October 14th, 2011

The Role of Feedback on Skill Development


I’m working on a lecture I’ll be giving at the University of the West Indies and have been thinking about the feedback we give students on their skill development. If you teach something like art or physical therapy or some sport, then skill feedback can’t be avoided, but if you teach something like calculus, history, management or biology where the emphasis is on the content, students don’t always get much feedback on the skills associated with content acquisition in those areas. Our feedback tends to focus on whether they have mastered the material. How they do that is a secondary concern or not an issue we deal with directly.

So, what kind of feedback do students need if they are to improve skills, say their problem solving skills or their critical thinking abilities? For starters, the feedback needs to address the processes learners use when they tackle problems and here again even though teachers use fairly sophisticated processes themselves, knowledge of them is more implicit than explicit. Faculty who teach problem-solving are good problem solvers and the same could be said for those who teach critical thinking. But we need to cultivate awareness of the processes we use so that we can explain them to students or compare our approaches with ones they are using.

Helpful feedback on skills includes asking students questions—questions that direct their attention to the processes they are using. “So, what did you do when you got stuck on this problem?” “If you don’t agree with the author’s argument, how do you go about figuring a response?”

As soon as I thought students had gotten a sense as to the kind of content in my course, I asked them to write a brief explanation on how they intended to study and learn this material. The paragraphs they produced were almost always disappointing. “I’ll go over my notes.” “I’ll rewrite my notes.” “I’ll use flash cards.” Or my favorite: “I won’t need to study much. I’ve been communicating since I was three.” In general, I think undergraduates have very little awareness of themselves as learners. If I followed-up by asking for a second paragraph about how they were studying in a course very different than this one—say a math or chemistry course—the paragraphs weren’t all that different. Or, if I asked them to trade paragraphs and note the differences, there usually weren’t many, which I took as a lack of awareness that individual approaches to learning are unique. We don’t all approach problem-solving or critical thinking the same way. So, I think regularly asking questions about learning can help to focus students’ attention on what they are doing when they study and learn.

But they also need more direct feedback. My friend and colleague Larry, who’s taken up coaching soccer and regularly discusses how much its influenced his thinking about teaching, would say that students need to practice their learning skills and that it’s the feedback delivered during practice that most effectively improves performance. The problem for those of us who don’t teach skills and have large classes is that we don’t have time to watch students individually. However, over the years we’ve watched many students master our material and while each one is a unique learner, they do approach problem solving and critical thinking in similar ways. I think the more challenging part here is the close observation this requires of teachers. You have to be able to see what the student is doing. Sometimes you can see what they are doing by watching them. More often they are going to have to tell you what they are doing and why they are doing it. Then you can intervene, possibly directing them to different steps or more effective processes.

This leads back to the role of questioning. You can tell students what they are doing wrong (and right), but it is better if they discover that for themselves. I wouldn’t rule out telling—it’s efficient and the telling can lead to more self-discovery, but will students always have a teacher standing by to tell them? Sophisticated learners have the ability to assess their skills and accurately target those areas where they need to improve.

I’m interesting in hearing what you think. What kind of feedback have you found most effective in helping students develop new skills, whether it’s problem solving, critical thinking, or any other skills necessary to be successful in your course? Please share in the comment box below.

  • Lisa Godsey

    I try to give students an opportunity during class to see the work of other students, to switch their completed assignments with a classmate and help their 'buddy' out with comments or to compare their answers on the test study guide to a classmates answers. In studio classes, the tradition of critique provides this opportunity. My students lives are so fractured with multiple commitments that they don't form the 'study groups' that were part of my education but getting feedback from a peer before getting feedback from me has lead to submittals that seem to be somewhat improved over the work submitted to me directly. I have not measured this or class cohesiveness in any formalized way but re: class cohesiveness I have noticed since I have been doing this 'switch' that my students are more comfortable in class too, asking questions during the lecture and sharing their experiences related to the topic. I acknowledge that this might be a coincidence or simply the characteristics of the cohorts, but something is knitting them together in a way that was not present last year. This might layer their learning in a way that reinforces the material.

    • Faye Felicilda

      We had an incidence in our research course wherein we used peer mentoring/peer critique as part of our teaching-learning strategies, and we found that students can be punitive when critiquing others' paper. Did you have this problem, too?

  • shawnpatrickdoyle

    I love the metacognitive approach to helping students become more aware of their own learning processes. You're right that sophisticated learners can assess their own skills as a way to develop them. I'd add that teachers and students need to see that those metacognitive processes demand much more content-based knowledge than we think they do. That idea appears in Daniel Willingham's _Why Don't Student's Like School?_, but the gist of it can be found in his American Educator article on critical thinking from 2007. (Which can be found here: http://www.aft.org/pdfs/americaneducator/summer20

    Essentially, Willingham notes that critical thinking happens in children as young as three years old and it fails to happen in some of our most sophisticated thinkers. It's not then a skill that we can understand in the same way as a skill like riding a bicycle that will get better just because we are willing to practice. It's more a skill that we already have that we need to learn to activate and one of the biggest determiners there is a lot of surface level knowledge, which we need before we can get deep knowledge. If we don't have surface level knowledge, even the most sophisticated thinkers will not be able to take some of the metacognitive processes described here. I'm a fairly advanced and aware learner, but if I were learning German, I'd still need to hear and read a lot of German before I would be able to confidently assess my own fluency.

    The upshot of this is that we need to teach students to ask questions, but we also need to teach students to read around in a topic for a while with an expectation that they'll not be able to get to those deep questions right away. They'll need to start reading until they see the complexity and depth, and then those question asking skills can be utilized.

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  • I find that asking questions to the students is one of the best methods of giving feedback, as you point them in the direction as to where they have gone wrong, but they actually analyse their own work and find for themselves as to where they have gone wrong. If they then don't pick up on their problems, then that is where you can start to pick them up on points where you believed that they could have done better.