Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Thursday, November 8, 2018

"Feedback" vs. "Feedforward:" A Path to Improve Learning & Final Exam Performance

I'm worried about final exams.  To be frank, I don't like the word "final."  I have to say that the word "final" particularly bothered me in my previous aviation career, where air traffic controllers clear airliners for the "final approach to runway 18."  I just didn't want that to be my final approach. I hoped to have at least a few more years in aviation.

But, here's the biggest rub that I have with final exams.  

Because law students frequently have only a few mid-term exams to assess their learning (and to therefore improve before their final exams), final exams are, well, too final to make an improvement in one's learning.  In fact, I suspect that the term "final exams" tends to lead to more of a fixed mindset with respect to our law students' learning.  They get their grades, often weeks after finals, and most students - it seems - never review their exams to identify what they did that was good (nor to look for ways to improve in the next round of final exams).

Nevertheless, it's not just final exams that can be a hurdle in improving learning for the future.

Our feedback can be too.  

As summarized by Jennifer Gonzalez in her blog "The Cult of Pedagogy," where she writes that "[r]eally, the experience of school could be described as one long feedback session, where every day, people show up with the goal of improving, while other people tell them how to do it.  And it doesn’t always go well. As we give and receive feedback, people get defensive. Feelings get hurt. Too often, the improvements we’re going for don’t happen, because the feedback isn’t given in a way that the receiver can embrace."  https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/feedforward/.  In short, feedback might just stunt growth, which is another way of saying that feedback might stunt learning.

But, there's great news! 

Rather than providing our students with more and more feedback, we might consider providing them with "feedforward" instead.  

But first, here are the problems with feedback.  Feedback focuses on the past.  It focuses on the negative without  necessarily providing ways forward to improve.  It focuses on being stuck rather than helping people get unstuck.  Indeed, as outlined by Jennifer Gonzalez, there are at least three ways that feedback hinders learning:

• First, citing to author and educator Joe Hirsch, feedback shuts down our "mental dashboards." In my words, it crashes our brain.  That's because the "red marks" and the many comments to "change this" or to "change that" tend to cause us to believe that all is lost; there's no hope for us. We just don't see a way forward because, frankly, we are stunned with a horrible feeling that we just don't get it...and never will.  We are locked in the past. The future is hidden from us.

• Second, citing again to Joe Hirsch, feedback tends to reinforce negative thoughts because the comments tend to lead us to believe that we are stuck in a sort of "learned hopelessness" in which we cannot change our future. Rather than building a growth mindset in our students, feedback that is focused solely on what our students have done in the past creates a fixed mindset with students believing that there's little that they can do to improve their learning in the future.

• Third, citing again to Joe Hirsch, we tend to approach feedback with a single-minded crystalized focus to see what grades or marks or numbers we received (rather than seeing feedback as providing us with helpful and hopeful positive tools forward to achieve better grades in the future).  In short, despite all the feedback given, students tend to see and internalize their grades first, and, because first impressions lead to lasting impressions, feedback often falls short in producing improvements in learning for future assessments.  Too often, the grades on feedback crystalize into final exam grades, too.

In contrast, "feedforward" focus on the future.  It takes the work of today and provides insights, comments, and tips framed in a communicative, generative way that leads to improvement in the future. It is forward looking; never backward looking.  Feedforward believes in the future - a bright future - and provides particular ways for our students to move forward towards that future of improvements in their learning.

So, what is "feedforward?"

Simply put, it's coaching students about their current performance with heart-felt questions and insights that get our students thinking for themselves about how they can improve their learning for the future.  

Curious? Rather than going through the six steps in providing helpful "feedforward" to our students, let me just point me to you the steps as cited by Jennifer Gonzalez in her blog article about "Feedforward," available at:  https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/feedforward/.  

And, one last thought...

As academic support professionals, this month is a great opportunity.  In particular, nothing really needs to be "final" about final exams.  That's because we can provide our students with opportunities to receive positive "feedforward" well before final exams - via practice exams, exam writing workshops, academic support small group tutoring sessions, etc. - such that our students will learn to improve well before they take their final exams.  Indeed, the key to a great final exam experience is to have great "feedforward" experiences on the way to taking final exams.  So cheers to the future - our students futures! (Scott Johns).

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/academic_support/2018/11/im-worried-about-final-exams-to-be-frank-i-dont-like-the-word-final-seems-too-much-like-a-word-stuck-in-the-past-seems-to.html

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