Feedback and Self-Regulated Learning: A Theoretical Synthesis, written by Deborah L. Butler and Philip H. Winne in 1995, is a popular piece of academic literature. Google Scholar indicates that it has been cited by 1183 works. Its importance is likely a result of that way in which it views the nearly universally reported benefits of feedback through the prism of self-regulation. Essentially, the authors suggest a shift akin to the evolution from behaviorism to cognitivist ideas. Whereas the former focused exclusively on input and output, the latter posits that an idiosyncratic interpretation of stimuli must be considered. In this case, feedback serves as the stimuli to which the individual responds.
Feedback can be classified in a variety of ways; by timing (immediate or delayed), type (corrective, suggestive, elaborative), and by origin (external or internal). The authors also describe “cognitive feedback’’, relating perceived cues to use learning strategies and potential achievement. Five products of feedback are presented.
- Confirm conceptual understanding
- Add to conceptual understanding
- Overwrite misunderstanding
- “Tune’’ understanding
- Restructure schemata (when entire conceptualization is wrong)
One of the primary points that the authors make is that all feedback is filtered through a wide array of preexisting learner qualities, e.g., domain specific history, goal orientation, epistemological beliefs, and efficacy. It is these qualities that lead to the afore mentioned “idiosyncratic interpretations’’ of feedback. So, while these may be the potential results of feedback, the way in which external feedback is filtered by the learner determines the magnitude (or existence) of the intended effect.
At the center of Butler and Winne’s argument is the idea of calibration, which refers to the monitoring of one’s ability to predict their own understanding. It is the degree to which feedback disconfirms one’s certitude in their ability to make such predictions that results in deep processing of feedback. More generally, this work suggests that one is more apt to work to resolve deficiencies in their ability to know themselves then to know an answer. In fact, the authors suggest that “calibration’’ is what’s monitored, rather than knowledge. According to Butler and Winne, the best feedback,
informs students about their monitoring of learning needs (achievement relative to goals in prior phases of engagement) and guides them in how to achieve learning objectives (cognitive engagement by applying tactics and strategies (p. 273).
So, feedback should be focused on helping students become calibrated, while simultaneously providing cues as to what types of learning strategies are likely to be most beneficial for specific learning tasks or domains. This differs from corrective feedback and questioning often employed when a student responds to a query incorrectly.
What This Means for Teachers
Feedback is effective. One need only review John Hattie’s table of effect sizes for support of its use in the classroom. However, this research points to the more complex nature of the interpretation of feedback by learners. Learners bring a set of preexisting beliefs and a history of experiences related to topics of study to the classroom. These inform they way in which students set and pursue goals. The combination of student history and goal orientations results in a unique interpretation of feedback. More importantly, internal feedback — also related to this personal history — in many ways supersedes external feedback’s ability to shape student performance.
Certainly, internal feedback alters external feedback’s effect. Awareness of this reality, and the idea that the primary goal of feedback should be to improve students’ internal “calibration’’ are the primary takeaways for the classroom instructor. Understanding each student’s history in the domain of study provides the foundation, while reflective writing tasks and short surveys might provide useful information as well. As with most tasks related to the interaction of humans, the interpretation of feedback is complex, and difficult (or at least time consuming) to do at the group level.