Promoting Student Motivation Using Effective Feedback 

This article is designed to explain feedback as an effective means of reinforcing or strengthening learning and performance. All of the recommendations for feedback systems offered here are simple to understand, easy and quick to implement, and can be used in any learning environment. Most teachers and trainers use feedback constantly – it is critical to the learning process. Sometimes, feedback is provided more casually, or informally, in less-structured, less-dependable ways. Where learning environments don’t provide effective feedback in a systematic, dependable manner, learning gains and learning behaviors are less likely to improve consistently. When learning gains occur without effective feedback, they tend to be unpredictable. The tips provided here are designed to assist teachers in critically reviewing their feedback methods. Educators that employ the simple suggestions in the “Rules of Feedback” ensure that, with practice and planning, students receive the feedback they need during the learning process to maximize learning success. The tips provided are also adaptable to many different learning environments, with students of any age.

What is Feedback? Feedback is a procedure whereby a person receives information about some aspect of their behavior or performance, following completion of an activity. Feedback can be used to increase desirable behavior or to decrease undesirable behavior. In general, the more precise the feedback, the more effective it is in reinforcing behavior.

RULE ONE – Select an Appropriate Performance Index

Feedback is most effective when it is given in numerical terms. It is important to tell a person how often a behavior occurred each time feedback is given. One of the best ways to measure a behavior is to determine how often it occurs over a fixed time. We call such a measure of a behavior its rate. One way to describe rate is in terms of its frequency. Examples of frequency measurements are:

  • Jason completed 30 laps during a one-hour swimming practice (30 laps per hour).
  • Courtney completed three lessons during a 40-minute reading period (3 lessons per 40-minute period).
  • Lisa completed 68 single-digit multiplication problems in a one-minute timed test (68 problems per minute).

Another way to measure a behavior is to determine what percentage of time of a behavior is correct or appropriate. We calculate the percent of correct or appropriate behavior by dividing the number of times the behavior occurs correctly by the total number of times the behavior occurs. We do this every time we grade a test. Examples of percentage measurements are:

  • 90% of your homework assignments were turned in on time this week.
  • You solved 89% of the problems on the test correctly.
  • All students were on time for class 78% of the time during the month of January.

Still another way to measure behavior is to determine its duration. We measure the duration of a behavior by simply observing and recording how long it takes for a behavior or a task to be completed. Examples of duration measurements are:

  • The time it takes a student to start on their assigned work after entering the classroom.
  • The time it takes each member of a track team to run four miles.
  • The time it takes a student to respond to a question in a computer lesson.

The reason for using a quantitative index of performance is to provide numerical feedback. Without a quantitative index of behavior, it is impossible to provide feedback on small improvements. Without precise measurement, it is unlikely that small improvements will be noticed. However, it is often the accumulation of small daily improvements that produces larger changes in the long run. When we provide this kind of feedback, we magnify small changes to encourage ever larger changes in the future. Furthermore, we can use these small-step successes to stimulate student motivation more effectively. Students need to see and feel their progress, and understand how their daily work or learning activity (and behavior) relates to their long term goal or motivation. Teachers also need to know their students are making progress, even if the steps are small ones.

RULE TWO – Provide Immediate Feedback

Feedback is most effective when it is provided immediately following a behavior or response. However, it is not always possible for a supervisor to immediately evaluate or score performance when working with large groups of individuals in an educational or work setting. In these instances, the best way to provide immediate feedback is to have individuals self-score their work.

This concept also applies to the design of self-instructional learning programs. It is more helpful to provide feedback to a learner immediately after each response than it is to provide feedback at the end of a section or chapter, far removed from the student’s response. Studies have demonstrated repeatedly that student performance in learning and training activities is directly related to the immediacy of feedback during the learning process.

RULE THREE – Provide Frequent Feedback

The more often feedback is provided, the more rapidly people learn. This rule is particularly important when behaviors or skills are first being acquired. Once skills are learned and performed well, feedback can be provided much less frequently. For example, when a new behavior is first being acquired, feedback can be provided each time the task is performed, or on a daily basis. As a rule, it is better to gradually reduce the frequency of feedback once a behavior or skill has finally reached the desired performance level. Ideally, students who require constant feedback will eventually need less and less external feedback. As students move from dependence to independence in learning, more feedback can be obtained independently, through self-evaluation or self-assessment.

