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?

Tutorials: Show us How it’s Done

Here’s hoping your first week has gone smoothly!

To keep things running well, I wanted to share a few tutorial options with you. Linking to or embedding a brief tutorial can be really helpful for introducing students to new technologies, procedures, tools, or other course-related items.

For example, suppose you are requiring students to use a LearningStudio feature with which they may be unfamiliar. Perhaps you’ve explained it in class – and even given a demonstration. But what happens when the deadline approaches and students go to post or submit items and things just aren’t jelling for them? Embedded LearningStudio video tutorials to the rescue!

“Great,” you say, “but my issue is with specialized software / lab equipment / physical actions. My students need to do these things just so.” Time to become a virtual expert and an on-call resource for your students. That is, you can create your own tutorial that students can call up as needed. We’ve reviewed Learnist and Instructables; we’ve also covered ShowMe and SnapGuide.

Better yet, why not have your students create tutorials to teach each other? Of course, there’s a case to be made for you, the instructor, creating tutorials in situations where safety or a lack of specialized knowledge would present a true barrier. But in situations where students could safely and reasonably figure out and then teach each other various aspects of the subject at hand, why not let them? There are a myriad of benefits to this active learning approach: the act of having to teach a concept can help students clarify their own thinking, students are likely to pay close attention to their peers, and successes or mis-steps in the tutorials provide both an authentic opportunity to gauge student learning and some great discussion fodder.

It’s true, students might produce tutorials with misinformation or misleading conclusions. Sharing control of the class can be messy sometimes. In cases where the tutorials aren’t of the quality you’d like, you can then help the students in question – and the rest of the class – discover what might work better. Tutorials don’t have to be right; they just have to be memorable. Doing things incorrectly, generating negative results, or demonstrating a failed reaction are all pretty memorable and, thus, valuable learning experiences. (We’ve written about learning from failure, too. You can think of those sub-standard tutorials as really efficient learning experiences.)

Sample tutorials might include: how to use statistical software to calculate various functions, greetings in a foreign language based on different ages / genders / group size, how to search specialized databases, different techniques for measuring a key course component, etc.

Let us know if you’re using tutorials or considering using them!

On Learning, Aging, and Failure

For a little Friday fun, check out this New York Times blog post about famous people acquiring new skills late in life.

If Tolstoy learned to ride a bike at 67, I’m thinking those technology / learning  challenges that seem so daunting to all of us can probably be overcome!

Actually, what really shines through in each of the short anecdotes is the value of both passion and persistence. On the topic of persistence, I’m intrigued by the idea of recognizing “high quality failures” and then using that as a springboard for improvement, as highlighted in this article on Teaching and Failure in the Chronicle of Higher Education. After all, you can’t learn to swim, box, ride a bike, or paint pictures without some poor performances (or high quality failures?) at first.