Training Myth: Feedback is Always Good (or Bad)

In developing training for people, we make several assumptions. Those assumptions are based on our own experience, the environment, or folklore surrounding training. Assumptions aren’t bad. They allow us to cope with a complex set of variables that impact learning. However, challenging these assumptions can help us to create training that is more effective and sustained.

The myth of feedback is a twisting tale. Early research seemed to indicate that feedback depressed learning, while common sense says that feedback is essential to learning. With the advent of more eLearning courses, careful designers are looking for ways to provide meaningful feedback to students and in the process stumbling on age-old controversies.

Research on Delayed Feedback

Learning researchers started investigating the impact of feedback and discovered something curious. Delaying feedback created better learning and long-term retention. One of the conclusions from this research was that feedback was bad for learning. However, it’s only when you look under the covers to the experimental design that you begin to see that what they were testing isn’t exactly the same thing that we’re looking at in our training courses.

The design of the test was such that the feedback was delayed – but it was delayed less than 10 seconds. Most of the time when we’re considering feedback, we’re not considering such short periods of time. We’re evaluating whether we should show a student their result after they have answered a question (hint: you shouldn’t) or after the test (hint: you should). In the computerized learning world, we’re talking about whether we provide effectively instant feedback or whether we delay that feedback.

We wouldn’t typically think of delaying feedback for only a few seconds – but we should use this as a clue.

Training or Productivity Aid

One reason that instant feedback may indeed depress learning is the perception that it’s going to be permanently available. If you can always ask your mother, or turn to your colleague or a resource, why would you learn it? If the resource is always available and easier than learning the material, then you shouldn’t learn the material. Learners are leveraging this phenomenon more and more frequently as the quip “just Google it” flows freely from our mouths on a wide variety of topics.

It may be that when we make getting the correct answer (even through random guessing) too easy, we reduce the ability of the learner to justify the mental expense of committing it to memory. Consider another change in learning over the last 20 years. Twenty years ago, we would be amazed by people who remembered phone numbers. Today, few people know the numbers of their closest friends, because they don’t have to. They select the name in their contacts on their phone and the number is automatically dialed – without you even having to know it for a moment.

As we’re designing training feedback, we need to be cognizant that we want to create a small barrier to getting the feedback so that learners don’t use the training program as a crutch and use that crutch instead of learning.

Learning or Performance

Before leaving the topic of learners using the training as a crutch for not learning something, it’s important to realize that this is a valid strategy when the training isn’t training instead is a performance aid. That is, the content produced is intentionally designed to be a sidekick to the learner when they’re performing the actual task. (See Job Aids and Performance Support for more.)

The fact that it is a valid strategy relies on the awareness that our goal isn’t learning. Though we’re all in the training business, that isn’t what the organization wants. The organization wants productivity and effectiveness. They expect that they can get productivity and effectiveness through training.

When we can bypass the learning process and make employees productive without it, we should do that even if it doesn’t officially match our titles.

When Feedback is Good

While we’ve explored when feedback can be bad, it’s most frequently good. In fact, the lack of feedback strongly inhibits learning. If you can’t see the results of your actions, then you have no way of improving. The psychological concept of flow requires tight feedback loops. (See Flow, Finding Flow, and The Rise of Superman for more on flow.) Why does flow matter? Well, because it is a mental state which generally produces five times the results of other mental states. Generating flow states also improves mood well after the flow state has ended. Even the residual effects help lubricate organizations to better interaction.

High-performance athletes create scenarios where they receive expert and timely feedback so that they can improve their performance to its peak (see Peak). Deliberate practice drives improvement, and feedback drives deliberate practice. The more we can give meaningful feedback, the more we can create opportunities for learning and deeper learning.

In Sum

Give feedback – every time. Give feedback with enough of a barrier that learners won’t use ease of access as an excuse not to learn – unless that’s your goal.

Book Review-The ABCs of How We Learn: 26 Scientifically Proven Approaches, How They Work, and When to Use Them

I’m always trying to find ways to better teach and train. I, just like you, have seen plenty of bad training courses, where you want to stab pencils in your ears and gouge out your eyes just to stop the pain of listening and seeing the training session. While not every teaching engenders this response, far too many of them do. My goal is that no one will ever feel that way in my teaching. I desire to create an experience that’s aligned with how adults learn and is based on everything we know about learning through research.

