This season, we’re thrilled to feature the work of Annie Murphy Paul, a writer who helps people understand how we learn and how we can do it better. Her Brilliant Blog features the latest research in cognitive science, psychology and neuroscience, revealing the simple and surprising techniques that can help us learn to be smarter.
When effectively administered, feedback is a powerful way to build knowledge and skills, increase motivation, and develop reflective habits of mind in students and employees. Too often, however, the feedback we give (and get) is ineffectual or even counterproductive. Here, four ways to offer feedback that really makes a difference, drawn from research in psychology and cognitive science:
1. Supply information about what the learner is doing, rather than simply praise or criticism.
In “The Power of Feedback,” an article published in the Review of Educational Research in 2007, authors John Hattie and Helen Timperley point out that specific information about how the learner is performing a task is much more helpful than mere praise or, especially, criticism. In particular, research by Hattie, Timperley, and others has found that feedback is most effective when it provides information on what exactly the learner is doing right, and on what he or she is doing differently (and more successfully) than in previous attempts.
2. Take care in how you present feedback.
The eminent psychologist Edward Deci has identified several conditions under which feedback may actually reduce learners’ motivation. When learners sense that their performance is being too closely monitored, for example, they may disengage from learning out of feelings of nervousness or self-consciousness. To counter this impression, the purpose of observing or supervising should be fully explained and learners’ consent obtained. Better yet, learners should be involved in collecting and analyzing data on their own performance, reducing the need for oversight by others. (And as the popularity of the “Quantified Self” movement has demonstrated, many people seem to enjoy keeping even minute records of their own behavior.)
A second risk identified by Deci is that learners will interpret feedback as an attempt to control them—for example, when feedback is phrased as, “This is how you should do it.” Empower learners rather than controlling them by giving them access to information about their own performance and teaching them how to use it.
According to Deci, a third feedback condition that can reduce learners’ engagement is an uncomfortable sense of competition. To avoid this, emphasize that you are sharing feedback with students or workers not to pit them against each other, but rather to allow them to compete against their own personal bests.
3. Orient feedback around goals.
Information about performance means little if it’s not understood in relation to an ultimate goal. Hattie and Timperley have formulated three questions that feedback can help answer: “Where am I going?” (That is: What is my goal?) “How am I going?” (That is: What progress is being made toward my goal?) Lastly, “Where to next?” (That is: What actions must be taken to make further progress?) Feedback is most effective, research has found, when it directly addresses the learner’s advancement toward a goal, and not other, less-pertinent aspects of performance. (If it’s not relevant to the goal, don’t bring it up.)
Once a goal has been clearly specified, feedback can help learners see the progress they’re making toward that target. Find ways to help learners represent this progress visually, in a chart or graph that they update regularly.
4. Use feedback to build metacognitive skills.
The most profound and lasting benefit of sharing feedback with students or employees is the development of their awareness of their own learning. Having access to information about their performance creates opportunities for learners to recognize when they’ve made mistakes and figure out what to do to fix them. It also helps them to monitor their own motivation and engagement, and take proactive steps when they feel these flagging. They can learn to identify when to work harder, when to try a different approach, and when to seek help from others. The ultimate goal of feedback, in other words, should be to teach learners how to give feedback to themselves. (An abstract of the Hattie and Timperley article is on my blog.)