3 Lessons: How to Give Students Feedback

By Jill Barshay, The Hechinger Report, 1/19/15

[Michael’s note: This report is based on a “meta-analysis,” which examines the findings from many studies in order to find patterns and draw more robust conclusions.]

Proponents of computerized instruction often point out that software can give instant feedback to students…. [But] educators don’t really understand how…feedback leads to learning and exactly what kinds of feedback work best.

A team of researchers led by Fabienne M. Van der Kleij from the Cito Institute for Educational Measurement in the Netherlands set out to see if…computerized instruction might offer clues about what kinds of feedback are most effective…. [Their paper: “Effects of Feedback in a Computer-Based Learning Environment on Students’ Learning Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis.”]

Here’s what they learned [from 40 high-quality studies that directly compared different types of feedback].

1) Avoid “try, try again.”

Many software programs alert a student when an answer is wrong, asking the student to try again until he gets the right answer before moving on to the next question….

You’d think that getting a student to discover [and correct] his mistake would be incredibly effective. But just the opposite is true. Simply marking wrong answers was the worst form of feedback. In some cases, students examined after receiving this kind of try-again feedback had learning outcomes that were lower than students who hadn’t received any feedback at all on the same set of questions.

Why? Students typically click on a different answer, without thinking, and keep clicking until the computer marks it right. Van der Kleij said…“Over time research has recognized that a trial-and-error procedure was not very effective in student learning, because it does not inform the learner about how to improve.” …

Perhaps teachers should reconsider the common practice of flagging incorrect answers on homework. I’ve often wondered what it does to a student’s motivation to see work marked with red x’s but no insight on how to improve.

Spoon-feeding the correct answer to a student worked better. For example, if a student got “what is 10 x 10?” wrong, telling him that the answer is 100 was helpful, at least on simple learning tasks, such as this type of math drilling or learning foreign vocabulary words.

2) Explanations are most effective

Spoon-feeding doesn’t work as well for more complicated things, such as using new vocabulary words in an essay. More learning occurs when [the student gets an] explanation or a hint to help the student understand what he got wrong.

But the boost to student learning varied widely,…perhaps because the quality of the hints or explanations varied widely too….

Hints “are the most difficult. Learners don’t typically like that kind of feedback,” [one researcher] said. “They have to work more….”

A big problem…was coming up with a good hint ahead of time. “Humans are much better equipped [than computer-based instruction] to get into a student’s head and figure out where the misconception is coming from and guide them,” [the researcher] said….

Customizing feedback isn’t easy. [In one] experiment students were offered a multitude of feedback choices and they could pick the ones they found most useful. Naturally, students picked the explanation that required the least thinking on their part.

3) Later is sometimes better

When to give feedback depends upon how complicated the material is, the researchers found. When doing simple things like memorizing vocabulary or learning times tables, immediate feedback after each question was best. But when absorbing something more complicated, students learned more when the feedback was delayed a bit, perhaps until after the student had answered all the questions….

Van der Kleij cautioned…that students might ignore feedback more on a computer — although there’s also evidence that students ignore much of the feedback teachers write in the margins of their papers. But she did find it interesting that the research on computerized feedback is confirming what education experts already know about ordinary feedback. What’s interesting to me is why education technology makers aren’t taking more advantage of that research to improve feedback.

Jill Barshay writes the “Education by the Numbers” column for The Hechinger Report.


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