Learning works best when approached deliberately (addressing clear goals for the learning and using performance criteria to focus the learner’s effort) and when it involves constructive feedback (reviewing the performance for strengths as well as concrete steps for improvement).
The fifth of the seven principles of learning introduced in How Learning Works is: “goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback are critical to learning” (Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, & Norman, 2010). This article describes what practice and feedback for learning entails, shows how the components of this principle relate to each other, provides a description of what quality practice and feedback each look like, and offers several research-based strategies supporting this principle.
Practice and feedback are clearly central to the learning process. This is clear when one looks at practical learning contexts such as the apprenticeship model used through the centuries in guilds and in the trades, and in the coaching process. Learning theories also include practice and feedback as part of the theory, such as in the cognitive apprenticeship model (Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1989), and in the learning process methodology (Watts, 2018). In all these contexts, learning works best when approached deliberately (addressing clear goals for the learning and using performance criteria to focus the learner’s effort) and when it involves constructive feedback (reviewing the performance for strengths as well as concrete steps for improvement). This feedback is then integrated into additional practice in an iterative cycle of performance improvement.
How do the components of practice and feedback relate?
The driving force enabling the cycle of practice and feedback is clear learning goals. These goals direct the practice, they surface or make visible the critical elements of performance to be observed while learning, and they shape the feedback provided to the learner to guide further practice. This is shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Cycle of practice and feedback (Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, & Norman, 2010)
Elements of Quality Practice for Learning
As articulated in The Art of Changing the Brain (Zull, 2002) “when we use things in working memory to do some work, to create something new, then that new thing can become part of our long-term memory.” That is what practice in learning is about. We manipulate information to use it in new ways and create new contexts for its use. We then need to relate that information to other information in multiple ways (generally moving from familiar to more complex or distant applications) in order to be able to generalize the knowledge for later use.
What, specifically, does the research tell us about goal-directed practice? As described in How Learning Works (Ambrose et al., 2010), deliberate practice (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Römer, 1993) focusing on a specific goal or criterion is an excellent predictor of continued learning in a field. It provides an excellent way to monitor one’s progress.
First, instructors can help their students perform deliberate practice (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Römer, 1993) by writing clear, measurable learning goals or objectives. These should be stated in terms of what students are expected to do, and using language describing things that can be physically observed in some way. Rubrics that show how well these goals are achieved, at several different levels of performance, are helpful as well. Next, identifying the appropriate level of challenge is important for quality practice. Learning goals should be reasonable yet challenging so that students do not become so frustrated that they give up, but do not get bored either. The accelerator model for education settings describes this situation well (Morgan & Apple, 2007). In instructional settings, providing appropriate support or scaffolding at various levels of challenge throughout a learning activity allows students at different levels of performance to be appropriately challenged at the same time. This scaffolding may come in the form of support from other students, from the instructor, or from prompts and information in print or electronic media.
The next element of deliberate practice comes through accumulating a sufficient amount of practice, or time on task. In general, it takes much more than one attempt to learn something well enough to develop working expertise in that area. At first, this expertise may develop slowly, but performance then will begin to grow more quickly with additional practice (especially when scaffolded across increasingly different or more complex contexts utilizing the same knowledge). Later, when students are feeling comfortable with their new learning, additional expertise may appear to develop more slowly again. The learner has now refined their knowledge to a level where perhaps they do not have much more to develop in quality of performance but are simply becoming faster or more nuanced in their ability to apply the knowledge.
In general, because practice time is limited in classroom settings, it is especially important that practice be focused on specific learning targets, and that it is directed at achieving reasonable but challenging goals to help students improve their performance in an efficient manner.
Elements of Quality Feedback for Learning
Fink describes a form of feedback called FIDeLity feedback (2013). This type of feedback is frequent, immediate, discriminating, and loving. When done effectively, FIDeLity feedback is critical to the growth of a learner because it utilizes evidence from their current level of performance to drive future performance by focusing on what made the performance as strong as it was (so that it can be ingrained and repeated), and also where and how the greatest opportunities for improvement can be made (so that the learner can grow in areas that will make the most impact). Further, effective feedback is delivered in an empathetic or loving manner. This is achieved in part when feedback focuses on the performance (learning) rather than the performer (learner). In that way, the feedback can be received as constructive rather than as a judgement of one’s worth or of a perceived ability that is fixed and cannot be improved. Feedback that is formatted in terms of strengths, areas for improvement, and insights (Wasserman & Beyerlein, 2007) is one way to help produce discriminating feedback that can be delivered in an empathetic manner.
What, specifically, does the research tell us about what targeted feedback looks like? As descried in How Learning Works (Ambrose et al., 2010), the purpose of targeted feedback is to help learners achieve a desired level of performance by providing a timely map for how to direct their practice.
Communicating progress and directing subsequent effort is critical to effective feedback. An instructor can provide lots of valuable feedback about all aspects of a student’s performance, but too much feedback may result in a student simply feeling overwhelmed. Also, effective feedback does much more than simply point out where a student is struggling. It tells the student what they are doing well that has brought them to their current level of understanding or performance, and it provides specific advice for how they can direct their subsequent efforts to improve their understanding or performance to meet expected criteria.
Timing of feedback is also critical to helping students learn and improve their performance. Providing feedback early and often is generally more effective. For example, if feedback is provided at the end of a module, without the opportunity to utilize feedback through additional practice, most of the feedback may simply be ignored because it cannot be put to immediate use. Similarly, if a large amount of substantive feedback is provided, but with only a short time to use that feedback in subsequent practice, students may feel overwhelmed about where to start and not use any of the feedback.
In general, quality feedback should (1) target only the key knowledge and skills you want students to develop (2) be delivered frequently and in a timely fashion to provide students ample opportunity to use it, and (3) serve the purpose of guiding further practice by the student. While providing this type of feedback can seem daunting, remember that not all feedback needs to be delivered individually to each student, and not all feedback needs to come from the instructor.
Research-based strategies for effective practice and feedback
There are many ways to help students practice in a deliberate manner, and many ways to provide feedback. Here are three research-based approaches that have been shown to help students learn efficiently and can be implemented in practical ways.
Guide practice by providing a rubric and use that rubric to provide feedback at multiple levels (peer, group level, individual level). Make sure this feedback is targeted by prioritizing focus areas in the feedback to just a few dimensions of the performance that are most important, or perhaps even just a single critical dimension of performance at a time.
Provide exemplars illustrating strong student work and also examples illustrating common errors/pitfalls. Couple these examples with sample feedback that balances strengths and areas for improvement.
Design scaffolded practice that gradually builds in complexity and/or moves into more and more challenging contexts. Further, combine this with the requirement that students show how they are using the feedback provided to improve their performance as they continue practicing.
The learning process requires deliberate practice and targeted feedback. For effective learning, both practice and feedback should align with specific learning goals or objectives based on observable actions performed while learning. These goals lead to focused practice that is challenging and is accumulated over time. Further, these goals provide guidance for observers to deliver constructive feedback that is future oriented and timed to help the learner perform better when they next practice. Together, goal-driven practice and constructive feedback help learners to optimize their performance with a reasonable amount of effort.
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Collins, A., Brown, J., & Newman, S. (1989). Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the crafts of reading, writing, and mathematics. In L. Resnick (Ed.), Knowing, learning, and instruction: essays in honor of Robert Glaser (pp. 453–494). Hillsdal, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.
Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363–406. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.100.3.363
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Zull, J. E. (2002). The art of changing the brain: enriching teaching by exploring the biology of learning (1st ed). Sterling, Va: Stylus Pub.