Center for Faculty Excellence

Tips for Teaching

Feedback - How Learning Occurs

by Grant Wiggins
(reprinted with permission from the Bulletin of the American Association for Higher Education)

One obvious thing in watching good athletes, and even in listening to them in interviews, is that they often make clear just how vital ongoing feedback is to their mastery. I was particularly struck by Tiger Wood's recent remarks when he won the Masters'. When asked how he turned around his early poor performance, he described how, on the back nine, when he was not playing well, he said to himself that he had to adjust his performance. But to know you need to adjust, you need ongoing feedback. Tiger knew he needed to adjust on the basis of the feedback that he was receiving - not from any person, psychometrician, or indirect proxy test but from the real thing, the unintended effects of his putts and his drives. Why is it, then, that we don't gather feedback regularly in schools and colleges and use it to improve learning? I'd like to make four simple points about this puzzle: (1) People can't learn without feedback. (2) It's not teaching that causes learning. Attempts by the learner to perform cause learning, dependent upon the quality of the feedback and opportunities to use it. (3) A single test of anything is therefore, an incomplete assessment. We need to know whether the student can use the feedback from the results. (4) We're wasting our time inventing increasingly arcane psychometric solutions to the problem of accountability. Accountability is a function of feedbak that's useful to the learner, not to a handful of people who design the measures. The more arcane the measure, the less likely it is that it will cause any useful progress, despite its validity and reliability. Or to say it the other way around, the more self-evident the feedback to the performer, the more likely the gains.

Feedback and Description

Let's think about these points a little bit further by clarifying what I mean by feedback. If I did a poll about your definitions of feedback, you would probably say something like, "Feedback involves telling someone what you did and did not like or what you did or did not judge to be right in what they did - some praise and some blame." If you ask people about their bad feedback experiences, they usually say things like, "Oh, I really got hammered by the person." The implication is that feedback is what you get from people who do or do not like something you did. That, of course, is a mistaken view. Feedback is not about praise or blame, approval or disapproval. That's what evaluation is - placing value. Feedback is value-neutral. It describes what you did and did not do. When I was traveling through Boston the other day, I read in the Boston Globe about my beloved but depressing Red Sox. The article contained an explanation from the pitching coach about why the Red Sox's chief relief pitcher, Mr. Slocum, had been recently banished to the bullpen. It seems the pitching coach saw, in looking at videotape, "that Heathcliff did not find his location spot 22 out of 29 times. And when that happens, you know that he's not striding properly. And when that happens, you look at his delivery and, sure enough, we saw that he planted his foot four, five, six inches to the left of where he normally plants it, throwing the ball consistently outside." Notice that there is not one negative or positive value judgement in that account by the coach, merely a description of what the videotape revealed. That's what feedback is. No praise. No blame. It just describes what you did and did not do in terms of your goal. The best scoring rubrics for student performance do the same thing. In fact, when we work with people on the design of rubrics, we always say, "The rubrics will be powerful and useful to the extent that you rid them of value and comparative language, such as 'excellent,' 'good,' 'fair,' 'poor,' 'better than,' 'worse than,' 'clearer than,' and 'less clear than.' Substitute for all that phraseology discrete descriptors of what is actually true of a certain level." So, indeed, we do understand the importance of description in terms of rubric design.

Self-Adjustment as Goal

We've heard a lot during the past ten or fifteen years in both higher education and K-12 about the importance of student self-assessment. Despite the importance of the idea, the phrase is misleading. Self-assessment is not the goal. Self-adjustment is the goal. But suppose students have never been taught the importance of self-adjustment. Indeed, how are they ever going to be taught it in a scope-and-sequence-coverage curriculum with a one-shot test? Regrettably, we still live in an assessment framework inherited from the Middle Ages, one predicated on a defunct theory of learning. That theory of learning says: "Take it all in, contemplate it, play with it a little but, give it back, and we'll then certify that you understand. And if you don't understand, well, you can't enter the guild, the medival tradition of the university." The modern view, however, says: "No, that's not how it works. It's more like software. It's like basketball. It's like learning to print your name. You don't really understand it unless you can adjust. Unless you can cope with feedback. Unless you can innovate with what you learn." The next great leap in assessment is to understand that a solitary test, with no interaction between the test taker and the assessor, will turn out to be as foolish, dimwitted, and premodern as some of the practices involving rods and canes were a hundred years ago. If we want to know if students understand something, we have to see if they can deal with feedback and with counter-arguments to their arguments and their own ideas, just as we do in the dissertation's defense. But it's not necessarily a function of human one-on-one. Feedback built into assessment is about compelling the student to have her or his ideas intersect with reality, to see if the balsa bridge will hold the weight predicted by the physics the student proposes using - to see if the student can convince the client that this solution to the problem of environmental pollution is, in fact, feasible scientifically, economically, and politically. Indeed, one of the most exciting things about problem-based learning in the professional schools that's now finding its way into the collegiate and precollegiate world is that problem-based learning, by its very nature, builds feedback and the need to use it into the work. Even if we only simulate it, we can alert students that they have to show that they can deal with feedback. They have to show that they can deal with the unexpected to be said to truly understand and be skilled. Indeed, if we take this lesson to heart, we will come to a very disturbing truth that follows from the commonsensical premise that we began with. None of us who has been a teacher is anywhere near as good as we can be if we are not routinely getting feedback from students. Feedback is not praise or blame. It's what you did and did not do, whether you realized it or intended it. Assessment should make its chief business the confronting of performers with the effect of their work, including performers called teachers. And then performers must do something about the effect, either to explain it, to justify it, or to correct it.