October 14th, 2011

The Role of Feedback on Skill Development

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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.