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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Motivating Students With Effective Feedback and Clarity

By B.R. Jones — September 30, 2014 6 min read
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Today’s guest post is written by B.R. Jones, a Visible Learning Trainer and the Superintendent of Tate County Schools in Mississippi.

It often amazes me how long my nine-year old son will persevere at the newest video game. For hours he will battle against zombies, aliens, and the like, with zeal he will continue to face up to what would seem like insurmountable odds no matter how difficult the challenge might seem. On the flip side, trying to get him to sit for his homework is a nightly chore that neither his mom nor I cherish, yet we endure.

This led me to question just what is different between the video game challenge versus the challenge of learning that motivates my son to endure hours on end on the game and not be able to remain engaged with the typical homework assignment for more than five minutes?

The answer: feedback.

The motivating factor is not simply the bells and whistles associated with the technology, as some games do not elicit as much motivation as others. When I investigated, the deciding factor would appear to be the ability for some games over others to provide the right amount of feedback at just the right level to foster a motivation so strong that it would motivate my son to endure with the challenge for long periods of time.

John Hattie (2012) has written extensively about the power of feedback and the relevance of feedback on the motivation of students to persist in the face of challenge. According to Hattie’s far-reaching research in Visible Learning (2009) and Visible Learning for Teachers (2012), feedback is one of the most powerful of all influences on learning. For feedback to exhibit such power, the feedback must given to students in a timely manner and with the specificity needed to help the student determine effective next steps in learning.

In the case of the video games that motivate my son to endure, the feedback given alerts my son to the actions that he needs to take to make it to the next challenge or level. In addition, the feedback should also be given at the appropriate level. If the feedback needed by a veteran is given to a novice we get the deer in the headlights reaction. That is, the feedback goes right over the student’s head.

When novice level feedback is given to a veteran the eye roll ensues. That is the feedback is seen as worthless to helping the student move to the next level of challenge. Any video game that does not provide this high quality feedback to my son tends to find its way into the junk drawer, never to be played again.

Learning: The Game in Which the Rules Sometimes Unknown

What are the lessons to be learned for schools? In many cases, the only feedback that students receive is a solitary grade that signifies that the learning quest is over. This has been verified by the many observations that I have conducted as an administrator, and over course of my travels and observations as an educational consultant. After having been conditioned to the scenario of this being about all the feedback that is coming, students get frustrated with the game of school exhibiting such a mind-numbing lack of feedback in short order. As a matter of fact, John Hattie (2012) asserts that about the age of twelve or thirteen, students are so feed up as to say to themselves, “Game Over,” in regard to school. Effective feedback can help to combat this lack of motivation.

The act of making clear to students exactly what the learning expectations are in the form of clear learning intentions and what success looks like on these learning intentions set the stage for teachers being able to give their students the relevant and timely feedback they need to be successful in learning. When students actually know what success looks like in the form of clearly articulated success criteria, just like the video game, they are more well equipped of providing their own next steps for success in learning as well. Success criteria also provide teachers the structure to know exactly what level of feedback students need. For example, if we look at a common learning intention for language arts such as determining the main idea of a text, success criteria might be differentiated as follows:

  1. Student is able to identify the key details in a given text with an identification technique such as using a highlighter or underlining them with a pen or pencil.
  2. Student can coalesce the key details of a given text into a main idea, and provide justification of the formulation of this main idea by using evidence from the text.
  3. Student is able to theorize how the main idea might change within a given text by the addition or the deletion of various details within the text.

Once initial instruction has taken place, a teacher and the student can utilize the following success criteria to determine at what level the student is processing in regard to the learning intention of determining the main idea of a text. Using clear learning intentions and success criteria have proven very successful in the research of Hattie (2009, 2012) and Shirley Clarke (2005) in engaging students in learning and providing the opportunities for the development of effective feedback that can serve to motivate students to persist in the face of challenge.

In addition to teachers creating worthwhile learning intentions and success criteria, students can also be engaged in the development of the success criteria as well. In soliciting input from students in the process of creating success criteria, teachers are able to spark student engagement in the visualization of exactly what success will look like on a given task and in student friendly language in a collaborative way.

Giving students’ voice in articulating what the final outcomes will look like can be motivating in and of itself, and the learning moves from something that is being done to students to a process those students are actually engaged in on a meaningful level.

Questions Guiding Effective Feedback

As students and teachers are seeking to provide the motivating feedback that tends to inspire students to persevere in the face of challenge, three essential questions can help guide this process. The three questions are (1) What is my goal? (2) Where am I presently in relationship to my goal? (3) What next steps do I need to take in order to reach my goal? Question one relates to students clearly understanding the challenge; which in the video game may be represented by vanquishing the villain, and in the classroom might be determining the main idea of a text. Question two is about students knowing where they are presently in regard to reaching that challenge. In the video game, this may be represented by level 42, and in the classroom represented by success criteria one in the list presented earlier.

Finally, question three really strikes at the heart of effective feedback, that is this question represents students receiving the information (feedback) needed to close the gap between where they are presently and the goal (learning intention).

One unique aspect of the relationship between challenge and feedback is that they would appear to be positively correlated. That is as the level of the challenge rises, so does the need and want on the part of the student for effective feedback. Hattie (2012) asserts that as the level of challenge for students intensifies, the student will tend to react to these three questions with heightened sensitivity and need. That is to say, the harder the task, the higher the probability students will seek and respond positively to effective feedback.

Thus, effective feedback can have a motivating influence on students learning.

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  • Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning. New York, NY: Routledge Press.
  • Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York, NY: Routledge Press.
  • Clarke, S. (2005). Formative assessment in action: Weaving the elements together. Great Britain: Hodder Murray Publishing.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.