What is effective feedback? And how do clickers provide it?

by Stephanie Chasteen on October 2, 2014

Another re-post from my work on the iclicker blog.

Last time I wrote about how clicker questions fit into a theoretical framework of assessment, and some considerations for aligning your clicker questions with your goals for your course. This week I want to review some of the literature on what features and kinds of feedback are most effective in helping students learn – and how you might use clickers to take best advantage of those features of effective feedback.

The features of feedback that I discuss in this post can be found in this nice two-page summary from the University of Colorado – Assessments that Support Student Learning. That article summarizes some points from another review article, “Conditions Under Which Assessment Supports Student Learning,” by Gibbs and Simpson.

Here is a list of the types of assessments that help students learn – and how they can be integrated with your use of clickers.

1. Assessments must be focused on the key aspects of the course

In other words, don’t ask clicker questions (or any questions) that are superfluous to your core learning goals, and don’t ask questions that only test basic recall. After all, you’re spending class time on this activity, and you also don’t want to give students the wrong impression about your expectations. For more on this, see last month’s post on backwards design. (Note: Some basic recall questions are fine, to build student understanding and confidence, but your questions should include a mix of levels.)

2. Assessments should be given frequently

Too often, students don’t find out where their weaknesses are until the exam, which covers a wide swath of material. Frequent assessments, instead, let students (and instructors) continually gauge their progress and weaknesses. Clicker questions are a great way to give frequent feedback to students. I advocate asking several clicker questions each lecture, so that students are continually given opportunities to test themselves and apply the new knowledge.

3. Feedback should be frequent and timely

Feedback is different from assessments – in the example of clicker questions, “assessment” is the clicker question itself, and the “feedback” is the discussion and display of the answer after students have voted. In other words, how did they do on that assessment? Too often, students complete a weekly homework, and don’t receive their scores until several days later. That feedback isn’t very frequent, and it’s so latStudents in classroome that it no longer matters as much to the student. Again, clickers are a great way to give students this frequent, timely feedback – since students are continually learning how their thinking and performance relates to the rest of the class or to an expert understanding. This is why it’s really important to discuss the wrong answers and the right answers to clicker questions during your discussion – students need feedback on where their thinking went astray, as well as confirmation of the correct answer.

4. Feedback should focus on student learning (rather than characteristics of the student)

When feedback focuses on what a student needs to do differently (e.g., “you’re not very good at doing integrals,”) they tend to internalize this information and feel somewhat helpless to change. On the other hand, when students receive feedback that focuses on what they can do differently, (e.g. “it’s important to identify what’s changing before you write your integral expression,”) then this is more empowering. For more information about this idea, read aboutFixed vs. Growth Mindset. Clickers, again, are useful in this way – since they are anonymous, all feedback to students focuses on the rationale for the correct answer, rather than being directed at them personally.

5. Feedback should be specific to the student

Generalized feedback isn’t that helpful to any of us. Rather, it’s most helpful to get feedback that is specific to our particular difficulties or misunderstandings. When using clickers, by encouraging students to discuss with their peers, you can make sure that students get feedback that helps them with their particular thought processes, at a level that is meaningful. You can also encourage students to reflect about their own difficulties, and provide themselves self-feedback, through the way that you facilitate the discussion at the end of the question.

6. Feedback should address small chunks of material

Again, the typical cycle of doing homework on a week’s worth of material, or an exam on a month’s worth of material, makes it very difficult for students to self-correct and improve. There is just too much material being assessed at once. Clicker questions are a great way to “chunk” your lecture into manageable portions. For example, you might lecture for 10 minutes at a time, and then ask a clicker question to help students wrestle with those ideas.

7. Feedback should provide guidance for future efforts, and allow the student to act on the feedback

This is a piece that is too often missing in modern education. As professionals, we operate in a cycle of feedback, iteration, and improvement – I write a paper, I show it to colleagues, they give me feedback on how to make it better, I go back and revise it, and show it to them again. I’ve gotten feedback that is very directed to my needs, and a clear opportunity to incorporate that feedback. This is often missing for students, who turn in a homework assignment and then get feedback that they are supposed to incorporate for next time (but they rarely do). Instead, you need to directly support students in incorporating feedback. So, for example, you might ask a clicker question that you know is a particularly challenging idea, and follow it with a second similar question, urging students to use what they learned the first time to improve their performance the second time. Or you might simply remind students of the lessons that they’ve learned from each clicker question and how it might apply to future work, indicating that this is an important part of their classroom experience.

