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The Psychology of Feedback and Assessment

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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After looking at this phenomenon and at teaching and learning situations, I have come to believe that situations with a scoreboard and applause have the elements necessary to powerfully stimulate high performance, whether that be in sports or in educational settings.



Happy New year everyone! The posting below looks at the need for a scoreboard and applause in providing students with feedback on their learning.  It is from Chapter 3 - Designing Significant Learning Experiences I: Getting Started , in the book, Creating Significant Learning Experiences, Revised and Updated: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses, by L. Dee Fink. Published by Jossey-Bass a Wiley Brand [ ] One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200 San Francisco, CA 94104-4594. Copyright © 2013 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.  All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Rei

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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The Psychology of Feedback and Assessment 


One key idea in educative assessment is that this process has multiple goals.  In addition to needing procedures that give the students and the teacher valid information about student performance, courses need procedures that support the student's ability and desire to continue learning.  This means teachers need to attend to the psychological effects of different ways of providing feedback and assessment.  I have two suggestions on this topic. 

The Need for a Scoreboard and for Applause.  As a sports fan and occasional coach for my son's activities, I have noted the impressive motivation that sporting activities generate in people, despite the painful and universal experience that even the best teams have when they lose.  What accounts for the players' continuing motivation to get better?  After looking at this phenomenon and at teaching and learning situations, I have come to believe that situations with a scoreboard and applause have the elements necessary to powerfully stimulate high performance, whether that be in sports or in educational settings. 

In sports, players have a scoreboard that gives them quick, reliable feedback on the quality of their performance.  Basketball players know immediately whether that jump shot they have been practicing was successful this time or not.  In education, this is the function of feedback based on clear criteria, frequently and fairly applied.  Whether students are learning how to think critically or how to interpret a novel, they need prompt feedback and clear criteria for knowing whether they did it well or not this time. 

The other important psychological factor in sports is the applause of the audience.  As any coach knows, the support of a friendly audience for every successful play is very motivating and is the main reason it is a lot easier to win at home than it is on the road.  In education, this is the function that can be fulfilled by other students, the teacher, or even an external assessor.  When other students, the teacher, or external assessors compliment learners on their success in learning, they provide a powerful incentive to continue learning and to continue improving. 

Examples of Successful Use of Scoreboards and Applause.  One example of successful use of a scoreboard and applause is a music education professor who prepares students to be band directors.  He described for me what he considers to be a key observation in his teaching.  He set up the following learning sequence that is repeated several times during the course: * Each student transcribes a piece of band music. * That student then has to teach the new piece of music to an ad hoc band composed of fellow students in a series of ten-minute periods once a week. * Each teaching session is videotaped. * Immediately following the teaching episode, the student teacher receives verbal and written feedback from peers, TAs, and the college teacher. * Following the videotape the student teacher also writes a self-analysis of the session in a journal: personal feelings that occurred while teaching and after   watching the videotape, how well the class seemed to respond or perform, and so on. * Before the next teaching session, the student teacher meets with the college professor for a coaching session, using the videotape and the student's self-  analysis, and trying new ways of leading the rehearsal and other possible behaviors. 

This professor noted a typical pattern of change in the students during this process.  During the first several weeks, the student teachers try to teach their impromptu band and dutifully follow the professor's instructions.  If he tells them to make their instructions to the players more succinct, they work on that.  But they only act in response to the teacher. 

Then, at some point, the student teacher gets it and moves to a different level of operation.  All the pieces come together - the planning, talking, directing, and the rest - and the student teacher has a noticeably more successful practice session.  The feeling of success leads to a feeling of pride.  Fellow students respond with comments such as, "Hey, that was a great session you did today."  The college teacher acknowledges and compliments the student on the quality of the session.  The success, based on clear criteria (like points on the scoreboard) plus the positive feedback from fellow students and the teacher (like applause) lead to a key change in the students: they start to care about the whole action of whatever it is they are learning to do (in this case, directing a group of band students). 

From that point on, the professor reports, student teachers approach the rehearsal sessions very differently.  They are composed and relaxed; they are ready to accept the role of teacher and be in charge; they start to become self-directing learners who are searching for ways to get better. 

This professor also added some interesting information about what happens to students who go through this procedure and then go on to actual school teaching situations.  His observation is that, when placed in new situations, new teachers often take one or two steps backward in their performance while they are dealing with the many unknowns in their new situation. But generally this only lasts for a short while.  After this initial adjustment stage, the new teachers progress and quickly reach a level of performance that is even higher than that displayed in the preparatory phase of their development. 

Another example of the effective use of a scoreboard and applause also comes from the field of music, this time from a trumpet professor.  For years he had been following the usual pattern in studio lessons with individual students: listening to them play and then telling them what they need to do to get better.  At one point he realized that his students had in fact learned a lot from their high school band teachers (as well as others) and that both he and the students needed to acknowledge that.  So he developed the simple but powerful idea of writing a "tribute letter." The students would each identify one or more people who had helped them learn some valuable skill, for example, good fingering, good tone, and good practice habits.  Together they would often compose a letter from the college professor, thanking that person for the contribution to this student's music development.  

In addition to creating extremely good public relations between the university and the public at large, this simple device had an unusual impact on both the students and the teacher.  For the teacher, it shifted his focus from "what is not good in this student's playing that needs to be improved" to "what is good that be commended?"  This in turn resulted in a much more positive general relationship with the student. For the students, it developed a more positive view of themselves.  The more positive tone of the interaction with the professor led them to think things such as "I have a good base of learning, and from that, I can continue to build toward an even better level of performance."  This in turn created an appreciation of the people who had contributed to their own learning and - as a result of the proceeding - a more positive attitude toward continued learning.  This whole cycle of a more positive interaction began with the professor looking for ways to give "applause," that is, positive feedback and not just critical feedback. 

The Importance of Empathy in Feedback.  Wiggins (1998) identifies two key elements as being fundamental in generating assessments that are truly educative.  The first is "authentic tasks," or what I have labeled forward-looking assessment, as noted previously, but the second key element is providing "performer-friendly feedback" (p. 21).  He notes that when teachers do in fact give students challenging and authentic tasks to learn and on which they will be assessed, students generally do not do well initially because the "bar has been set high."  At this point in their learning, it is critical that they receive encouragement to do well.  Then, with time, the teacher can "raise the bar" and begin to call for greater expectations.  Hence, an attractive sequence of feedback is to initially emphasize encouragement (that is, "performer-friendly feedback"); then as time goes on, the assessment can gradually move toward the still-necessary goal of "honoring excellence," that is, still provide a valid scoreboard of high-quality performance. 


Wiggins, G. 1998. Education Assessment: Designing Assessments to Inform and Improve Student Performance. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.