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Feedback in learning

  10th November, 2017 By An Coppens

In games we receive feedback on our performance on a consistent basis from simple power ups for a great move or words to that effect, to gaining points and moving up in levels to adaptive gameplay. In racing games, the gameplay is often at it’s best when you have other cars around you and the design is built that way on purpose. You will often find that the leader will only be able to pull away so far, before the other players start receiving power ups and can pull forward to catch up. Equally the racer that falls behind will receive more and more opportunities for powers to help them catch up. In casual games I play, I often notice that they become easier after the 7th or 8th time of repeat play of a particular level.

Feedback loops in games can be both positive or negative, positive feedback loops empower and encourage, negative feedback loops make things harder and tell you were you are making bad moves. Most frequently you have a visual or sound prompt to indicate good or bad feedback.

If we transfer this type of feedback to learning, most of us received feedback through the sound of a trainers voice, the dreaded red pen marker and test scores. We expect teachers to personalise their feedback to the individual and when they spend a lot of time together this is possible. In my work as a corporate trainer for a multinational I would meet 10 to 15 new people for each course, only over time would I have a chance to give personalised feedback. The feedback I was able to give in the training session was on exercises we did together and compared to others that had gone before them.

Studies of effective learning and teaching (Dinham, 2002, 2007a, 2007b) have shown that learners want to know where they stand in regards to their work and their peers. Providing answers to these 4 questions on a regular basis will help in providing quality feedback:

  • what can the learner do?
  • what can’t the learner do?
  • how does the learner’s work compare to others?
  • how can the learner do better?

If we work with a positive feedback loop system in training, the high performer would gain extra levels and further power ups to move ahead. The lower performer would fall further and further behind because they receive less and less power ups and need to work harder and harder to simply maintain status. If we introduce negative feedback loops which allow the poorer performer to catch up, it levels the playing field in a game, but in training it may cause boredom to the higher performer. In an online learning environment you can encourage both with adaptive systems, which enable each kind of learner to still move forward with power ups and reinforcement appropriate to their level. In a classroom, it is harder to make the distinction without labelling people in a sort of competency group, which may have its own side effects.

In games and in life, feedback is what causes us to change behaviour or stick with a behaviour.

In a training environment, you will naturally find a mix of both positive and negative feedback loops going on. In the corporate sector, this is often accompanied with an aversion for anything that could possibly have a negative effect. I would challenge this, because both in games and in life, feedback is what causes us to change behaviour or stick with a behaviour.

My most memorable feedback moments tended to be linked with some high emotion, one such experience stands out in my memory in the learning context. A French language teacher challenged individual students to step up to the blackboard and do an impromptu spelling and grammar test. He would then challenge you to also explain why you had spelled things a certain way. I was in a class with very intelligent people and most of my predecessors got either the spelling or the rule wrong and the teacher had been rather cruel to them. So by the time it was my turn, I was dreading it, but also deep down hoping I could do it because languages were my strong point. I passed the first test of spelling the sentence correct and then the teacher bet me a lollipop that I wouldn’t know why I wrote an ‘s ending to a word. I did get that correct and it became fun. The teacher never bet with me again and because he forgot the lollipop, he punished himself and gave me an extra one for every day he forgot. In future lessons, if he had a difficult question, he didn’t ask me first, but would turn to me after a few had it wrong. I have to say it massively kept me on my toes.

The example would be a positive feedback loop for the person who get’s the answers right and a negative feedback loop for those that get it wrong. In my class, quite a few people took it as a personal challenge to get better and equally a few decided they were just not good at French and would do just enough to pass. From a human side, a learner centric perspective would have tailored the responses to the individuals and maybe he did, he did tend to pick on the top scorers in the class in general. I was somewhere in the middle average of our class and an unusual pick for him, but then languages were my strong point, whereas the others excelled in other subjects. In hindsight, he rarely put the really weak students in front of the room, he would question them in the safety of their regular seat. They didn’t quite escape his treatment all the same, but the walk of shame or triumph up and down to the blackboard steps they were spared from.

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