“Failure is the most powerful teacher.”

I’ve heard people say this on several occasions, but failure alone is a terrible teacher—it’s a dead end that doesn’t offer a path to the solution. It is only when failure is partnered with support and guidance that it can enable learners to recognize their mistakes and correct accordingly. This is where effective feedback becomes essential in the learning process.

As Learning Designers, we can easily get trapped by two very common feedback heuristics: not giving sufficient information or simply providing the answer. Neither allows the learner to think about the problem or adds any value to the learning experience. There are, however, some simple strategies that can help you strike the balance between too general and too obvious and design the best possible learning experience.

Effective feedback should be learner-focused and aimed at motivating the learner to complete the problem or task at hand. Before you can enable that, you first need to know who your learners are, what their level of understanding is, and what’s stopping them from progressing. This information is essential to structuring feedback that is purposeful and valuable for the learner.

So now let’s consider how we can provide the learner with guidance that allows them to build the connections they need to grasp a concept. Here is a staggered approach to feedback that I apply to every learning experience I design:

Example of generic feedback

Start generic to allow for errors

The first level of feedback always allows for the learner to correct their mistake by giving them another opportunity to demonstrate that they understand the concept. Maybe there was a calculation error; maybe they misread the question. It is okay to keep this first level of feedback generic by directing the learner to check their answer and have another try.

Staggered feedback approach

Prompt for reflection

On the second attempt, the feedback provided should include a prompt that encourages the learner to reflect on what they know about the problem. Ask questions that guide their thinking back to what they already know and encourage them to build their own connections.

Feedback to prompt reflection

Give a directed Clue

After prompting, give a direct hint to shift the learner’s thinking to a more specific aspect of the problem. This level of feedback should explicitly state what the learner has done and why it is incorrect. Has the learner hit a known misconception here? If so, address the misconception in the feedback. At this level, we should be enabling the learner to solve the problem themselves without simply giving the answer away.

Feedback giving a directed clue

Remediate the misconception

If the learner has demonstrated that they are still struggling to understand after three or more attempts, they likely need a different instructional approach that suits their learning needs. There is nothing more frustrating than being set up to fail over and over again. So it is at this point we should move them onto a remediation learning pathway to ensure they remain engaged.

The most powerful learning happens when the instruction is aimed at guiding the learner to think about a problem and work through the solution themselves. When you add structure to your feedback, failure really can be the the most powerful teacher.

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