Putting the pieces together: Constructive Feedback

Over the last couple of days, I’ve introduced a scenario that examines the commonly held belief that negative reinforcement can have more benefit than positive reinforcement. I’ve then shown you, via card tricks, why the way that you construct your experiment (or the way that you think about your world) means that this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Now let’s talk about making use of this. Remember this diagram?

This shows what happens if, when you occupy a defined good or bad state, you then redefine your world so that you lose all notion of degree and construct a false dichotomy through partitioning. We have to think about the fundamental question here – what do we actually want to achieve when we categorise activities as good or bad?

Realistically, most highly praiseworthy events are unusual – the A+. Similarly, the F should be less represented across our students than the P and the “I’ve done nothing, I don’t care, give me 0” should be as unlikely as the A+. But, instead of looking at outcomes (marks), let’s look at behaviours. Now I’m going to construct my feedback to students to address the behaviour or approach that they employed to achieve a certain outcome. This allows me to separate the B+ of a gifted student who didn’t really try from the B+ of a student who struggled and strived to achieve it. It also allows me to separate the F of someone who didn’t show up to class from the F of someone who didn’t understand the material because their study habits aren’t working. Finally, this allows me to separate the A+ of achievement from the A+ of plagiarism or cheating.

Under stress, I expect people to drop back down in their ability to reason and carry out higher-level thought. We could refer to Maslow or read any book on history. We could invoke Hick’s Law – that time taken to make decisions increases as function of the number of choices, and factor in pilot thresholds, decision making fatigue and all of that. Or we could remember what it was like to be undergraduates. 🙂

Let me break down student behaviours into unacceptable, acceptable and desirable behaviours, and allocate the same nomenclature that I did for cards. So the unacceptable are now the 2,3,4, the acceptable and 5-10, and the desirable are J-K. (The numbers don’t matter, I’m after the concept.) When I construct feedback for my students, I want to encourage certain behaviours and discourage others. Ideally, I want to even develop more of certain behaviours (putting more Kings in the deck, effectively). But what happens if I don’t discourage the unacceptable behaviours?

Under stress, under reduced cognitive function and reduced ability to make decisions, those higher level desirable behaviours are most likely going to suffer. Let us model the student under stress as a stacked deck, where the Q and K have been removed. Not only do we have less possibility for praise but we have an increased probability of the student making the wrong decision and using a 2,3,4 behaviour. It doesn’t matter that we’ve developed all of these great new behaviours (added Kings), if under stress they all get thrown out anyway.

So we also have to look at removing or reducing the likelihood of the unacceptable behaviours. A student who has no unacceptable behaviour left in their deck will, regardless of the pressure, always behave in an acceptable manner. If you can also add desirable behaviours then they have an increase chance of doing well. This is where targeted feedback comes in at the behavioural level. I don’t need to worry about acceptable behaviours and I should be very careful in my feedback to recognise that there is an asymmetric situation where any improvement from unacceptable is great but a decline from desirable to acceptable may be nowhere near as catastrophic. Moderation, thought and student knowledge are all very useful concepts here. But we can also involve the student in useful and scaleable ways.

Raising student awareness of how their own process works is important. We use reflective exercises midway through our end-of-first year programming course to develop student process awareness: what worked, what didn’t work, how can you improve. This gives students a framework for self-assessment that allows them to find their own 2s and their own Kings. By getting the students to do it, with feedback from us, they develop it in their own vocabulary and it makes it ideal for sharing with other students at a similar level. In fact, as the final exercise, we ask students to summarise their growth in their process awareness during the course and ask them for advice that they would give to other students about to start. Here are three examples:

Write code. Go beyond your practicals, explore the language, try things out for yourself. The more you code, the better you’ll get, so take every opportunity you can. 

If I could give advice to a future … student, I would tell them to test their code as often as possible, while writing it. Make sure that each stage of your code is flawless before going onto the next stage. 

If I could give one piece of advice to students …, it would be to start the coding early and to keep at it. Sometimes you can have a problem that you just can’t work out how to fix but if you start early you leave yourself time to be able to walk away and come back later. A lot of the time when you come back you will see the problem very quickly and wonder why you couldn’t see it before. 

There are a lot of Kings in the above advice – in fact, let’s promote them and call them Aces, because these are behaviours that, with practice, will become habits and they’ll give you a K at the same time as removing a 2. “Practise your coding skills” “Test your code thoroughly” “Start early” Students also framed their lessons in terms of what not to do. As one student reflected, he knew that it would take him four days to write the code, so he was wondering why he only started two days out – you could read the puzzlement in the words as he wrote them. He’d identified the problem and, by semester’s end, had removed that 2.

I’m not saying anything amazing or controversial here, but I hope that this has framed a common situation in a way that is useful to you. And you got to shout at cards, too. Bonus!

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