So, in many ways, clickers are made to give students immediate, useful feedback – but there are some practices that you can take advantage of to make sure that this feedback is even more supportive of student learning.

Image courtesy of the PhET Interactive Simulations at the University of Colorado Boulder.

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This is a repost of my work on the iclicker blog.


Lately, I’ve been thinking about the purpose and approach that we take in various forms of assessment. Today I’d like to step back into a little bit of theory-land, and consider a broader framework of assessment, and the ways that clickers fit into that broader framework.

Point 1: There is a disconnect between how we see a course, and how our students see the course.

As instructors, we have strongly-held values about what our course is about, and why it’s important. But we don’t always teach for what we value. Sometimes we cram in content because it’s interesting, even though it doesn’t serve our broader purpose. Sometimes we think that the ultimate point of our instruction is clear through our activities and assignments – but that is not always the case.

Students operate in a different reality from us. Because of this, and the fact that our course goals are not necessarily as transparent as they could be, it is critical to be explicit about our expectations for students, and the connections between our instruction and the course goals.

What does this have to do with clickers? Hang on, I’ll get there.

Point 2: Designing a course around core objectives provides clarity – for instructors and students

One way to address the mismatch that I talk about above is to explicitly design our course around learning goals that are identified in advance. This isn’t how we usually design our course – a common approach is that we decide what goes into our course by finding some activities that we think will be fun and interesting to students, and building the course around those. Instead, consider starting with your goals, in an approach called “Backwards Design”. Backwards Design isn’t a prescribed set of steps, but rather a philosophy of education. First, we define explicit learning outcomes, such as “Students will be able to recognize equilibrium points on a graph.” You can read more about learning goals here. Then, determine how you will assess that outcome, such as having students use graphs to predict the behavior of objects. Then, LAST, you identify the instructional approaches that will help students be successful on those assessments – perhaps, working in groups on a tutorial on equilibrium, and getting more practice on their homework.
Backward Design: Start at the End
Backwards Design & Alignment: An example

Point 3: Frequent assessment gives powerful feedback as to whether students are achieving your goals

So, now that you have your clearly defined objectives, how do you know whether students are making adequate progress? How do your students know whether they’re on track? Assessment is a critical piece of instruction – it’s not just about finding out whether students got the message at the end of the day; assessment is about continually evaluating and giving feedback to students on where they stand. In fact…

Rapid, targeted feedback is perhaps
THE most important element of learning.

Without feedback, we can’t improve. This kind of feedback is achieved through the use of“formative assessment” – or “Assessments that provide information to students and teachers that is used to improve teaching and learning” (NRC, 2001). Compared to exams and other end-of-instruction exams (termed “summative assessment”, formative assessments are low-stakes, and aimed at helping students improve, and helping teachers appropriately target instruction, before that exam. Another way of looking at it is that formative assessment is “When the cook tastes the soup,” and summative assessment is “When the customer tastes the soup.”

Point 4: Clickers are an excellent form of formative assessment, to student and teacher

So, here’s where we get to clickers. Clickers and peer instruction fit perfectly into the formative assessment model – clicker questions are low-stakes, rapid, ongoing opportunities for students to find out how they’re doing, for instructors to see how the class is going, and for both students and instructors to redirect their efforts based on those results.

Point 4: Align your clicker questions with your goals for students

This is important! Too often, we write clicker questions that simply test students’ ability to recall basic information. Those are, after all, the easiest questions to write. But if our goals are that our students be able to evaluate information, or analyze pieces of an equation – we had better be asking those kinds of questions through our use of clickers, for two reasons: (1) to give students practice in achieving our goals, and (2) to appropriately communicate our expectations to students. Otherwise, students may not find out what’s important to you until the exam, when it’s too late. Clickers define for students, continually, what it means to you to “understand” a topic. See my previous post on “Bloomifying Up” your questions for more tips on this.

Backwards Design: Alignment
Photo caption: Align your goals, instruction, and assessments

So, in summary:

  • Write learning goals for your courses
  • Use clickers to assess student achievement of those learning goals
  • Make sure your clicker questions are aligned with your actual expectations for students.

In the next post I’ll write more about how clickers tie into the research on effective forms of feedback.

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