Feedback on performance has proven to be one of the most important influences on learning, but students consistently report that they want and need far more feedback than they get from their instructors (Hattie & Zierer, 2019). One of the main reasons for this relates to the distinction between feed back and feed forward. The former provides information on past performance (Wiggins, 2012); the latter tells students what they need to know or do differently to improve future performance.
For example, feed back is telling a student that they misunderstood the distinction between medical paternalism and patient autonomy in their last essay. Feed forward is actually explaining the distinction, not leaving the student to figure it out themselves.
Sometimes students need more than just information—they need to know what they should do to improve their performance. Often problems in product result from problems in process. Maybe a student does not know how to study or how to organize an essay. They need to know what behaviors to adopt to do better next time.
Of course, nearly all institutions have a repository of material on topics like study skills and time management, as well as tutors. Directing a student to these resources is important. But an instructor often has process information related to their field that is not found in general institutional resources, and students can reap tremendous benefits when we share it with them, in terms of both knowledge and motivation.
As an undergraduate, I was terrible at speaking in my Italian class until an instructor told me that instead of holding back because I was afraid of making a mistake, I should deliberately ham it up to sound like I was trying to parody an Italian movie. I even started making a joke out of my mistakes by saying things like “Sono molto stupido” and slapping my hand to crack up the class. As if by magic, my fear disappeared and my pronunciation improved. Again, this was guidance not found in my Italian textbook or class content, but it transformed my learning. Instructors should spend time reflecting on the inside information they use in their field to identify opportunities for sharing it with their students.
At this point many instructors say they don’t have time to provide this much information on a student’s work. But there is a simple shortcut for providing more feedback in less time—what I call the teaching toolbox. Instructors will find common mistakes in going over student work, such as repeated examples of students getting a concept wrong. The instructor can write out a detailed explanation of the concept the first time, then save that explanation in a document for reuse with other students who get it wrong. This allows instructors to provide needed feed forward with a simple copy and paste.
When setting up a teaching toolbox, I like to use a Word doc divided into conceptual and writing entries. These are my level-one headings. I then split these into additional levels by topic, week, assignment, and so on, depending on the course. The writing entries contain explanations of common writing errors, such as confusing affect with effect. The conceptual entries explain concepts that students commonly miss, such as the distinction between medical paternalism and patient autonomy. I also include links to external resources when helpful.
The nice thing about this method is that as I reuse entries, I tend to see areas where I can provide more detail or add resources. In this way, the teaching toolbox grows the more I teach the class, providing more and better information with each iteration.
One word of caution: avoid using the toolbox as a crutch to avoid personalizing feedback. I have seen faculty who basically copy and paste the same feedback into each student’s work, sometimes moving so quickly that they end up giving feedback that does not even pertain to the work.
The secret to avoiding formulaic feedback is to remember the feed back–feed forward distinction. The teaching toolbox is not suitable for feed back. Each student’s work is unique, so feed back should reflect that. The instructor should reference the student’s particular text to point out an issue. It is obvious when an instructor uses boilerplate with students because it is so general that it does not speak to the particular issue.
By contrast, the teaching toolbox is exceptionally useful for feed forward. Explanations of concepts are general and so can be the same wherever they’re needed. Similarly, the instructor can share ready-made process advice with students who have trouble on that front. Even if this information isn’t bespoke, sharing it can build a personal connection with the student that will improve their motivation—and likely the instructor’s student evaluations as well.
Hattie, J., & Zierer, K. (2019). Visible learning insights. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781351002226
Wiggins, G. (2012). Seven keys to effective feedback. Educational Leadership, 70(1). http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept12/vol70/num01/Seven-Keys-to-Effective-Feedback.aspx