Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen
Feedback is one of the most, if not the most important tools for supporting learning. Giving effective feedback has also been found to be one of the most powerful educational interventions to improve learning. According to Shank (2017) effective feedback positively affects learning outcomes and motivation to learn, and can help build accurate schema. John Hattie (2011) found that giving feedback has an extremely large effect on learning, with an effect size of 0,79 (2X the average of all other educational effects)…
…and the effect of formative feedback (i.e., feedback for learning) is 0,90! In his study on the difference between expert and experienced teachers (we have blogged about that topic here), Hattie found that one of the major things distinguishing experienced teachers from expert teachers, is that expert teachers not only monitor their students’ learning, but they also give them quality feedback. Hattie and Timperley’s (2007) model of effective feedback looks like this:
So, let’s just give as much feedback as we can to improve learning, right? Well, no because to tell the truth, you might do more damage than good if you do it ‘wrong’. The challenge with feedback is that it’s not straightforward. First of all, because there are many types of feedback, it’s not unambiguous what we mean when we say ‘feedback’. Then, there are also a number of factors that influence the effectiveness of feedback. And last but not least, although we know feedback is one of the most important ways to improve learning, we know from research that it can negatively affect learning (Shank, 2017).
Let’s explore this a bit more. We’ll start by discussing the feedback that hurts learning. Then, we’ll discuss different types of feedback that have the potential to improve learning and finally, we’ll explain what we know about some of the factors that influence feedback’s effectiveness.
Feedback that hurts learning
Shank (2017) discusses, based on research from Hattie and Timperley (2007), various types of feedback that are detrimental for learning. For example, praise and reward not only hinder intrinsic motivation, but they’re also not really valuable for learning because they contain little task information. Things like comparison to others (e.g., rankings), threats, or discouragement can cause anxiety because they threaten self-esteem, which is not really beneficial for learning (Shute, 2008).It’s important to be aware of all this. After all, it might feel intuitively right to praise someone. And you can, if you just want to be nice. Just don’t think you’re supporting their learning when you do! Further, ‘followers’ of Carol Dweck seem to feel that giving praise will also positively affect the mythical Mindset, learning, and the learners’ lives. But even she says: Be careful what and how you praise!
Different types of feedback to support learning
There are many different types of feedback, all serving different purposes. We’ll discuss the three most common ones; corrective, directive, and epistemic feedback.
Corrective feedback can be seen as a type of single loop feedback giving, when a learner provides an incorrect answer, what the right answer should have been. The learner knows if the answer is right or wrong and also what the correct answer should be. Nothing more, nothing less.
Directive feedback can be seen as a type of double loop feedback that gives direction on how things can be better or better done. It informs the learner how to do something so that (s)he can carry out the task properly. For example: ‘You didn’t solve the problem correctly, it would be better to do it this way’ or ‘Although your answer is correct, the process you followed is not so effective. This is a better way to solve the problem.’
Epistemic feedback can be seen as a type of triple loop feedback that helps learners learn / gather knowledge. It informs or stimulates the learner to think about the “why” in relation to carrying out a task. Epistemic means of or relating to knowledge or cognition and is derived from the Ancient Greek word epistḗmē (science, knowledge). An example of such feedback is “In this step, you seem to have made a mistake; considering X, what could you do differently?” or “Why did you choose to do it this way? Are there other approaches to doing it which might give a different or better answer?” When you give epistemic feedback, you don’t tell learners how they can do better, however you give a hint in order to help them figure out how they can do it differently or better.
Paul once showed the differences this way:
Guasch and colleagues (2013) conducted research that shows that, although it takes more time, epistemic feedback works best, followed by directive feedback.
Next, let’s look at the factors that influence the effectiveness of feedback.
Factors that influence the effectiveness of learning
There are a couple of factors that we need to consider when giving feedback. First, Hattie and Timperley (2007) point out that, as a feedback giver, you need to be very aware what the learner’s objective is and what the criteria to be successful are. More specifically, you need to ensure that the feedback relates to the critical dimensions of the goal. In other words, the feedback should be directed at the dimensions that ensure success. Now, what is also important here, is that the feedback communicates the “specific gap between current knowledge and skill and targeted knowledge and skill by specifying how to meet the target” (Shank, 2017, p 140).
A common problem which undermines the effectiveness of feedback, whatever type you choose to use, is that learners often don’t do much with given feedback, especially when it comes to corrective and directive feedback. A common rule of thumb here is that the more one makes use of feedback, the more effective it is.
Butler and colleagues have shown that a simple intervention such as making feedback an explicit part of the learning process so that learners go through the feedback and do something with it, leads to a significant improvement in learning. For example, using the feedback as part of a quiz or requiring a task to be carried out again based on the feedback. Related to this, and something that was also noticed by Butler et al., is that the time between what the learner produces and the feedback that you give is crucial. The longer the time between task and feedback is, the smaller the effect of the feedback. Keep in mind, that this is true for novice learners, for learners who have a low knowledge or skills level. It’s different for learners who are more advanced and are stronger self-directed learners (Shank, 2017). In that context, it’s often better to delay the feedback to give the learner time for mental processing as (s)he might discover the gap themselves. Shank also points out that the best time to give feedback is when the learner can actually use the feedback information.
There are more differences between novices and advanced learners when it comes to the impact of feedback on learning. Shank gives an overview, showing that novice learners benefit more when feedback is directive, when the amount of information is specific (meaning that it “provides information about particular responses or behaviors beyond just their accuracy” (Shute, 2008, p. 7) and when the feedback is task specific. Shute also points out that, again, the feedback is more effective when it provides information on how to improve the answer or solution. For advanced learners, feedback can be more epistemic or can be hints and cues. Because advanced learners have a deeper understanding, that type of feedback might be enough for them to figure it out on their own. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t give epistemic feedback to novice learners or directive feedback to advanced learners, but rather that you need to be aware how you phrase your questions and keep in mind that the novice learner needs more scaffolding. This means you might need to structure your feedback better as the goal is to guide the learner in the right direction.
Of course, a major question is, how feedback givers (e.g., teachers or managers) deal with feedback. Do they give feedback and then build in a mechanism to check if the feedback was acted upon? Do they check if the same mistake is made by the learner repeatedly?
An example of how to NOT do it! 😊
Important to remember is that feedback is not a product, but is a part of a process (see the figure related to the three types) in which the outcome (output) of an operation (process) is returned (feedback) to the input. We can aptly speak of learning feedback when the information in the feedback that we give leads to a new and better learning outcome.
Feedback has many aspects and its value is determined by multiple factors. However, what’s solid as a rock is this: the right feedback at the right time, acted upon by the learner and the learner works! To put it simply, no feedback means no learning!
Butler, A. C., Marsh, E. J., Slavinsky, J. P., & Baranium, R. G. (2014, available online). Integrating science and technology improves learning in a STEM classroom. Educational Psychology Review. doi: 10.1007/s10648-014-9256-4
Guasch, T., Esposa, A., Alvareza, I. M., & Kirschner, P. A. (2013). Effects of feedback on collaborative writing in an online learning environment: Type of feedback and the feedback-giver. Distance Education, 34, 324–338. doi: 10.1080/01587919.2013.835772
Hattie, J. (2011). Visible learning for Teachers. London, UK: Routledge.
Hattie, J., & Timperley, H., (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81-112. doi: 10.3102/003465430298487
Shank, P. (2017). Practice and feedback for deeper learning. Learning Peaks LLC.
Shute, V. J. (2008). Focus on formative feedback. Review of educational research, 78(1), 153-189.Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1111586.pdf