Getting back to the fundamentals is important. When I saw The ABCs of How We Learn: 26 Scientifically Proven Approaches, How They Work, and When to Use Them it felt like I could get back to the fundamentals and review what I knew about learning.

Levels of Learning

If you’ve read this blog for a while you may have seen my review of Efficiency in Learning, which I felt was a powerful book about the process of learning design. It was primarily focused on the detailed level of what strategies to use to minimize cognitive load. In this way, it was focused on the instruction component of the learning process. I believe that these tools are as essential as learning your multiplication tables. It teaches the fundamentals you need to know no matter what strategies you use.

The ABCs of How We Learn looks at the problem from a much higher level. Instead of the fundamental skills of managing cognitive load, The ABCs of How We Learn is more focused on which tool to pull out of the toolbox when teaching. When the question is whether you use an analogy or a worked example, The ABCs of How We Learn has the answer. When you’re looking for what are the barriers outside the training which may prevent learning, The ABCs of How We Learn has the answers.

This is a still different dimension of looking at learning from Bloom’s Taxonomy. Instead of looking at the kind of thinking that is desired after the training, the view is from the perspective of how to ensure that the training stays with the student long after the training is over. It’s a dirty little secret in the training industry that, without reinforcement, 80% of the training a student receives will be gone within two weeks. Not even in baseball would a 20% success rate be acceptable – but in most training situations it is.

We’re All Adults Here, Right?

Most of my training work is with adults. While I support programs that educate children and teens, this isn’t the primary focus of my work. One of the questions that I ask when looking at materials is whether the target is for teaching adults or teaching children. Adults learn differently (see The Adult Learner). There are programs that work well for teaching children – but their child focus makes them not effective at teaching adults. (See “G” is for Growing: Thirty Years of Research on Children and Sesame Street.)

I was pleasantly surprised to see that most of the approaches and techniques described apply whether we’re talking about adult or child learners. Certainly, things like reward take on different context when working with adults compared to children. (Though food seems to be a universal motivator: children are more interested in candy, and adults are more interested in donuts.)

Admittedly, most of the research cited was with children; however, this is to be expected, since most of the educational research being done in the world is done for children rather than adults.

Spelling Learning

The order of the approaches was established by the alphabetic reference. They’re delivered in a strictly alphabetical sequence; however, what struck me is that some of the approaches precede teaching, and some of them are necessary after training. For instance, analogy is a tool used during the teaching. Belonging is used prior to training. Contrasting cases is another teaching approach and deliberate practice is a post-instruction item. Elaboration is something that is done as a part of education process. Feedback is what’s done to help the practice work effectively.

To see how the 26 approaches might look separated into categories of pre-, during, and post-learning, I’ve arranged the approaches in the following table. Note that the “pre” items are mostly setting the conditions for learning either in the environment directly or in the student’s perspective on learning. (See Mindset for more about how a perspective can impact outcomes.)

Pre During Post
  • B – Belonging
  • N – Norms
  • O – Observation
  • X – eXcitement
  • Y – Yes I Can
  • A – Analogy
  • C – Contrasting Cases
  • E – Elaboration
  • H – Hands On
  • J – Just-in-Time Telling
  • L – Listening and Sharing
  • Q – Question Driven
  • S – Self-Explanation
  • T – Teaching
  • V – Visualization
  • W – Worked Examples
  • D – Deliberate Practice
  • F – Feedback
  • G – Generation
  • I – Imaginative Play
  • K – Knowledge
  • M – Making
  • P – Participation
  • R – Reward
  • U – Undoing
  • Z – Zzzzz… (Sleep)

Obviously, ordering the items in this way destroys the neat ordering of the alphabet. However, it allows you to think about learning in a way that’s more connected to the way that students learn. The above table could be further refined by ordering the approaches within these three buckets. For instance, contrasting cases are particularly effective when paired with worked examples.

The Alphabet Song

Despite the relatively short length of this review, The ABCs of How We Learn is a great book to help improve your teaching. Each of the approaches is covered in a bite-sized chunk that you can easily read in a few minutes. That means in less than a month you can get through it. If you’re an educator – formally or informally – it’s worth learning The ABCs of How We Learn.