Early Feedback is Crucial for Good Learning

As you put the finishing touches on your syllabus for this semester, or as you reflect on how your first week of class went, think about the kinds of feedback we give and we need as teachers and as learners.

As teachers, we want to assess how well our students have mastered our course goals. Our assignments are designed to gauge understanding of concepts, mastery of terminology and content, articulation of understanding in written and oral form. It makes sense to schedule larger, more integrative and culminating type assignments later in the course.

Students need feedback from us early and often so that they can gauge how the effort they put into the course pays off. They need the feedback well before the majority of the course goals have been achieved, in order that our students can figure out the best ways to study and approach the course material.

Think about when you are learning something new. Like learning how to do a backhand shot in tennis or a flip turn in swimming. Or when you are learning a new language or how to make a good pie crust. You’re training your body to move in new ways. You are training your brain to think in different ways. It takes practice. But it ALSO takes feedback. We need to get an idea if our body position is correct. If our mouths are forming the words correctly. If we formed the ingredients into a whole correctly. Feedback, in the form of videos or coaching, will help us to refine, to re-do, to optimize. If you don’t get feedback until late in your learning process, you will likely not learn your new skill in the best or most optimal way.

image from: http://www.contactpc.com/computer-tech-support-get-coached-by-the-best/

The same is true for learning new intellectual material. Particularly in introductory courses or advanced seminars. These types of courses often involve very new ways of approaching course material, even new ways of thinking about the world. Study strategies that might have worked well for a memorization-heavy course from the past will not work well if the focus is on reading experimental work and relating it to other work. Quantitative reasoning strategies are very different from big picture integration. Our students need to learn how to learn for different courses, as well as learn the different types of material.

How can we help our students learn these different ways to learn? Coach them. Provide training exercises very early in the semester and give them feedback that will help them adjust their approaches. Waiting for the midterm or first big assignment to give this kind of feedback may be too late. The learning (remember we learn by making mistakes and correcting them with practice) may be too expensive in terms of the final grade.

So, as you begin your new semester, try incorporating some early training exercises and give your students constructive feedback and coaching on how best to learn most effectively in your discipline. Make the learning process explicit for your students.