A lot of my confusion about feedback has been about my inability to clearly answer this question. After reading a few articles and chatting with some teachers, I think that I know of two ways in which feedback helps.
Mechanism #1: You can impact what someone is thinking about.
|From the Math Mistakes website|
One way that your response to someone can help them learn is by redirecting their thinking. Every comment we make to someone else has the capacity to literally change what they are paying attention to. Paying attention to something can lead someone to learn something new.
The above bit of feedback puts little asterisks by student work that the teacher thought would be productive for a kid to spend more time thinking about. The asterisks here are functioning as an attempt to redirect the student's attention.*
*I suppose that this is open to interpretation. Maybe the asterisks are just the way that this teacher indicates that something is wrong, and maybe the kids know this. If that's the case, then this isn't just an attempt to draw attention to some piece of work but also to evaluate it, which might be something else. Anyway...
I saw an especially clear articulation of this idea in "Feedback Interventions: Toward the Understanding of a Double-Edged Sword."
"After receiving feedback, an individual is very likely to be thinking about something different from what he or she was thinking about before receiving the intervention."
I think that asking questions in response to student thinking is a great example of trying to impact learning via redirecting someone's attention.
|Also from the Math Mistakes website|
It's certainly true that sometimes, when you find your performance deficient in some way, you're motivated to improve yourself. I discover that my joke didn't make anybody laugh, so I'm motivated to try and tell a funnier joke. In the process, I learn more about how to make someone laugh. Bada-bing.
It's also certainly true that sometimes this doesn't work so well. You tell somebody that you didn't find their joke funny, and they get offended or decide that they don't want to share their jokes with you anymore. You're a humorless grump. You're a critic. Or they decide that they're not funny, so they stop trying to be funny and learn nothing more about humor.
To put this into academic gobbly-gook...
This second way that feedback can help learning is all about motivation. But when does feedback help motivation and when does it hurt? How do you give feedback so that it helps? This is something that has to do with grades vs. comments, mindset, experts vs. novices, and feedback on skills vs. feedback on the task.
I've been a heavy user of redirecting thoughts in my responses to students over the past few years. I spent less and less time comparing my students' work to learning goals because I knew of the dangers of trying to motivate them but not how to negotiate them.
I think you can get pretty far with playing with someone's attention, but I think what I really need to do is come up with a plan for negotiating the motivation-side of feedback. It can be frustrating to try to improve your performance without clear comparison, and I need to make this side of things work.
I'm just beginning this process, but I'm going to need to come up with ways to give my students goals, to give them a chance for revision, and to give comments that give kids clear and actionable ways to improve.
A lot of this is fuzzy to me, but I think I have a clearer direction now.
- Worrying about how good you are at something can be a motivation-killer. How do you give feedback that avoids that, but that doesn't just turn into managing their attention?
- Are there other mechanisms through which our responses to kids directly impact their learning?
- When do you want to redirect someone's attention in a productive way, and when do you want to try to motivate them towards some goal?
- What sort of routines do I need to have to help me systematically improve my feedback-giving habits?