Mistakes and Feedforward

Recently, I’ve come across two interesting perspectives on making mistakes.

First, from the TED Radio Hour, this is a great radio show about making mistakes. In addition to being a really captivating human interest story, the radio broadcast also has a lot to say about learning. Views on mistakes come from a physician (“most of the greatest successes in medicine come from failures”), a noted psychology researcher (“if failure is not an option, then we just have a bunch of scared people hanging around loitering on the outside of the arena”), a jazz musician (“a mistake is an opportunity that was missed”), and a corporate coach (“a mistake offers the greatest amount of insight and the largest room for improvement”). This one is really worth a listen.

Second, I found this video in the course of researching something else, and the snippet below caught my attention.

Although the golf example may not be applicable to you, I suspect that many of us are guilty of folding up too quickly in the face of failure. It’s easy to shut down and turn away. When you know your efforts have gone awry, what do you do? What should you do? Letting the scenario play out with a dispassionate eye, observing what happens, and then reflecting on events and devising a new plan are all challenging skills on their own, never mind in the face of your own mistakes.

How can we help students turn their mistakes into valuable learning opportunities? Feedback is key, of course. I’m assuming that timely and individualized feedback is already part of your teaching practice. But what about the content of this feedback? When instructors give feedback, many naturally focus on the assignment in question. While valuable, reviewing the work the student has done is retrospective feedback. Students may be at a loss about how to translate your analysis into actionable steps for the next assignment. Using your feedback becomes more complicated if the next assignment has a different topic or format. What about offering prospective feedback? That is, feedback with specific attention to the work the student will do in the future? I’d like to share with you the idea of feedforward:

Feedforward is another interesting way to think about the feedback offered students. This more future-oriented feedback responds to what the student did, but in light of what needs to be done on the next assignment. Rather than isolated comments, it distills the feedback into three or four specific suggestions that target what the student should work on to improve the next assignment. . . .

Perhaps students would make better use of our feedback if they used that feedback to develop an action plan for the next assignment. “Based on the teacher’s feedback and my own assessment of this work, here’s the three things I plan to improve in the next assignment.” Maybe students don’t get the grade for the first assignment until the action plan has been submitted. And maybe that action plan then gets submitted along with the next assignment. 

Turning past performances into future successes is tricky. Recognizing mistakes and devising a plan for improving upon them requires both meta-cognitive skills and content-specific knowledge. This is the real work of learning and teaching – and where feedback and coaching can play such a crucial role.

How have you helped students to constructively use your feedback? Do you have any strategies that help students draw lessons from their own (or their classmates’) mistakes?

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