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.

{ 1 comment }

Bill Goffe October 3, 2014 at 2:08 am

On the idea of frequent assessment and “Too often, students don’t find out where their weaknesses are until the exam, which covers a wide swath of material.” why not give numerous quizzes instead of a few exams? Here’s the format I have in mind (and actually do in my economics courses): Instead of 2 midterms and a final, I give 7 quizzes (every 2 weeks) with a comprehensive final. Each quiz has exam caliber questions; in effect, the exam is spread out over time. Here’s what might be the advantages: 1. Students stay more current with the course. 2. There aren’t big swings in the course in terms of interest, energy, and possibly attendance. 3. Massed practice (i.e. cramming) leads to lower long-term retention (mentioned in the newish book “Make It Stick” which is written by 2 noted cognitive scientists). 4. You can go over over a quiz in class right after it is taken (would seem to be an example of deliberate practice — like in this post, students get feedback). 5. Topics can be repeated across the 7 quizzes as well as on the final so one can get more of the spacing effect (“Make It Stick” again).

The only possible drawback that I’ve seen is that it can get a bit tense in the classroom when you go over the quizzes as collectively they’re a large share of the grade. One method that seems to mitigate this a bit is to quickly post the answers and then get students to work together to see which answers they want explained. I group the questions into groups of 5 and use PI to ask students which question out of each 5 they’d like me to see explained and they vote with their clicker. In part, this gets them explaining the answers to each other and minimizes class time explaining each answer.

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