RULE FOUR – Make Feedback Positive

Positive feedback is feedback that places emphasis on improvements rather than deficiencies. There are several reasons for giving positive rather than negative feedback. First, positive feedback makes us feel good about ourselves and those who give us feedback. In contrast, negative feedback can generate hostility toward those administering feedback. Studies have shown that most people prefer positive feedback to negative feedback and that most people can more readily improve through positive feedback. Finally, particularly for the struggling learner, negative feedback is punishing. Students who have experienced consistent failure in learning environments need many positive, successful learning experiences to reverse expectations of learning failure.

We can make feedback positive by placing emphasis on improvement and by providing deserved praise. Giving positive feedback about correct performance involves telling others what they have done correctly during a given time. Giving positive feedback about incorrect performance involves informing others when they have decreased the number of items completed incorrectly in a given time. Oftentimes, simply providing feedback on increased correct performance leads to a decline in errors. However, occasionally it is also necessary to provide feedback on error reduction. Another way to decrease errors is to provide a demonstration or model of the correct behavior or good skill performance to an individual prior to their engaging in that behavior on the next occasion.

When using praise, the following guidelines apply:

  • Praise should always be made contingent on improvement.
  • Praise statements should always describe why praise is being given.
  • Always smile and speak naturally with a pleasant tone.

Examples of descriptive praise statements are:

  • Courtney is a hard worker today; she has already completed three lessons.
  • Good, Lisa, you did three more problems today than yesterday.
  • Good work, Jason, you shaved four seconds off your time.
  • Good work, Susan, your cash register is only three cents off. That is the best you have done so far.

Practice delivering praise. Select any behavior you would like to change and deliver praise according to the rules mentioned here. It may be helpful to practice delivering praise several times, before you attempt to use it in an actual social situation. 

RULE FIVE – Make Feedback Differential

When we provide special feedback after someone performs better on a task, we are giving differential feedback. One advantage differential feedback has over continuous feedback is that it puts the emphasis on improvement rather than on an absolute level of performance. Differential feedback encourages persons to compete with themselves rather than, or in addition to, competing with others. Self-competition is the most desirable form of competition to instill in others.

Generally, it is easier for someone to better his or her own best performance than it is to compete with someone whose performance is initially far better. Only a few persons can be the best at a particular task, while everyone can succeed at bettering themselves. It is for this reason that persons who learn to compete with themselves encounter more frequent success than those who choose to compete with others. If the emphasis is continually placed on competing with others, many individuals will encounter repeated failures. If we interpret success as limited to being number one, only one person can succeed on a given day. Indeed, it is likely that most individuals will never experience success that is so narrowly defined. However, when success is defined as self-improvement, everyone has a good chance of succeeding on any given day.

There are two ways to provide differential feedback. First, an individual’s performance can be noted whenever he or she shows an improvement over a best previous observed performance. Second, an individual’s performance can be noted when his or her performance shows an improvement over a previous best weekly or monthly performance. This allows individuals to strive to beat or exceed two goals simultaneously, a short-term goal and a long-term goal. 

RULE SIX – Provide Group Feedback

Group feedback should be given in much the same manner as individual feedback. For example, it is important to provide feedback on how well the group did each day, week, and month. In addition, it is valuable to point out the group’s best daily, weekly, and monthly performance and whether or not they have exceeded any of their group records. Finally, when groups make notable or unexpected improvements, they should be recognized. Group scores can be computed in several ways. It is reasonable to calculate a simple total; for example, the number of products sold by a sales team each day, week, or month. Similarly, the group performance of a math class working on an individualized math program is easily calculated by simply adding the number of math lessons mastered by each student each day. Simply counting and totaling positive group accomplishments – whatever they may be – supports a positive learning environment and has the added benefit of helping establish espirit de corps.

