Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Feedback about feedback

Most of us who've been doing eLearning for any length of time know all about Kirkpatrick's Four Levels of assessment, and we work hard to get as high up that ladder as possible. What are learners learning, and how is it affecting their world? But how many of us know about the Four Levels of Feedback?

We know how important it is to provide learners with constructive inputs along the way, and to adjust instruction to match needs. That's formative assessment--basic learning strategy, right? If you're like me, though, feedback is mostly a check-mark. Is it built in somewhere, or is it not? If you've got it, that's good--and it will be good for the learner. The research base is well established. And if you're like me, you also know that providing more specific feedback ("The correct answer is X because...") is much better than providing less specific feedback ("Wrong!"). Make the feedback as positive and as ubiquitous as you reasonably can, provide some guidance for improvement, and drive on.

But then recently I stumbled on John Hattie and Helen Timperley, and the four "levels" of feedback they delineate in their article The Power of Feedback (Review of Educational Research, March 2007). Their work sums up a lot of other research, but makes it, I think, much more approachable--providing a practical "handle" for actually using it. It seems to me they've done for feedback what Donald Kirkpatrick did for training assessment. Let's take a look.

The Four Levels of Feedback:

1. Feedback about the task. This is the one that I, at least, tend to think of as "feedback" unless someone focuses me on something more or different. "That is correct, sir," or "You got it right!" or "You missed this, try that." It's corrective. The learner has to achieve something, and you want to let them know whether they achieved it or not, and help them improve. Turns out that while this is helpful, it's not the most helpful feedback you can offer.

Level One feedback can be, and usually is, built into eLearning in some fashion. It's often automated.

2. Feedback about the process. The "correction" in this case focuses not on the outcome, or the work product, but the way the outcome is being developed. "You've got an interesting result here, but did you come to it by the means we discussed in class?" Which may be another way of saying, you didn't get the answer right because you didn't go through the appropriate steps. But that subtle difference is important. The writing process, the design process, even the scientific method... you focus the learners on the process they're using, on whether or not they are taking the right steps, and you leave the result (the work product) more in their hands. You can see how it would energize a learner, provide motivation to go on improving his or her work product, when you give them room to fix it themselves by going back to their approach.

Level Two feedback can be done online, but it's tough to automate it, unless the process being taught is also online. Seems to me this will work better with a human agent in charge.

3. Feedback about self-regulation. Here it gets even more interesting. This kind of feedback is about neither the product nor the process, but about how the students view and/or make judgments about their product or process. This "addresses the way students monitor, direct, and regulate actions toward the learning goal." This sort of feedback can motivate students to want your feedback. Very simple examples: "What do you think about your progress so far?" or "Show me how you're coming along," or "Do you feel like you are getting better at this?" followed by, "What makes you think so?"

If you ask a learner if they believe they are getting better at a task, what do you generally get back in response? In my experience, it's something like, "Yes, I think I am improving. What do you think?" And what just happened there? The student is suddenly asking for your feedback. They are asking for input. This puts them fully in charge of their learning and their outcomes. It makes the specific feedback, whatever it is, all that much more powerful when it comes. Effective learners always have sharp self-assessment tools--and they can be sharpened through "Level Three" feedback.

Level Three feedback can easily be provided online. I would not attempt to automate it, but it really boils down to asking learners for some self-reflection. This can be as simple as: "Write a paragraph reflecting on your progress." (Getting learners into the habit of thinking about their learning strategies is another research-supported design element that can improve learning greatly.)

4. Feedback about the self. Here's a somewhat counter-intuitive level. If each one of the levels is more effective, done well, than the previous, and each one gets closer to self-motivation and self-efficacy, closer to the self, you'd think that this fourth level would be the pinnacle of effective feedback. But it's just the opposite. "You're a good learner," or "You're one of my best students," or "You have a knack for taking the wrong tack," are all bad feedback strategies. Why? "Praise addressed to students is unlikely to be effective, because it carries little information." (Hattie and Timperley). And in fact, praise can be demotivating. The learner reaction goes something like this: I thought it was about what I was learning, the goals I was achieving, and then you made it about me. I don't want to be your favorite, that doesn't motivate me. I just want to be good at this. When we make it about them, we also make it about us.

It has also been demonstrated, and logically so, that another way feedback can be demotivating is if the underlying message is that success comes from some natural state, such as being bright or sharp or old or young. The better message is that success comes to those who pursue it (see Carol Boston on The Concept of Formative Assessment, for more on this). "Hard work gets you to your goals," is a message about the process and the product, not about the learner.

Good news: Level Four feedback is very easy to avoid online!

So here's a little meLearning. Not only can lack of feedback hurt my learning efforts, the wrong kind of feedback, though well-intentioned, can hinder them as well. And the right kind can provide a serious uptick in both outcomes and learner motivation. All this resonates with me, and motivates me to refocus on the feedback loops in my eLearning product. Hope it does the same for you.