Tip: Feedback for Transfer of Learning
Fewer - but richer - comments help students understand the "why" behind feedback & identify how to apply feedback to future assignments.
Instructors spend a non-trivial amount of time responding to student work. Last week I shared some resources about wise feedback, and I’ve previously written about how I encourage students to take feedback seriously by offering points in the rubric for the quality of their revisions. This week the focus is on using feedback to improve transfer of learning (Grant Wiggins, of Wiggins & McTighe’s Backwards Design, has a good overview of what transfer in this context means).
I think about the feedback process in 3 pieces: activating prior knowledge, cuing the student to general (foundational) principles, and then linking to a future task.
STEP 1: Link feedback to prior knowledge
Students are never blank slates - they come to any assignment with a variety of past academic and personal experiences. Using this prior knowledge to support their understanding of a new task is the first step in providing transferable feedback - helping the students transfer in what they already know.
“Remember what you know about how a paragraph is structured, with topic sentences and supporting sentences. Take that basic structure and apply it to your outline draft, with a thesis statement and supporting body paragraphs.”
STEP 2: Articulate general (foundational) principles
Rather than telling students what specifically they should work on improving for an assignment, try to explain feedback in terms of what students can apply as a general rule. This can help students to focus less on what they need to fix in the immediate assignment, and more on the why behind the feedback.
“As you work on writing your thesis, experiment with writing a 3-part thesis statement. This is a type of tricolon, a set of phrases/sentences that are parallel in some way (structure, length, rhythm), and is particularly effective at helping readers remember your 3 main points. You’ll see variations on the tricolon in all types of written and oral communications.”
STEP 3: Connect the principle to a future task
The final piece of transferable feedback is to help students to identify a future task where they might apply what they’ve learned from the general explanation. We want students not only to understand how to apply feedback to the immediate task but also how to transform the feedback to help them meet the expectations of a new task.
“Your essay outline effectively uses a 3-part structure to organize your arguments. Can you think of other assignments where this type of organizational structure might be effective at helping readers/listeners remember and understand your main points?”
Why it works
This strategy is effective because it asks us - instructors who are experts in both our disciplinary content and in how we communicate within our discipline - to scaffold for students - who are novices in both the content and the modes of communication - how to understand feedback and apply it to thinking about future assignments. By grounding our feedback in foundational principles about how our discipline communicates knowledge, whether it’s a persuasive essay, a lab report, a mathematical proof, or a business plan, we help students identify how to apply that feedback to future tasks.
For more reading:
Transfer of Learning and Teaching: A Review of Transfer Theories and Effective Instructional Practices (International Academic Forum Journal of Education)
Yale’s Poorvu Center for Teaching & Learning: Transfer of Knowledge to New Contexts
George Mason’s Writing Center has a great short video about using feedback to help students’ transfer of knowledge