On constructive feedback

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ONL192 started for our group (#2) at full speed. Not to brag, but we already had two synchronous meetings spanning several time zones, with participants taking commitments and procedures seriously. That does not mean we are a “serious” bunch- there have been plenty of laughs and smiles during the meetings. So far, so good!

A question came up in the group about feedback to blog postings, and guidelines are being developed to make it a straightforward process. As the group brainstorms a way, this made me curious: is there a science about ways to give feedback? Here I will focus on feedback in teaching/learning.

There is no doubt that feedback is extremely important for learning. Ambrose et al (2011) discuss the importance of practice together with feedback for optimal learning: “First, feedback should communicate to students where they are relative to the stated goals and what they need to do to improve. Second, feedback should provide this information when students can make the most use of it, based on the learning goals and structure of activities you have set for them.” This is obvious: students need to receive feedback on their work as soon after the task has been completed, so it is still fresh on their minds and also to allow time for further practice before the next task. There is extensive literature about feedback, both internal and external, please see the reference at the end of an extensive review by Butler & Wenne (1995) about feedback and self-regulated learning (too technical for this blog post).

A short list of effective feedback strategies include:

  1. Make it specific: that way students know what they need to improve
  2. If applicable, make it goal oriented- if we know exactly what is the goal, tailor the feedback as to what is needed to reach that goal.
  3. Make it the right amount: too much feedback may overwhelm the student and/or may make them focus on the simpler errors that are easy to fix (spelling, format) instead of addressing major conceptual issues
  4. Mix positive and negative constructive feedback. Most of us are worried about being criticized, even when we know that the idea of feedback is to help us improve. So it is a good idea to combine positive feedback as a reinforcement and suggestions for improvement.
  5. Mix the types of delivery formats. Traditionally, feedback is delivered in a written form (or sometimes orally). With the expansion of online and blended models, the use of alternative forms of feedback such as audio or video clips has been promoted (see Estes et al, 2014, van Vliet et al, 2015). Especially in the case of constructive criticism, an audio or video message may be more personable, and make it easier for the instructor to convey the message.

Over the years I have gathered nuggets of wisdom & advice as to how to provide feedback. Being on the receiving end of criticism has given me additional insight. As an instructor, I scaffold my teaching so assignments increase in complexity (and stakes), with feedback level paralleling them. So I won’t be burying a student with comments after a first minor assignment, but build up both expectations and feedback as time passes. And I use the “sandwich” model of feedback- start and end with a positive aspect and sandwich the negative constructive portion in the middle.


  1. Ambrose SA, Bridges MW, DiPietro M, Lovett MC, Norman MK, Ambrose BSA, Michael W, Lovett MC, Norman MK. How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. How Learning Works. 2011;5(2):106–115.
  2. Butler, D. L., & Winne, P. H. (1995). Feedback and Self-Regulated Learning: A Theoretical Synthesis. Review of Educational Research, 65(3), 245–281. https://doi.org/10.3102/00346543065003245
  3. Estes. M. D., Ingram, R., & Liu, J. C. (2014). A review of flipped classroom research, practice, and technologies. International HETL Review, Volume 4, Article 7, URL: https://www.hetl.org/feature-articles/a-review-of-flipped-classroom-research-practice-and-technologies
  4. van Vliet, E. A., Winnips, J. C., & Brouwer, N. (2015). Flipped-Class Pedagogy Enhances Student Metacognition and Collaborative-Learning Strategies in Higher Education But Effect Does Not Persist. CBE life sciences education14(3), ar26. doi:10.1187/cbe.14-09-0141 link

Airmanship & Learning: Musings Before ONL192

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“After jump” picture in Mesa Verde National Park, Arizona

When I started the ONL191 journey in February, I posted a picture of me jumping in the Anza-Borrego desert (California) as the image for my blog posting. Jumping pictures have become a requirement of my travel pictures since a few years back, and I thought about posting another, but instead this one is “after jump.” You can still observe the scenery: this is Mesa Verde National Park in Arizona, where ancient Pueblo Indians established cliff dwellings in crevices of the canyons. This was part of a recent vacation road trip that allowed me to happily ignore emails and news headlines.

After two weeks of camping, returning to civilization was both rewarding (hot showers! soft beds!) and depressing (meetings! conferences! writing a syllabus!). Being now a co-facilitator for ONL192 is a nice counterbalance to the onslaught of routine coming my way. It has become my modus operandi to pile up as much work as possible in the fall, when shorter days and longer nights make it easier to be in front of the computer, and leave springtime for conferences and traveling.

Reading interesting articles was part of my catching-up with civilization, and a deep analysis of the two recent Boeing 737-Max tragedies was one that made me think about education. In fact, I had a great conversation with two faculty colleagues about how it related to our struggles of assessing student learning, particularly critical thinking. Please note that I understand the issue is very complicated, and there are a lot of social-economical-technological factors in play. My and my colleagues’ reflection was around expert and novice knowledge, problem solving, critical thinking, and how to promote it in students. And one of the things we discussed was the importance of process versus result.

Since ONL191 I have become more sensitive to the process of learning and decision making. The weekly meetings around the PBL topic brought multiple perspectives, some of which had not even occurred to me. It was humbling and exciting at the same time. A group of us at my university are currently involved in developing a grant proposal to address equity in STEM education, and I brought in some ONL tools, including the brainstorming document and the color codes. The tools are helpful, although I sometimes wish for more of “what” and less of “how” at this stage.

The author of the above article refers to “airmanship” as a visceral sense of navigation and a deep understanding of the forces governing flying an airplane. This knowledge, of course, is not magical- it comes from experience, both in normal and abnormal situations. Much has been written about the difference between novice and expert knowledge, and how to promote the transition from one to the other. And part of it is to transmit the need to learn the process and not only try to remember/guess the right answer.

So as I head into ONL192, I intend to explore even more the “science of the process,” the deliberative group work to tease aside complex situations, looking at it from multiple perspectives, over several iterations of thought and discussions. As a participant, I could observe the quiet work of facilitators, indeed, facilitating the process. As a co-facilitator now, I am eager to see the other side. But I do “trust the process.”

It is Saturday afternoon here in California, and I know this posting was a bit of this and a bit of that (no references!), but I hope my readers will forgive me. Still in transition to the real world!

A nice view of the mountains near Silverton, Colorado.

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