Marking answers with a tick or cross won’t enhance learning

Elaborated feedback is most effective. Professor Layton game provides complex tasks where students receive hints to adjust their strategies. Kip Voytek/flickr, CC BY-SA

Parents and teachers view feedback as important for learning. But some kinds of feedback can be harmful rather than helpful. Considering the increasing popularity of digital learning tools with automated feedback, it is crucial to know which kinds of feedback actually help students learn.

Digital learning tools come in many shapes and sizes. The common characteristic is that a student does a task and automatically receives feedback on their response when the task is completed. This kind of interaction can take place in a program or application on devices such as computers, tablets, digital smart boards, or mobile phones.

These kinds of interactions are sometimes thought of as practice tests, such as Improve, an interactive assessment tool developed by Education Services Australia that enables teachers to create personalised student tests in English, maths and science. They may also be designed in the form of an educational game, for example Nintendo’s Professor Layton game.

Research shows the effects of feedback on learning are not always positive – and can even be negative. Our team collected and compared existing studies that looked at different methods for providing feedback in digital learning tools in order to find out which feedback methods actually improve student learning.

Ticks and crosses don’t enhance learning

Digital tools, such as Improve, often give simple correct/incorrect messages to students, usually marking the answers with a tick or a cross. Research shows this kind of feedback is not effective.

Half of the studies that examined this kind of correct/incorrect feedback found that students who did not receive any feedback actually performed better than those who had received feedback.

The overall picture suggests that not providing any feedback is just as beneficial to performance as providing correct/incorrect messages. When considering motivation it might be better to provide no feedback instead of showing ticks and crosses; students find it frustrating to be told their answer is incorrect without receiving any suggestions to help them improve.

Spoon-feeding children the correct answer can be effective, but only on simple tasks.

Spoon-feeding only helps on simple tasks

Spoon-feeding students the correct answer can be effective, but only on simple tasks. Simple tasks require students to recognise, recall or understand something without having to apply knowledge. Examples of such tasks are vocabulary or spelling tasks.

One-third of the studies examined showed that students did not learn from being given the correct answer. Those students are more likely to disengage from the task as they can mindlessly click until they answer the task correctly without learning anything.

This type of feedback also does not help the student understand how he or she can improve. It is therefore not suitable for more complex tasks.

Elaborated feedback is most effective

Feedback is most effective when there is elaboration and the information goes beyond telling the student the answer or saying if it’s correct or incorrect. Helpful elaborations can take many shapes or forms: think of hints, a link to further information, explanations, or information about how to tackle a task.

This is especially important when the task is complex and requires more than recognition, recall or understanding. An example of a complex task is a strategic puzzle, such as those in Nintendo’s Professor Layton game, where students receive hints to adjust their strategies.

Another example is a mathematical problem in which students need to use a particular procedure. If the feedback explains the step-by-step procedure to be followed, students can use this feedback to correct their answer. They can also apply this knowledge in future tasks.

Elaborated feedback can be very powerful, as it can help students understand why their answer is correct or incorrect and, most importantly, how they can improve. Research also shows that elaborated feedback is most effective for students’ motivation, and that students prefer receiving elaborated feedback over correct/incorrect messages.

Individual student differences

Students are different and therefore the effects of feedback that enhances learning do not purely depend on the type of feedback that is given. How students respond to feedback depends on, for example, their prior knowledge and motivation to learn.

There is no simple answer to the question “which types of feedback are most effective?” But what our research does is provide evidence for the degree of effectiveness of the three feedback types described above for most students.

Unfortunately, many developers of digital learning tools do not seem to have considered decades of scientific evidence when designing the feedback in their learning environments.

Parents and teachers need to be aware of which types of feedback actually help students learn, in order to select suitable tools and avoid ones with ineffective or even possibly harmful feedback.

This article is prepared with the help of Remco Feskens and Theo Eggen, both senior research scientists at Cito Institute for Educational Measurement.