Does quicker feedback improve motivation?

02Apr10

According to a new study published in Psychological science, quicker feedback may elevate levels of learning and performance. The paper itself is located here (pdf).

In the study, students were told they would receive feedback on presentations they gave. Those who were told they would be given feedback sooner received higher grades than those who were told they would be given feedback later. They hypothesize that the threat of disappointment may be more immediate when feedback is received sooner. So if this study is to be believed,  the threat of failure (or looking unprepared) is a good motivator.

I’ve blogged in the past about how frequent testing may improve retention of information. I suggested at the time that the fear of failure may be one motivating factor which explains why testing works. This new paper may add some credence to that hypothesis (although, I am but a lowly blogger and not a professional psychological researcher, so take what I say with a grain of salt).

How could this be used practically? Well, I believe the key is frequent and rapid feedback of performance. For example, in an athletics environment, the coach needs only to watch the athlete and provide feedback immediately after the athlete attempts that skill. In fact, this is reasonable in any environment where the person evaluating the skill has direct communication with the person performing the skill.

Of course, immediate feedback is also important for fixing any errors that may occur, but this study seems to be focused solely on the motivation aspect. So how could the “motivation” part be implemented in a classroom environment? Well, the allure of relatively quick feedback (the sooner the better) may motivate students (the fear of impending failure!), while frequent testing may help them retain the information better. One interesting way I’ve seen this implemented is using Standards-Based Grading (SBG). Students are assessed on how well they can master specific standards (e.g. understanding of the quadratic equation), and are given the opportunity to improve their grades based on how well they understand those standards, as opposed to receiving a single, unchangeable grade in a test. Students could be tested every day of the week in order to improve the grade on specific standards (“testing” does not necessarily mean a sit-down test. It could be working out a single problem, a discussion, a simple experiment, or anything that demonstrates an understanding of the material). Examples of how it could be implemented for different subjects are given in the link I provided (and I encourage you to read Shawn’s blog, which has some great posts about high school math and science).

So while the threat of disappointment may be an important motivating factor, this should be balanced with a healthy dose of guidance  and  frequent opportunities to improve.

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