Teachers’ Feedback Can Do More Harm Than Good, Study Finds

By Maggie DeBlasis — June 15, 2015 2 min read
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In a new study focusing on early mathematics understanding, researchers at Vanderbilt University conclude that teachers’ immediate feedback on students’ solutions to problems might not actually be that helpful to some students.

Specifically, the researchers found that right-or-wrong feedback—positive or negative—on math problems had a negative effect on students who already had previous knowledge of the applicable problem-solving strategy. However, if students had no previous knowledge on how to solve the problem, teachers’ feedback greatly improved their procedural knowledge, or their understanding of the strategy they were to use.

“Most people assume that giving children feedback after they solve a math problem is helpful because it allows them to see their errors and adjust their approach,” Emily Fyfe, one of the study’s head researchers, said in a release issued from the university. “But we found that feedback only had positive effects for children who didn’t know much about the problems. For children who were already taught how to solve the problems, giving them feedback during problem solving actually led to lower performance on subsequent math problems than giving them no feedback at all.”

The study comprised two experiments, both involving 2nd and 3rd graders. The first experiment tested whether or not a bit of background knowledge provided to students affected how teachers’ feedback was received. Of the 108 students who took part in this experiment, one group received tutoring on how to solve problems while the other group did not. Eighty-eight percent of the first group used the strategy they were taught correctly on the first try, while only 16 percent of students with no pre-taught knowledge managed to do the same.

“Overall, children with no knowledge of a correct strategy benefited from right-wrong verification feedback relative to no feedback, but, for children with induced knowledge of a correct strategy, the reverse was true,” the report says.

The second experiment was designed to test whether teachers’ feedback negatively affected students who already had an idea of what they were doing. While all the students were taught the same strategy, some received feedback after every question they answered, some received summative feedback, and, once again, some received no feedback at all.

Eighty-three percent of students who received no feedback used the previously taught strategy to solve the problems, followed by those who received immediate feedback (78 percent) and then those who received summative feedback (71 percent). In all the groups, 40 percent of the students solved all the problems correctly, regardless of the type of feedback they received.

The researchers surmise from this breakdown that teachers’ right-or-wrong feedback can in effect impair the work of “high-knowledge learners,” possibly by distracting them or drawing attention to their self-image or performance.

“Although our natural inclination may be to step in and guide children through the difficult tasks, it may actually undermine their efforts and deprive them of the opportunity to make sense of the math problem on their own,” Fyfe said. “Under some conditions, we may need to refrain from ‘rescuing’ children by providing them with feedback, and instead let them struggle, engage and learn on their own.”

Image: Jeremy Kunz/Flickr Creative Commons

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.