Call me crazy, but I think it’s important to invest in the research base for our field. I’ve spent a good chunk of the last year reviewing research from the world’s preeminent refereed journals in regard to how to give learners feedback. I’ve created, I’d like to think, the seminal research review on how to give learners feedback, written in a way that puts feedback in perspective, that goes deep into the fundamentals to give readers clear mental models for how feedback works. It’s this kind of in-depth exploration that allows you as a learning professional to use your wisdom to make the difficult design tradeoffs that you have to make. Recipes are for short-order cooks. Research-based wisdom for learning professionals is much more useful in the gritty day-to-day of our learning shops.
And now, instead of selling this document, I’m going to try an experiment, and give it away. Call me crazy, but internet users (hey that’s us) just don’t like to pay. I’ve been swimming upstream against the movement toward free information, knowing that the information I’m compiling is the best information out there, and that it takes an incredibly exhaustive effort to sift through refereed research, make sense of it, and repackage it in a way that resonates and is practical. But maybe research karma will work. It’s worth a try, right?
You can help me by reading the report, AND if you think it’s good, sending the link to it to everyone you know in your organization, in every learning-development organization you know, to your mom, your kids, your elected officials, to Elliott Masie and Tony Bingham (CEO of ASTD), to the New York Times.
Special thanks go out to my friends at Questionmark who agreed in advance of me finishing the report to license it for their clients and learning community. Questionmark is providing a great service by making it possible to dessimate world-class research-based information that is both valid and useful, including their support of the aforementioned research report on feedback.
Here are some of the insights from the two-part 88-page research report:
- The most important thing to remember about feedback is that it is generally beneficial for learners.
- The second most important thing to remember about feedback is that it should be corrective. Typically, this means that feedback ought to specify what the correct answer is. When learners are still building understanding, however, this could also mean that learners might benefit from additional statements describing the “whys” and “wherefores.”
- The third most important thing to remember about feedback is that it must be paid attention to in a manner that is conducive to learning.
- Feedback works by correcting errors, whether those errors are detected or hidden.
- Feedback works through two separate mechanisms: (a) supporting learners in correctly understanding concepts, and (b) supporting learners in retrieval.
- To help learners build understanding, feedback should diagnose learners’ incorrect mental models and specifically correct those misconceptions, thereby enabling additional correct retrieval practice opportunities.
- To prepare learners for future long-term retrieval and fluency, learners need practice in retrieving. For this purpose, retrieval practice is generally more important than feedback.
- Elaborative feedback may be more beneficial as learners build understanding, whereas brief feedback may be more beneficial as learners practice retrieval.
- Immediate feedback prevents subsequent confusion and limits the likelihood for continued inappropriate retrieval practice.
- Delayed feedback creates a beneficial spacing effect.
- When in doubt about the timing of feedback, you can (a) give immediate feedback and then a subsequent delayed retrieval opportunity, (b) delay feedback slightly, and/or (c) just be sure to give some kind of feedback.
- Feedback should usually be provided before learners get another chance to retrieve incorrectly again.
- Provide feedback on correct responses when:
a. Learners experience difficulty in responding to questions or decisions.
b. Learners respond correctly with less-than-high confidence.
c. All the information learned is of critical importance.
d. Learners are relatively new to the subject material.
e. The concepts are very complex.
- Provide feedback on incorrect responses:
a. Almost always.
i. When feedback would disrupt the learning event.
ii. When it would be better to wait to provide feedback.
- When learners seek out and/or encounter relevant learning material either before or after feedback, this can modify the benefits of the feedback itself.
- When learners are working to support retrieval or fluency, short-circuiting their retrieval practice attempts by enabling them to access feedback in advance of retrieval can seriously hurt their learning results.
- When learners retrieve incorrectly and get subsequent well-designed feedback, they still have not retrieved successfully; so they need at least one additional opportunity to retrieve—preferably after a delay.
- On-the-job support from managers, mentors, coaches, learning administrators, or performance-support tools can be considered a potentially powerful form of feedback.
- Training follow-through software—that keeps track of learners’ implementation goals—provides another opportunity for feedback.
- Feedback can affect future learning by focusing learners on certain aspects of learning material at the expense of other aspects of learning material. Learners may take the hint from the feedback to guide their attention in subsequent learning efforts.
- Extra acknowledgements (when learners are correct) and extra handholding (when learners are wrong) are generally not effective (depending on the learners). In fact, when feedback encourages learners to think about how well they appear to be doing, future learning can suffer as learners aim to look good instead of working to build rich mental models of the learning concepts.
Some of the concepts and language in the above recommendations may not be obvious until you actually read the research report. You can do that by clicking the link below.