Saturday, 15 October 2016

The feedback continuum

The effects of feedback are complex than we often realise. While expertise and mastery is unlikely to develop without feedback it’s certainly not true to say that giving feedback results in expertise and mastery. There are few teachers who do not prioritise giving feedback and yet not all teachers’ feedback is equally effective.

My understanding of the effects of feedback has grown as I’ve come to accept and internalise the profound differences between ‘performance’ and ‘learning’. If you’re not clear on these, I summarised them here.

Hattie and Timperley point out that, “Feedback is one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement, but this impact can be either positive or negative.” We know from Kluger & DeNisi’s meta analysis that in 38% of most robust studies, teachers giving feedback to students had a negative impact on outcomes. So what goes wrong?

It’s interesting to consider the view from cognitive psychology. As Soderstrom and Bjork point out that in laboratory tests there is empirical evidence that “delaying, reducing, and summarizing feedback can be better for long-term learning than providing immediate, trial-by-trial feedback.” Further, they point out that, “Numerous studies—some of them dating back decades—have shown that frequent and immediate feedback can, contrary to intuition, degrade learning.”

This might seem on first reading to contradict your lived experience. After all, as every teacher knows, if you give students feedback on how to improve their tennis backhand, essay writing or the process by which to solve quadratic equations they will then make these improvements. There is no doubt whatsoever that giving feedback will improve students’ performance but sadly this does not mean that these improvements will be retained or transferred. In fact, there’s compelling evidence that giving students cues and prompts to improve performance in the short term actually makes this less likely.

In the past I’ve used the analogy of navigation to explain this. Using a map is effortful and it’s easier to memorise routes than to have to map read your way to every destination, especially if you intend to go there more than once. A GPS, on the other hand, is the perfect machine for giving feedback: it knows exactly where you are, you tell it exactly where you want to go and it provides immediate, trial-by-trial feedback on your progress. If you make a mistake it adapts and provides new instructions to compensate for the error. Navigation becomes effortless and memorising routes is hardly worth the trouble.

When we compare this to the way feedback is given in schools it’s no very great stretch to see how students might become dependent on their teachers for feedback. If teachers give too much feedback too quickly and don’t encourage their students to struggle, it hardly surprising that students would avoid taking the trouble to memorise procedures and processes. 

So, does this mean that the only feedback we should give is of the map reading variety? To answer this question we need to understand that feedback has two potential effects; it can promote learning and it can also promote confidence. The trouble is, these effects are often at odds. In order to promote learning feedback should induce struggle and be designed to get students to think hard about subject content, but to promote confidence it needs to be designed to encode success and give students the belief that they can successfully tackle a problem. If there is too much struggle involved in attempting a task we may end up encoding failure with the result that students might believe that they’ can’t do maths’ or that they’re ‘crap at French’. 

My suggestion therefore is to adapt the type of feedback we give depending on where students are in their studies. If they’re at the beginning of a course they will lack the knowledge to successfully perform a task without carefully scaffolded feedback. Being shown how to perform well and being given ‘SatNav feedback’ will help motivate them to see that they can be successful. However, such feedback is unlikely to promote learning. Therefore, as time goes by and students become increasingly confident, teachers ought to reduce the amount of feedback they give and raise their expectations of how much struggle students can reasonably cope with. At this stage, the most effective kind of feedback is of the ‘map reading’ variety. Having to struggle helps students recognise that it’s worth the effort to memorise how to solve specific types of problems and to internalise certain procedures. Once these things have been internalised, students are no longer dependent on teachers’ feedback and performance becomes increasingly effortless. By the time the end of a course is approached there should be little need for teachers to give feedback at all as students ought to have learned everything they need to be successful.

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This then is my suggestion for a feedback continuum. Lots of SatNav feedback at the beginning to promote confidence and encode success. Then we should increasingly reduce, delay and summarise feedback to promote the retention and transfer of the concepts and procedures we need students to master. The more effortful it is to follow feedback, the greater the likelihood that students will find ways to make do without it. Finally, as students have internalised what needs to be learned, teachers should see giving feedback as a last resort and as evidence that teaching has been ineffective.

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