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Motivating Learning Through Feedback

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Motivating Learning Through Feedback: IntroSems Teaching Session Winter Quarter 2019 

February 26, 2019

Curious to learn more? Contact Hollie Fortkamp, Academic Technology Specialist: 

The Motivation Challenge

Motivation is the degree to which someone is willing to commit to achieving a specific goal. As first- and second- year students in our Introductory Seminars, students are juggling a range of personal goals (e.g., selecting a major, making friends, finding a mentor, or getting an “A”) that have the potential, whether directly or indirectly, to compete with or align with the learning goals we have for them in our courses (Ambrose et al, 2010).

In addition, most Stanford undergraduates came up through schools governed by the high-stakes testing and performance-based goals valued by No Child Left Behind. And, most importantly, they succeeded in that environment and were rewarded for that success by getting accepted to a highly competitive college or university such as Stanford. As instructors introducing them to university culture, we need to be cognizant how an overemphasis on performance goals in high school may have driven out learning goals (Dweck, 1999, p. 16). Thus, when they come into our classes, especially as first-year students, there may be a bit of a culture shock as they are asked to pivot more towards learning goals, especially learning goals that they don’t readily connect to their personal goals. 

Learning new things, new ways of thinking, and new ways of doing requires students to be vulnerable, to take risks, and to potentially fail--all consequences that can make a performance-oriented student very uneasy. Getting Stanford students more comfortable with failure is no easy feat and has even resulted in The Resilience Project with an annual “Stanford, I Screwed Up!” event to celebrate epic fails and the invaluable learning that resulted.  

However, the small size of an Introductory Seminar creates a unique and timely opportunity to intervene in a new Stanford undergraduate’s career. Through the class climate we cultivate and the individualized mentoring we provide, we can have a significant influence on orienting students’ motivation towards learning goals. And the irony is that the more students focus on learning, the more likely they are to exceed performance goals (Boaler, 1998).

Creating a Culture of Feedback

Feedback plays a powerful role in sparking or dampening someone’s motivation to pursue a particular goal. As instructors, the culture of feedback we create in an Introductory Seminar can be instrumental in encouraging students to prioritize the learning goals related to our course, which, in the bigger picture, also helps reinforce the value of choosing and privileging learning goals throughout life (i.e., becoming life-long learners).

Here are some specific strategies you can implement to motivate student learning through feedback:

Align Your Feedback to Your Learning Goals

First- and second- year students have a lot to learn--not just in your class, but as young adults learning how to navigate college and life. Taking a firehose approach to feedback to cover as many areas for improvement as possible can quickly overwhelm a student and reduce or eliminate their motivation.

Instead, decide on what your top 2-4 learning goals are for the class. These goals can be cognitive (e.g., students will be able to analyze a presidential speech for rhetorical and linguistic patterns), affective (e.g., students will be able to support the value of scientific research in policy making), or psychomotor (e.g., students will be able to manipulate clay to create a freestanding figure sculpture).

  • Share Your Goals. Make your learning goals for the course transparent and part of everyday conversation with your students. Include them on the syllabus and then connect those goals explicitly to assignment instructions, readings, and activities.

  • Give Progress Updates. Routinely share your assessment with students individually and collectively how they are progressing on those goals.

  • Create Learning Assessments. Administer an ungraded pre- and post- survey related to the course content and learning outcomes. Have students reflect on their individual learning over time and/or share the aggregate results with the class so they can see how they have been learning as a community. Include classroom assessment techniques, ongoing in-class activities that help give you feedback on your students’ learning, so that you can adjust your approaches and feedback accordingly.

  • Target Your Feedback. When commenting on drafts, prioritize your feedback on what revisions will have the biggest impact for improvement. John Bean’s (2011) “Hierarchy of Questions” can be a helpful heuristic for prioritizing feedback. For example, if a student’s project is not really following the assignment prompt, don’t waste your time or potentially confuse the student by suggesting edits on sentences if there is a good chance those sentences won’t make it into the next draft.

  • Beans hierarchy of questions

Use Feedback to Coach Not Judge

A coach sees the potential. A judge sees the mistakes. Coaches also value and invest time in the process--the practice, training, drafting, and experimentation. Judges evaluate the final product (Bean, 2011, p. 321).

Grades and their equivalent (i.e., ✓-, ✓, ✓+ or points) are one of the biggest demotivators to learning, even when accompanied by substantive, qualitative feedback (Butler, 1988; Dweck, 1999; Ambrose, 2010; Bean, 2011). Thus, the more you can delay grading and judging to create space for feedback and coaching, the more you will create a climate conducive to learning.

One of the most effective tools to emphasize the coaching dynamic is contract grading (Danielewicz & Elbow, 2009). A grading contract, whether set by the instructor or negotiated with students, places the emphasis on process by transparently spelling out what milestones and activities must be completed to earn a specific letter grade. Because individual assignments no longer need to be graded, more time can be focused on feedback as a coaching tool.

One of the more common iterations is the “Contract for a B” where the B is earned through a student’s time and effort and the A earned for quality of the student’s work. For example, students are guaranteed a final grade of at least a B if they meet every deadline, attend every required class, complete every assignment on time, and embrace the process. Students can then earn an A if they meet the expectations for a B and produce genuine excellence.

Contract grading can be particularly powerful for motivating high achieving students because it not only creates space for risk-taking, it also prevents them from stopping once they hit an A. We can push them to take their thinking and work to the next level.