Another approach is to provide feedback to the group on the mean or average level of performance by the group. For example, a swim coach could tell the swim team the average number of laps completed per practice by dividing the total number of laps completed by all of the members in attendance by the number of members present. This type of feedback serves the purpose of providing individuals with information about comparable performance norms. When providing group feedback, it is important that the emphasis be on group and individual improvement. A group should be encouraged to compete with itself rather than other groups; in the same way, individuals are better served when encouraged to compete against themselves, to better their own personal best. When all members of a group work together toward a common goal of group improvement, they experience teamwork. The spirit of teamwork that is often kindled by providing differential team feedback is the most important reason why team feedback should be provided, whenever the goal is to motivate performance of individuals who are members of a group. It should be emphasized that team feedback refers to feedback provided to a group that competes with itself rather than other groups.

RULE SEVEN – Graph Your Feedback

Graphs of individual and group performances are valuable because they provide the learner or individual with a concrete visual picture of feedback. Checklists, performance scales, self-evaluation scales, study schedules, and other visual record-keeping tools can be extremely helpful to students in motivation. These visual aids allow the student to see and track over time how their daily performance, learning, or work is connected to their learning or performance goal. Feedback should always be provided in terms of an observable behavioral, performance, or learning goal that is clearly stated and well-understood by the individual receiving feedback. Oftentimes, it is valuable to show such visual aids to individuals regularly, or involve them in development and maintenance of their own feedback graphs, so they can see and feel improvements all along the way.

RULE EIGHT – Encourage Comments about Performance

Another way to increase the effects of feedback is to encourage comments or positive discussion about individual and group performance by the members of a group. When group members comment on or discuss group and individual performance, it leads to higher performance. One easy way to encourage comments about performance is to consistently recognize and praise improvements or accomplishments made by group members. This provides a model that facilitates comments among members of the group. Again, the presence of a visual aid, graph, or chart serves as a focal point around which learning managers and group members can comment on performance.

RULE NINE – Provide Additional Rewards When Needed

The consistent application of feedback procedures mentioned in the 10 rules provided here should lead to improvements in performance by improving the accuracy, consistency, and reliability of feedback for learners. However, occasionally it may be necessary to supplement a feedback system with additional rewards to produce a desired change. Additional rewards do not necessarily need to carry material value. In an athletic program, for example, players commonly earn emblems or letters to be sewn onto their uniforms, or perhaps decals to stick to their football helmets.

Rewards with material value, like money or time off, can obviously be performance-enhancing incentives. However, even when working with adults, tangible but symbolic rewards like “Certificates of Achievement” can still be effective reinforcers. Whatever way one chooses to use extra rewards in a feedback system, the key to success lies in their gradual removal. The ultimate goal is to produce behavior or performance changes that lead to self-motivation and successful self-evaluation, independent of outside rewards and other external feedback.

RULE TEN – Select Short Work Intervals

Another factor to consider when attempting to increase performance or learning progress through feedback is that individuals tend to work faster when they are timed for brief intervals. In general, the longer you give someone to complete a task, the more slowly they work. Furthermore, short work intervals allow for frequent breaks during which feedback can be provided. Remember, immediacy of feedback (Rule #2) is critical to effectiveness of feedback. Whether feedback is corrective or reinforcing, it is most effective if it is immediate and not too far removed from the performance or response. For example, instead of allowing students an entire math period to complete an assignment consisting of several exercises, a teacher can break this activity into several short intervals during which one of the exercises is to be completed. At the end of each brief interval, students can self-score their performance.

Students learning or re-learning basic academic skills should never be pressured in the learning process. However, awareness of time in learning activities allows teachers and students to set goals around learning pace and make adjustments. Furthermore, students acquiring or remediating basic academic skills must be tested under time pressure to ensure fluency in skill sets before advancing to higher learning goals. When they are familiar with time pressure in learning activities, learners tend to be more successful in demonstrating their skills under test conditions. 

The Rules of Feedback offered here are excerpted and adapted from “A Guide to Motivating Students Through Feedback,” originally written by Dr. John McKee, founder of Pace Learning Systems.

Read Dr. McKee’s original article here.

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