How to Provide Effective Feedback in eLearning
Have you ever picked the wrong answer in an eLearning exercise only to be met with a red 'X'? Talk about barely helpful feedback. Yes, I need to know the answer was wrong, but why was it wrong and what do I do to get it right? This article will look at what makes feedback effective, and how you can create useful feedback for your eLearning.
How to Provide Effective Feedback in eLearning
One of the most important recent works on feedback in learning is The Power of Feedback, by John Hattie and Helen Timperley. In it they reviewed numerous studies to determine what makes feedback effective. They also concluded that, depending on the type, feedback can be:
- A powerful factor in learner improvement,
- Utterly useless, or
- A negative influence on learner improvement.
Unfortunately, much of the feedback provided for typical eLearning exercises lands in the latter two categories. A green check, a simple statement of "Correct" or "Incorrect. The answer is D.", and even a "Good job, you're doing great!" do nothing to facilitate learner improvement. Learners tune it out, often barely noticing such feedback. What can we do to improve eLearning feedback, making it a valuable part of the learning event, attracting learners' attention and inspiring further effort and engagement?
The first step in providing effective feedback is creating feedback opportunities. The most common feedback opportunities in eLearning, and the ones I'll focus on here, are automated exercise questions. Automation presents a challenge by limiting the prospects for specific, targeted feedback, but there's still much we can do to make feedback meaningful. Now, let's look at how we can go about providing worthwhile and effective feedback.
8 Tips for Providing Effective Feedback
1. Offer immediate feedback
One of the traits of effective feedback identified by Hattie and Timperley is immediacy, at least for the types of questions commonly asked in eLearning. This is probably one of the easiest tips to implement since most such feedback in eLearning is already immediate.
Note that not all feedback has to be immediate. Feedback for an in-depth analytical essay, for example, is more effective when it's delayed.
2. Feedback should relate to the learner's advancement towards a goal
All learners, and especially adult learners, want to know why they're learning and how the learning will benefit them.
The purpose of a course should be clearly laid out at the beginning in a statement of its aims and in well-crafted learning objectives. Effective feedback refers to learners' progress in reaching those goals.
According to Hattie and Timperley, feedback should answer three questions:
- "Where am I going?" This question relates to the learners' goals.
- "How am I going?" Progress is the key here. Learners want to know how they are progressing "to a task or performance goal, often in relation to some expected standard, to prior performance, and/or to success or failure on a specific part of the task."
- "Where to next?" To motivate learners, the answer to this question should be something other than more of the same. What will they gain from what they have learned? How will it help them in a practical sense?
3. Provide feedback for correctly answered questions
It's not unusual to focus our feedback on learners who've answered questions incorrectly. After all, those who got the question right knew the answer and are progressing satisfactorily, so they don't need more help. But surprisingly, Hattie and Timperley found that "feedback is more effective when it provides information on correct rather than incorrect responses."
They also found that feedback needs to provide information, not just praise. "Praise for task performance appears to be ineffective, which is hardly surprising because it contains such little learning-related information."
Reiterating the answer in the feedback is another approach that provides little information. It's more useful to talk about the strategies used to reach the answer, the consequences of knowing or not knowing the correct answers and next steps in learning. When writing correct answer feedback, also remember that some learners will have guessed the answer, not known it.
4. Tell (or show) the consequences of learners' answers
Speaking of consequences, the real-world results of learners' responses make for effective feedback. You can describe the consequences of getting things right or wrong, or you can provide intrinsic feedback. Activities like branching scenarios incorporate valuable feedback. If a supervisor in a management scenario makes a decision that causes problems for their employees, their next step is dealing with the issues they've created.
5. Plan feedback from the beginning
The time to start planning feedback isn't when you're writing it, it's when you're thinking up exercise questions and creating distractors. Exercise questions can offer an opportunity to correct common mistakes and clarify misunderstandings. In addition, keep in mind that distractors should always be plausible, and they should also reflect common errors. Feedback is where you can explain how the learners got things wrong and the difference in thinking needed to get it right next time.
This strategy works best when you can provide specific feedback for each distractor, so it can be difficult to implement if your software isn't up to snuff.
6. Don't rely solely on extrinsic feedback
Feedback encompasses more than a statement after answering an exercise question. Many organizations also provide extrinsic feedback, including things like tangible rewards for completing a module or gamified points and badges for learning progress.
However, there's a risk to relying too extensively on these external motivators. "Tangible rewards have the ability to undermine intrinsic motivation over time. The learner may get less joy from learning about an interesting topic as they begin to focus more on collecting the various rewards."
7. Use confidence-based assessment to fine-tune feedback
Confidence-based assessment can be used to fine-tune feedback by providing more information on why learners selected the answer they did. In confidence-based assessment, learners answer the question and then indicate their confidence in their answer. Feedback is determined by the combination of answer and confidence level. For example:
- Right answer, high confidence: The learner probably understands the question. Feedback should show progress and next steps.
- Right answer, low confidence: The learner may have guessed, or at least is unsure of the material. Feedback should include clarification or reinforcement of the process for reaching the answer.
- Wrong answer, high confidence: The learner may have an inaccurate mental model. Feedback focuses on correction.
- Wrong answer, low confidence: The learner is aware that they are unsure of the material. Feedback includes clarification or reinforcement of the process for reaching the answer.
Confidence-based assessment also promotes self-assessment in learners by encouraging them to assess their own achievements and progress.
8. Choose qualitative feedback over quantified scores
Studies have found that providing a numerical score for an exercise has no benefit and can even inhibit learner progress. Written comments are more helpful, but their effect can be reduced or eliminated by the addition of a score. Scores should therefore be avoided in favor of written feedback for in-module exercises.
End-of-module or end-of-course tests present more of a problem. Although scores detract from continuing learner improvement, they are often required to establish whether learners have successfully completed the learning event. However, you can reduce the negative effect on learner progress by also offering feedback comments to encourage the development of a culture of continuous learning in your organization.
In this article we have presented eight strategies for creating eLearning feedback that benefits learners by contributing to the learning process. These strategies will help you prepare the best feedback for your learners, feedback that helps them achieve their goals. Hopefully, these tips will contribute to the success of your next learning event!
Shauna graduated from the University of Toronto in 2002 with a Master of Arts in English before moving home to Calgary to work in the fast-paced, detail-oriented oil and gas industry. Now certified as a technical writer, Shauna is comfortable writing in a variety of styles, and for a variety of audiences.