Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Finkish FIDeLity feedback

Last week, I attended a very informative seminar on course design given by Dee Fink, one of the most prominent experts on designing courses to enhance student learning.

The seminar offered me a number of ideas I'd like to pursue in designing my courses (though I was pleased to note I'm already following some of Fink's suggestions). But I thought I might share some of the seminar content with the readership, parceled out over the next few weeks.

The simplest takeaway from Fink's seminar was the FIDeLity mnemonic concerning feedback to students. The feedback we give should be:

Frequent: Give feedback daily, weekly, or as frequently as possible.
Immediate: Get the feedback to students as soon as possible.
Discriminating: Make clear what the difference is between poor, acceptable, and exceptional work.
Loving: Be empathetic in the way you deliver your feedback.

Why is this sort of feedback conducive to student learning?
Though I don't think Fink uses the term metacognition, it's clearly in the background of these recommendations. Suppose we accept (as I do) that students' ability to metacognize (to monitor, query, evaluate, and guide their learning in an intentional and mindful way) is strongly correlated with effective learning. In order for students to exercise metacogntion, they must know whether their past learning efforts were successful, and if not, how to proceed. If feedback is infrequent, then metacognition becomes fragmented and loses direction. If feedback is not immediate, the time lag may be sufficiently great that students no longer remember well enough the techniques, etc. they used to complete the tasks in question, making it harder for them to self-diagnose their efforts. If feedback is not discriminating, students cannot pinpoint what elements of their previous efforts would need to be improved and/or how those efforts would need to be improved.

As for 'Loving': There's definitely an art to providing graceful, direct, constructive and encouraging feedback. I think good feedback always communicates to the students 'you can do better.' I suspect that students get a lot of feedback that serves to discourage them, counterproductively feeding their sense of helplessness and their belief in the fixity of intelligence

I'm definitely planning on thinking about how to do better in providing feedback that meets these parameters. My quick self-evaluation?
  • Frequent: A-/B+
  • Immediate: B-
  • Discriminating: B
  • Loving: B-
How are all of you doing on these parameters? And what sort of evaluation and feedback practices do you use that reflect Fink's recommendations?


  1. All excellent suggestions on what a teacher can do to improve the chance of students succeeding and flourishing in class. What I find distressing is that what is missing in the conversation is that we teachers do not have the professional discretionary judgment to design and run courses based on these and other factors. More and more of us are living in a teaching world based on a micro-managed "best practices" business model.

  2. I didn't realize this had a name - I use it all the time! Quick self evaluation:

    Frequent: A

    - I provide lots of regular feedback on a variety of different elements of the student's grade. I more do this in the first 1/2 of the semester, and especially in Fresh/Soph classes. In upper divisional classes, not so much, but I don't think the students need it.

    Immediate: B+

    I'm pretty good with this, although there are always spots in the semester when you just get buried!

    Discriminating: B -

    I've gotten better, but this is always an area that could use improvement.

    Loving: C+

    I'm not that loving, particularly with less than motivated students. I'm always respectful, but I can be more matter-of-fact.

  3. Thanks for the post, Michael. My report card:

    Frequent: B+
    I give written feedback on all work, and regular "personal interviews" with students throughout each term. By "personal interviews" I mean that I meet with each student to address questions of both performance and process regarding their work. In addition, a not so insignificant part of their grade is designated to "process". By "process" I mean all of the dispositions, habits, skills and content mastery that lead up to what we typically grade as "performances", such as tests and papers. In short, each student has a matrix of progression: critical thinking, writing, class participation and intellectual habits/preparedenss. Each student's matrix is individually tailored to where s/he is at. Part of his or her grade is directly related to this matrix, so I meet with the students to discover what they know and what they can do, and we contract an agreement of progression throughout the course. 25% of the grade is dedicated to making progression toward that agreement. This adds both to the frequency of the feedback and its discrimination.

    Immediate: C+
    Last term I had a one day turn around policy for ALL returned work. The students loved it. I have not been so good this term, even waiting sometimes up to two weeks to return written feedback.

    Discriminating: A-
    The structure of our department and our institution is designed so that discriminating feedback is an essential part of the grading process. Because I have been untimely this term, the effectiveness of the discriminating feedback has been diminished I am sure.

    Loving: A-
    Always my first priority when giving feedback. I remember losing a great amount of trust in a professor once when I was a young graduate student because the feedback was so unintentionally hurtful. I realized too late that the professor only meant to help, but his delivery was so inconsiderate that, at the time, it was entirely ineffective and hurtful. I am since very cautious to give feedback that is meaningful "loving". I avoid any opportunity to harm, though I wonder if sometimes it still happens in the quiet of my students' minds.

    Great post, Mike. Thanks.

  4. My own report card:

    Frequent: ranges from C to A, depending on the course
    Immediate: Usually B+, but sometimes worse
    Discriminating: D on some assignments; A on others
    Loving: B (I try, but I'm sure I still come across as blunt)

    What I'd really like to hear about, however, are techniques that people use for providing high FIDeLity feedback in philosophy courses. Fink's examples, from what I've seen, are more appropriate for some courses (e.g., math, science, basic foreign language) than others (e.g., philosophy).