Regardless of whether you use a grading contract or not, the most effective feedback to motivate meaningful learning and growth  

  • Includes Praise. Praise is a powerful motivator, especially when facing a big challenge, that can increase a student’s self-efficacy to believe they can accomplish the goal. However, use process-based praise (e.g., “I like how you made the research relevant and relatable by telling your story about your personal experience with the issue”)  instead of person-based praise (e.g., “you’re a great storyteller”) to encourage a growth mindset (Dweck, 2006).

  • Is Specific. When you can explain why something is effective or not then your praise feels more authentic and your criticism feels less arbitrary.

  • Provides Options. Whenever possible, recommend at least two options to stimulate critical thinking and a student’s sense of autonomy.  

  • Is Timely. When to provide feedback is just as important as the type of feedback. Very few students read feedback on final drafts, especially on the final project of a term and most students claim they are unsure how to apply that feedback to future writing contexts (Bean, 2011). So, save yourself time and provide feedback when it will most likely motivate revision--after a draft, when there is time to revise.

Make Feedback a Shared Responsibility

Giving high quality, specific feedback that motivates others to adjust, adapt, and change is skill that takes time and practice to cultivate. Providing feedback asks people to operate in the highest cognitive and affective domains. Thus, helping students develop their own skills at giving feedback by incorporating opportunities for peer review is worthwhile. To foster productive peer review:

  • Coach Students on How to Give Good Feedback. Students have lots of experience on receiving feedback, so discuss as a group the qualities of effective and ineffective feedback. Share some of the research on student’s responses to feedback, such as John Bean’s (2011) chapter on “Writing Comments on Students’ Papers.”

  • Ask Students to Reflect on Feedback. When students submit final projects on which they received feedback along the way, whether from peers, Hume Center Tutors, you, or a combination, ask them to submit a short reflection letter addressed to you that explains what changes they made based on the feedback and why.

  • Reference Prior Feedback. If you had students complete a peer review before a draft for feedback is submitted to you, look for opportunities to reinforce the reactions and recommendations of peers (e.g. “I’m glad you took your partner’s suggestion to minimize text on your slides. I would encourage you to even go further by replacing text with images that help underscore your main points.”). If you are at the grading stage, connect the final performance to the feedback and revision process to reinforce the value of that process (e.g., “One of the main reasons your final project earned an A is because you addressed the feedback you received early on about a contradiction at the center of your argument and completely reworked your argument. I know that took a lot of work to retool your thesis, but it paid off in the end.”)

  • Invite the Hume Center to Class. The Hume Center can come to your class to do a workshop on giving feedback. 

Want more information? Contact Hollie Fortkamp, Academic Technology Specialist: 

Feedback Tools

Gif shows higlighting student paper and clicking link to leave video feedback in Canvas

Canvas Video Feedback: Did you know that you can give audio or video feedback to your students, right from Canvas? Video or audio comments can speed up the process of giving feedback, while also helping feedback feel more personal and accessible to students with different learning styles. 

Zoom screenshot
Zoom Videoconferencing: Give one-on-one feedback, even if you can't come to campus! Zoom is easy to set up and works for all types of computers and phones. 
Word cloud
Poll Everywhere: Collect live feedback in class from students on their reactions, preferences, thoughts about the course materials, and more.


Want more information or training on how to use these feedback tools? Contact Hollie Fortkamp, Academic Technology Specialist: 

Faculty Panelist Videos

Hank Greely

Hank Greely from the Law School was asked the following by Russell Berman: "When we hear the term 'feedback' I think the first thing we think about is commenting on student papers or projects. You distribute to your Introductory Seminar students a handout you’ve created called 'A Note on Writing' and in it you share recommendations regarding writing style. If you would, please give us a sense of what you cover in your 'Note on Writing' and how you use it to give students feedback that motivates them as writers?"

Read Hank Greely's "Note on Writing."

Donna Bouley

Professor Donna Bouley from Comparative Medicine was asked the following by Russell Berman: "The small seminar format of introductory seminars can often afford us the opportunity to customize how we mentor individual students so that they can achieve and surpass our learning goals from them. Your individualized mentoring has students not only performing dissections by the end of your introductory seminar but also has some coming back the subsequent quarter to participate in a dissection lab. How do you use individualized feedback to create a supportive environment that motivates students to excel?"

JD Schramm

Dr. JD Schramm from Organizational Behavior in the Business School was asked the following by Russell Berman: "Your IntroSem, 'Changing Hearts, Changing Minds' is all about using communication to inspire change. I know you are also committed to encouraging diverse and underrepresented voices to participate, as with the workshop you recently gave to students in BioAIMS and GradQ on 'Communicating with Strength Even if Marginalized.' What feedback strategies do you use in your IntroSem to motivate all students to participate?"

Recommended Readings

Ambrose, S. A., Lovett, M., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching.

Bean, J. C. (2011). Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Boaler, J. (1998). Open and Closed Mathematics: Student Experiences and Understandings. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 29 (1), 41-62. doi:10.2307/749717

Butler, R. (1988). Enhancing and Undermining Intrinsic Motivation: The Effects of Task-Involving and Ego-Involving Evaluation on Interest and Performance. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 58(1), 1-14.

Danielewicz, J., & Elbow, P. (2009). A unilateral grading contract to improve learning and teaching. College Composition and Communication, 61(2), 244-268.

Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House.

Dweck, C. S. (1999). Self-Theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development. Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press.