A good classroom teacher looks like a well-oiled student feedback machine. Student responses are analyzed, feedback is given, and the loop repeats.
Whether this is done verbally in an all class discussion, or in marginalia scrawled on a stack of quizzes, good teachers know that giving students effective feedback is major part of the learning process.
Naturally, some forms of feedback are more useful for learning than others. So, what does effective student feedback look like? How can you know if you’re doing it well?
A number of studies on feedback indicate that teachers should provide the correct answer when a student fails to answer with accuracy. While not “giving away the answer” may feel more rigorous to some, it’s the simplest information students can use to correct their errors and learn from their mistakes.
What about providing a nice explanation to go along with the correct answer? Wouldn’t it be even more effective to explain why an answer is wrong?
Oddly, early studies showed negligible learning gains from giving additional student feedback. The initial findings seemed to suggest that conscientious teachers who give students copious feedback might be wasting their time.
More recently, researchers have examined the question again, with special attention to the specific learning outcomes being measured.
Effective Feedback for Memory versus Understanding
Duke University’s Andrew Butler and Elizabeth Marsh, along with Namrata Godbole of University of North Carolina, conducted experiments to disentangle the effects of different types of student feedback. Their findings were published in a 2013 paper in the Journal of Educational Psychology entitled “Explanation Feedback Is Better Than Correct Answer Feedback for Promoting Transfer of Learning.”
Butler and colleagues noted that previous research to disentangle the attributes of effective feedback focused on pure retention. That is, students would be tested on the exact same questions after receiving feedback as they’d seen before.
This kind of experimental procedure tested the students’ ability to remember the facts. However, like most teachers, Butler and colleagues were more interested in getting students to walk away with a deeper understanding of the concepts.
The researchers conducted new experiments to determine what kind of feedback students need to not only retain correct information, but also to understand it more thoroughly.
To test understanding, Butler and colleagues created tests that required students to transfer their learning to new problems. To answer correctly, they would have to draw inferences based on their recently acquired knowledge.
In the experiments, students studied short readings, then responded to a short-answer test on concepts from the text. After each question, they received correct answer feedback, explanation feedback, or no feedback.
Two days later, the students came back and were tested on repeat questions, as well as new inference questions that covered the same concepts.
The researchers found that, “correct answer feedback and explanation feedback led to equivalent performance on the repeated questions, but explanation feedback produced superior performance on the new inference questions.”
In other words, giving student feedback that includes an explanation doesn’t really affect their ability to answer basic retention questions. However, a good explanation will impact their ability to answer more complex, higher-level questions that require students to make inferences.
The researchers repeated their experiment to confirm these results, and reasserted that providing students with explanatory feedback improves their ability to transfer their learning.
The authors write, “the additional information contained in the explanation feedback message fostered better understanding of the critical concepts, which enabled subjects to apply this knowledge to answer new inference questions.”
To Give Effective Feedback, Explain the Why
So, what does this study mean for teachers?
First, incorporating in class reading, assessment, and effective feedback can be a powerful learning tool, especially when planned out over a span of several days.
Second, explanation matters when giving feedback. When providing students with feedback on incorrect answers, provide short explanations that clearly, succinctly give students the “why” behind the right answer.
Students will integrate these explanations into their prior knowledge of the subject or concept, and be better prepared to answer high-level questions.
This technique then, is essential when preparing students for more rigorous assessments that ask students to do more than simply recall facts.
It can improve students’ ability to answer higher-level questions and strengthen their inference skills.
Image Credit: Nic McPhee
Butler, A. C., Godbole, N., & Marsh, E. J. (2013). Explanation feedback is better than correct answer feedback for promoting transfer of learning Journal of Educational Psychology, 105 (2), 290-298 DOI: 10.1037/a0031026