    Jason mentioned personal interviews. I have two relatively high FIDeLity assignments this semester: (1) In an upper-level ethics course, students write summaries of the day's discussion at the end of each class. I return these at the next class (usually!). Frequent, immediate, and somewhat loving, but not discriminating: it's a CR/NC grade, with comments about what's missing in the case of NC assignment. (2) In the same course, students post "short response papers" of ~500 words online. They can do these for each class session, though they need only do five. I post a grade and comments online within about 48 hours. Semi-frequent, immediate, discriminating (more fine-grained grades and more extensive comments), and usually loving.

    My and Jason's methods take a fair bit of time. Does anyone have a high FIDeLity method that requires relatively little grading time?

  5. David -

    For my fresh/soph courses I post weekly grades for class and web participation (forums I use), as well as weekly or biweekly quizzes. This allows for constant feedback. Then papers and exams are layered on top.

    With the exception of the papers and exams, the rest of very easy to grade, and not too time consuming at all.

    I tend to try to stay (for papers/exams) within a one week turnaround time. I'm typically pretty good at doing that, so even in those cases I'm fairly fast.

    I also tend to give a ton of feedback on papers (using Microsoft's comment feature). I consider the amount of feedback itself to be loving, to be honest (which it is intended to be). In content, I tend to be very matter of fact and blunt.

  6. I've heard Fink speak before and am familiar with his books. I've also been introduced to research ( the article is here: http://learninglab.psych.purdue.edu/downloads/2007_Karpicke_Roediger_JML.pdf) that suggests that feedback isn't as important as we thought. Of course, this information is very much in my self-interest so it's highly suspect. Nonetheless, it's interesting and, I have to say, has influenced what I do in the classroom (it hasn't caused me to take longer in getting things back)

  7. jmc -

    In my own case, I tend to give frequent feedback not just for the sake of better securing learning objectives but also because it is important for students to learn to take responsibility for their own learning.

    Studies may or may not support the former (I am not sure), but it's clear to me that it does develop accountability. Students who receive frequent feedback across a number of different assessment areas tend to not point the finger externally when they do not do as well as they had hoped.

    In my own experience, the more infrequent assessment is, and the more narrow the assessment types tend to be, the more students feel empowered to blame the teacher, or the class, or the material.

    That said, one negative that has struck me is this: it may also be the case that badly performing students - after midterm period, say -- may find themselves feeling fatalistically trapped in a frequent-assessment system. There's just so much data that they are doing poorly that they get dispirited.

  8. I agree. In my experience, the feedback is important as a way build relationships and on-going conversations with my students.

    The research cited above has led me to give more assignments/projects focused on repeatedly recalling material that they are learning and worrying less about only assigning as much as I can provide feedback for. It's also shifted my assignments from being intended to get them to study to assignments getting them to recall.

    I am still constantly providing feedback, but there are some things they do where my feedback is less substantial since my focus is to get them, in these tasks, to be recalling frequently

  9. jmc,

    Maybe I'm misunderstanding the article you linked to, but I don't see how it shows that feedback isn't important. Presumably the participants in the experiments found out right away how many words they'd recalled correctly. Even without an exact number, it would be pretty easy to tell when you'd done well on the task and when you hadn't. The problem for many students in philosophy in particular is that they can't tell when they've done well -- or at least, they have a hard time seeing exactly what's good about what they've done and what needs work. That's why they need the feedback.

    This does, however, give me something to say to students who ask how to study for philosophy classes: rewrite the main ideas and arguments from memory, and then compare them to class notes or the textbook.

  10. I'm pretty sure that there was no feedback on the practice test they took — looking to the study it appears that the participants took the practice tests serially.

    And I'm certainly not saying that feedback isn't important (particularly when mistakes can become ingrained). And recollection of words is very different from understanding arguments. I wasn't really disagreeing with anything that anyone had said here.

    My primary point was that immediate feedback isn't as important as Fink has argued (and reasonably argued since he didn't have this new data to draw upon). And, then my second thought had to do with emphasis on recall as opposed to study — which at least in my teaching has led to a shift in how I am designing assignments.

    And then the last thought is that the metacognitive piece may be more important than the feedback piece. I wonder if giving students the time to reflect on their assignments (instead of us giving them feedback) would lead to them identifying their own problems instead of needing us to point them out.

    But, this is just me wondering.....

  11. I take it, though, that feedback matters because/when students can't distinguish good performance from poor performance without it. But when the task involved is just recalling as many words from a list as you can, it seems that the participants could distinguish good performance from bad performance. In other words, feedback in the study was "automatic." Since, as you note, recalling arguments is different from recalling words, I suspect that feedback is still essential—even in "recall" assignments—in philosophy. I'm just not convinced that the study has much to tell us about feedback in philosophical pedagogy.


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