The Function of Feedback

October 16, 2014 Aaron Dewald

What is feedback? Academically defined, feedback is, “information provided by an agent (e.g., teacher, peer, self, etc.) regarding aspects of one’s performance or understanding” (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). The purpose of feedback is to reduce the distance between current performance levels and a desired goal, often articulated through learning objectives and rubrics. Hattie (1999) found that feedback is one of the most important components in helping students develop their knowledge. In fact, Hattie suggests that feedback is “the most powerful single moderator that enhances achievement” (p. 9).

Where do I start?

Feedback is powerful and valuable to students, but what sort of things should we be addressing with our feedback? We start by looking at our rubric. A well-written rubric will guide your feedback. Feedback given on a facet of learning that you haven’t articulated in your learning objectives or on your rubric will not have the same impact as feedback that is given on a facet of learning linked to one of those measures.

Writing effective feedback.

When considering how to write feedback, Hattie and Timperley (2007) suggests that quality feedback will fall in one of four primary levels:

1. Task level. Feedback at this level describes the quality of the students’ work in relation to the learning objectives/rubric installed for the lesson. Feedback given here is typically corrective feedback, as it directly relates towards correcting misconceptions of students, not missing knowledge. Because well-structured prior knowledge serves as the best predictor of future performance (Ausubel, 1968), this type of feedback is important for a student’s long-term success. An example of this type of feedback is, “Can you clarify the differences between assault and battery?”

2. Process level. Feedback at the process level examines whether or not the process the student utilized matched the process envisioned for a given task. This can include the student’s error detection abilities and their ability to recognize when more information is needed. An example of this type of feedback would be, “Make sure you always read multiple cases, not just one.”

3. Metacognitive level. Feedback at the metacognitive level addresses the student’s self-monitoring and self-regulation abilities. As we discussed in the rubrics blog post, developing a student’s metacognitive skills can lead to better learning outcomes. Feedback that is given at the metacognitive level asks the learner to look inward and assess their own work – this will help them develop confidence in future learning tasks and develop their ability to manage their own progress toward the desired learning goal. Learners with poor metacognitive abilities rely far more frequently on external factors and, as a result, will struggle with more difficult learning tasks, as they don’t possess the prerequisite skills to control their learning or set proper goals for their learning. An example of good metacognitive level feedback would be, “In order to quickly get ideas, try reading the paper’s abstracts to get a feel for the paper’s position. Ask yourself, ‘Would this research support my position?’”

4. Self level. Feedback at this level is typically given about affect – about the learners themselves. This feedback should be given sparingly, as it focuses not on the information to be learned, but about the affective qualities of the learner. “Nice work, that’s correct!” can have a motivational effect, but does not bridge the distance between our goals and the student’s current levels of comprehension.

How often should we provide feedback?

This is one of the biggest dilemmas in legal education. During the first year of law school, most courses give a final, summative exam to students. By the time they receive their grades and feedback, sometimes up to a month after the final, it is of no use to the students in relation to class. Recent updates to the American Bar Association’s (ABA) accreditation standards (Standard 314) explicitly state that law schools, “Should use… formative feedback assessment methods… to measure and improve student learning and provide meaningful feedback to students” (ABA Revised Standards, 2014). Formative feedback provides more opportunities for students to see and address the differences in their current conceptual knowledge when compared to the desired goal. These formative feedback opportunities are key into creating better learners.

Armed with the information from this and the previous blog posts, law schools should be well equipped to further investigate the impact of learning objectives, rubrics, and feedbacks on their curriculum.


About the Author

Aaron Dewald

Aaron is currently a Ph.D. candidate in learning science, which gives him a unique perspective on technology use in pedagogical situations. Aaron received his B.S. in Information Systems from North Dakota State University in 2001, and his M.Ed. in Instructional Design and Educational Technology from the University of Utah in 2010.

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