or prescriptive. Rather, feedback should simply state what did or did not happen. For example, feedback after a student presentation could state “I counted your use of ‘um’ to be 12 times in five minutes.” Or, it could state, “Each time you paused and asked the group a question, I noticed that heads were nodding and all students were making eye contact with you.”

Before we examine this more closely, let’s look at some different types of feedback described by the TKI New Zealand Ministry of Education 2009.

TKI distinguishes between evaluative (involving a value judgment) and descriptive (describing what the student said or did and including information meant to improve performance) feedback. They report that descriptive feedback has been shown to be more effective and can be further broken into feedback all very intentionally linked to the task in three ways:

  • Reminder prompts — “How might you have developed that thesis more effectively” or “Do you recall last week’s discussion about….”
  • Scaffold prompts– “Why don’t you try applying the Pythagorean theorem…” or “Which class of prescription drug restricts the number of refills you are permitted before requiring you to revisit your physician?”
  • Example prompts — When multiplying two negative numbers together don’t forget …. for example, -7 x -5 would be….

Research (Clarke, 2001)  has shown some interesting and perhaps counter-intuitive findings when it comes to feedback and learning. In Unlocking formative assessment, Clarke finds that too much feedback and the student becomes dependent upon the instructor rather than learning to trust in his or her own judgement and conclusions. Instructors might ask students “Do you know what to do next?” or “Was that helpful?” or even “If you get stuck this week, what will you do?” but don’t assume that your students need constant feedback or hand-holding.

Clarke goes on to show that providing an evaluative score on a paper was least helpful while providing comments alone on papers showed improvement from one lesson to another. Providing both an evaluative and a descriptive comment appeared to remove all of the benefits of the descriptive comment.

We’re tackling the topic of feedback because Marnie asked us to unearth some resources for her and was interested in hearing how other faculty are using feedback in their courses. Thank you Marnie for suggesting this important topic.

Feedback IS an essential component of the teaching and learning process and deserves more than a casual post in the FLC. We would like to suggest that you join us for a one-hour roundtable discussion on feedback. Let’s all read the following articles:

We can discuss these readings and share our understanding and our best practices.