Focus on Formative Feedback

Feedback is a critical element of the kinds of practice problems being developed by participants in the H5P OER Development Grant program.

To explore feedback further, we turn to research literature:

Shute, Valerie J. “Focus on Formative Feedback.” Review of Educational Research, vol. 78, no. 1, American Educational Research Association, Mar. 2008, pp. 153–89. SAGE Journals, doi:10.3102/0034654307313795.

This article reviews the corpus of research on feedback, with a focus on formative feedback—defined as information communicated to the learner that is intended to modify his or her thinking or behavior to improve learning. According to researchers, formative feedback should be nonevaluative, supportive, timely, and specific. Formative feedback is usually presented as information to a learner in response to some action on the learner’s part. It comes in a variety of types (e.g., verification of response accuracy, explanation of the correct answer, hints, worked examples) and can be administered at various times during the learning process (e.g., immediately following an answer, after some time has elapsed). Finally, several variables have been shown to interact with formative feedback’s success at promoting learning (e.g., individual characteristics of the learner and aspects of the task). All of these issues are discussed. This review concludes with guidelines for generating formative feedback.

In this meta review of literature and previous students, Shute defines formative feedback as information communicated to the learner that is intended to modify his or her thinking or behavior for the purpose of improving learning, very much in line with the goals of these projects.

Some of the things we want to know in this project are

  • What are the most powerful and efficient types of formative feedback and under what conditions do they help a learner revise a skill or improve his or her understanding?
  • What are the mechanisms by which feedback facilitates the transformation of rudimentary skills into the competence of a more expert state?

The paper cites Black and Wiliam (1998) for noting two main functions of feedback: directive and facilitative.

Directive feedback tells the student what needs to be fixed or revised. This is more specific than facilitative feedback, which provides comments and suggestions to help guide students in their own revision and conceptualization.

Formative feedback helps students learn by:

  • reducing uncertainty about how well or poorly they are performing on a task. Being unpleasant, uncertainty may from task performance. So reducing uncertainty may lead to higher motivation and more efficient task strategies.
  • reducing the cognitive load, especially for novice or struggling learners. Presentation of worked examples reduces the cognitive load for low-ability students faced with complex problem-solving tasks.
  • providing information that may be useful for correcting inappropriate task strategies, procedural errors, or misconceptions.

Feedback is significantly more effective when it provides details of how to improve the answer rather than just indicating whether a student’s work is correct or not.

Effective feedback provides learners with two types of information:

  • Verification is the simple judgment of whether an answer is correct or incorrect
  • elaboration is the informational aspect of the message, providing relevant cues to guide the learner toward a correct answer.

Elaboration can

  1. address the topic
  2. address the response
  3. discuss the particular error(s)
  4. provide worked examples
  5. give gentle guidance.

The first three types of elaborated feedback are more specific and directive, and the last two types are more general and facilitative.

If feedback is too long or too complicated, many learners will simply not pay attention to it, rendering it useless. Lengthy feedback can also diffuse or dilute the message, although the research varies on what defines “lengthy.”

From her review of literature on formative feedback, Shute summarizes guidelines in Table 2 of the paper, or “things to do”, including:

  • Focus feedback on the task, not the learner. “Feedback to the learner should address specific features of his or her work in relation to the task, with suggestions on how to improve”
  • Provide elaborated feedback to enhance learning. “Feedback should describe the what, how, and why of a given problem. This type of cognitive feedback is typically more effective than verification of result”
  • Present elaborated feedback in manageable units. “Provide elaborated feedback in small enough pieces so that it is not overwhelming and discarded.. Presenting too much information may not only result in superficial learning but may also invoke cognitive overload… A stepwise presentation of feedback offers the possibility to control for mistakes and gives lear ers sufficient information to correct errors on their own.”
  • Be specific and clear with feedback message. “If feedback is not specific or clear, it can impede learning and can frustrate learners… If possible, try to link feedback clearly and specifically to goals and performance.”
  • Keep feedback as simple as possible but no simpler (based on learner needs and instructional constraints). “Simple feedback is generally based on one cue (e.g., verification or hint) and complex feedback on multiple cues (e.g., verification, correct response, error analysis). Keep feedback as simple and focused as possible. Generate only enough information to help students and not more.”
  • Reduce uncertainty between performance and goals. “Formative feedback should clarify goals and seek to reduce or remove uncertainty in relation to how well learners are performing on a task, and what needs to be accomplished to attain the goal(s)”
  • Give unbiased, objective feedback, written or via computer. “Feedback from a trustworthy source will be considered more seriously than other feedback, which may be disregarded. This may explain why computer-based feedback is often better than human-delivered in some experiments in that perceived biases are eliminated.”
  • Promote a “learning” goal orientation via feedback. “Formative feedback can be used to alter goal orientation—from a focus on performance to a focus on learning… This can be facilitated by crafting feedback emphasizing that effort yields increased learning and performance, and mistakes are an important part of the learning process.”
  • Provide feedback after learners have attempted a solution. “Do not let learners see answers before trying to solve a problem on their own (i.e., presearch availability).”

Shute also provides in Table 3 suggestions of “things to avoid” in designing formative feedback:

  • Do not give normative comparisons. “Feedback should avoid comparisons with other students—directly or indirectly (e.g., “grading on the curve”). In general, do not draw attention to “self” during learning”
  • Be cautious about providing overall grades. “Feedback should note areas of strength and provide information on how to improve, as warranted and without overall grading.”
  • Do not present feedback that discourages the learner or threatens the learner’s self-esteem. “This prescription is based not only on common sense but also on research… citing a list of feedback interventions that undermine learning as it draws focus to the ‘self’ and away from the task at hand. In addition, do not provide feedback that is either too controlling or critical of the learner.”
  • Use “praise” sparingly, if at all. “use of praise as feedback directs the learner’s attention to ‘self,’ which distracts from the task and consequently from learning.”
  • Try to avoid delivering feedback orally. “When feedback is delivered in a more neutral manner (e.g., written or computer delivered), it is construed as less biased.”
  • Do not interrupt learner with feedback if the learner is actively engaged. “Interrupting a student who is immersed in a task—trying to solve a problem or task on his or her own—can be disruptive to the student and impede learning”
  • Avoid using progressive hints that always terminate with the correct answer. “Although hints can be facilitative, they can also be abused, so if they are employed to scaffold learners, provisions to prevent their abuse should be made… Consider using prompts and cues (i.e., more specific kinds of hints).”
  • Do not limit the mode of feedback presentation to text. “Exploit the potential of multimedia to avoid cognitive overload due to modality effects… and do not default to presenting feedback messages as text. Instead, consider alternative modes of presentation (e.g., acoustic, visual).”
  • Minimize use of extensive error analyses and diagnosis. “the cost of conducting extensive error analyses and cognitive diagnosis may not provide sufficient benefit to learning. Furthermore, error analyses are rarely complete and not always accurate, thus only helpful in a subset of circumstances.”

We are curious to see how these guidelines are applied in the H5P environment and how project participants may use them in creating feedback there.


Image Credit: Piqsels public domain image Creative Commons CC0

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