Learning Strategies

Relevant Research: How to Make Feedback Matter

By Eric Horowitz     Jan 10, 2013

Relevant Research:  How to Make Feedback Matter

Although the phrase “constructive feedback” is slowly beingrelegated to a euphemism for what’s articulated on voice-themed reality shows,the importance of providing accurate information about performance isunderstood by educators and learning scientists. One reason startups that makeuse of blended learning generate so much excitement is that adaptive learningplatforms have the potential to provide each student with detailed feedbacktailored to their unique strengths and weaknesses.

Yetexactly what kind of feedback -- including the level of detail, tone, andtiming -- is most influential, is the subject of much research.

For example, while researchers have established that it’simportant for feedback on a problem to contain the correct answer, they’vefailed to conclusively show that further elaboration is beneficial. A group of psychologistsled by Duke’s Andrew Butler believed these counter-intuitive results could beexplained by the fact that the same questions tend to be asked on the pre- andpost-tests. If participants simply had to retain the correct answer, anyadditional information would be superfluous.

Butler's team decided to design anexperiment where the post-test included new questions that requiredtransferring knowledge gleaned from the initial feedback to a new context. Theresults, which will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology, suggest their suspicions wereaccurate. When participants couldn’t merely memorize the pre-test answer theextra explanatory feedback led to better performance. It appears that, up to apoint, more is in fact better.

Of course, not all feedback needs to be detailed to beeffective. In a study published in the January issue of Computers and Education, a team of researchers from the Universityof Canterbury and the University of Illinois-Chicago attempted to isolatethe impact of positive feedback – relatively nondescript mid-exercisecomments such as “good job” and “exactly.”

The experiments used a programdesigned to teach coding in the SQL programming language. One group used thestandard program that only gave negative feedback after incorrect answers. A secondgroup used a modified version that was designed to also offer positive feedback.It did this when students entered a correct answer, but were likely to beuncertain about it.

When the researchers analyzed the performance of the twogroups they found no significant difference in the number of problems solved.However, the group that received positive feedback solved the problems in halfthe time it took the group that received only negative feedback. The resultssuggest that by reducing uncertainty the positive feedback was able toaccelerate the learning process. If future research confirms that positive feedback works best in momentsof uncertainty, then identifying these moments ahead of time could become anincreasingly important part of developing computer-based lessons.

One perpetual problem with computer feedback is that itlacks the emotional element of human interaction. But even if computers nevermatch the kind words of a teacher, might there be ways to move beyond cold fonton a computer screen? A 2010 studyinvolving over 170 sixth graders found that when a program used ahuman voice recording for feedback instead of static emoticons, it led tohigher ratings of social presence, more intrinsic motivation, and betterperformance on math problems. A human voice still can’t match the presence of aperson, but it is promising that that the voice appeared to move outcomes offan inferior, completely inhumane baseline. The door is clearly open for futureresearchers to explore ways that sound and video can make feedback moreemotionally engaging.

Computer-based instruction still has a way to go, but researchon feedback illustrates its potential. The ability to provide elaboration andpositive encouragement at all the right moments would give computers aninstructional advantage over humans. And who knows, perhaps science fictionwriters were prophetic and someday we’ll find a way for computers to generate copiousamounts of humanity (for better or worse.)

Research! Research! Read all about it!

Learning Strategies

Relevant Research: How to Make Feedback Matter

By Eric Horowitz     Jan 10, 2013

Relevant Research:  How to Make Feedback Matter

Although the phrase “constructive feedback” is slowly beingrelegated to a euphemism for what’s articulated on voice-themed reality shows,the importance of providing accurate information about performance isunderstood by educators and learning scientists. One reason startups that makeuse of blended learning generate so much excitement is that adaptive learningplatforms have the potential to provide each student with detailed feedbacktailored to their unique strengths and weaknesses.

Yetexactly what kind of feedback -- including the level of detail, tone, andtiming -- is most influential, is the subject of much research.

For example, while researchers have established that it’simportant for feedback on a problem to contain the correct answer, they’vefailed to conclusively show that further elaboration is beneficial. A group of psychologistsled by Duke’s Andrew Butler believed these counter-intuitive results could beexplained by the fact that the same questions tend to be asked on the pre- andpost-tests. If participants simply had to retain the correct answer, anyadditional information would be superfluous.

Butler's team decided to design anexperiment where the post-test included new questions that requiredtransferring knowledge gleaned from the initial feedback to a new context. Theresults, which will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology, suggest their suspicions wereaccurate. When participants couldn’t merely memorize the pre-test answer theextra explanatory feedback led to better performance. It appears that, up to apoint, more is in fact better.

Of course, not all feedback needs to be detailed to beeffective. In a study published in the January issue of Computers and Education, a team of researchers from the Universityof Canterbury and the University of Illinois-Chicago attempted to isolatethe impact of positive feedback – relatively nondescript mid-exercisecomments such as “good job” and “exactly.”

The experiments used a programdesigned to teach coding in the SQL programming language. One group used thestandard program that only gave negative feedback after incorrect answers. A secondgroup used a modified version that was designed to also offer positive feedback.It did this when students entered a correct answer, but were likely to beuncertain about it.

When the researchers analyzed the performance of the twogroups they found no significant difference in the number of problems solved.However, the group that received positive feedback solved the problems in halfthe time it took the group that received only negative feedback. The resultssuggest that by reducing uncertainty the positive feedback was able toaccelerate the learning process. If future research confirms that positive feedback works best in momentsof uncertainty, then identifying these moments ahead of time could become anincreasingly important part of developing computer-based lessons.

One perpetual problem with computer feedback is that itlacks the emotional element of human interaction. But even if computers nevermatch the kind words of a teacher, might there be ways to move beyond cold fonton a computer screen? A 2010 studyinvolving over 170 sixth graders found that when a program used ahuman voice recording for feedback instead of static emoticons, it led tohigher ratings of social presence, more intrinsic motivation, and betterperformance on math problems. A human voice still can’t match the presence of aperson, but it is promising that that the voice appeared to move outcomes offan inferior, completely inhumane baseline. The door is clearly open for futureresearchers to explore ways that sound and video can make feedback moreemotionally engaging.

Computer-based instruction still has a way to go, but researchon feedback illustrates its potential. The ability to provide elaboration andpositive encouragement at all the right moments would give computers aninstructional advantage over humans. And who knows, perhaps science fictionwriters were prophetic and someday we’ll find a way for computers to generate copiousamounts of humanity (for better or worse.)

Research! Research! Read all about it!

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