Immediate and Specific Feedback Helps Learning

Since attending the 2015 STLHE Conference last week, I have–once again– been thinking about the key role of feedback in promoting learning.  It was Marsha Lovett’s keynote, in which she spoke about deliberate practice, that has re-surfaced the importance of immediate, informal feedback, specifically as a way to improve one’s performance of a skill.

I’ll elaborate with a personal example of taking private singing lessons. This I started doing in the fall of 2014, after more than four decades of being terrified of singing (but being so moved by the power of a singing voice).  When I am in my lessons, I feel that I proceed without knowing what I am doing.  My teacher, George, plays the piano and  I put the words or sounds to the music.  He says things such as “that’s just fine” or “very nice” or “getting there” or “try that again” and I don’t have a clue of what he’s picking up on most of the time.  As a teacher and educational developer, I cannot help but think about our novice students and wonder whether they, too, are challenged at interpreting our feedback.  So, yesterday, I started asking George more questions.

George: You’re making progress!

Me: George, when you say I’m making progress, can you tell me what you were referring to specifically? What are the top 2 things I have made progress on?


George: You went into your head voice there.

Me: What do you mean when you say that I went into my head voice?  Is that good? bad? (Under what conditions, if any, is that desirable?)


You get the picture.

So, here is what I’ve learned and/or been reminded of in the past few days:

1. As a teacher wanting to improve my students’ performance of ________  skill , my feedback to them needs to be specific and immediate. As a feedback giver, I must do my best to ensure that they grasp the meaning of what I am saying and are able to apply it so their practice of ________ skill becomes more deliberate.

2. As a student, I need to ask questions of my teacher when the meaning of his/her feedback is not clear or specific enough for me to be able to apply it to my practice.

3. How I practice is more important than “just” practicing.  As Dr. Marsha Lovett said, it’s not “practice makes perfect” but a specific way of practicing that helps us, as learners, become more expert in a particular skill.

Dance Practice

photo credit: Dance Practice by Skyline College PR & Marketing (flic.kr/p/q99WgW)



Bringing mindfulness into post-secondary teaching



Teacher Candidate practices mindfulness at Nitobe Memorial Gardens, UBC.

Last year, I attended the 2014  Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education Conference  where there were a number of sessions on the use of mindfulness in higher education. This inspired me to think about how I might bring mindfulness into my teaching.

I teach in the Bachelor of Education program at the University of BC and my students are individuals who are preparing to be teachers in elementary and secondary schools. The course I teach looks at the role of knowledge in a teacher’s practice. In our short six weeks together, we explore concepts such as pedagogical content knowledge, core knowledge, embodied knowledge and “other” ways of knowing.

Given the course goals, I have  recently started to incorporate mindfulness into my classroom teaching. Additional reasons that have motivated me to do so are:

  • mindfulness is increasingly being used in the K-12 system (with many proven benefits) and therefore I want my students to become more familiar with it so they can decide whether or not to adopt it in their teaching
  • university students are often stressed and anxious and, by learning about mindfulness and being able to do short exercises, they may start to apply these techniques in their personal lives for their own well-being

I think it is relevant to say that, prior to this, I did not have my own mindfulness practice; that is, I was not able to draw upon my own past experience and have been learning as I go.

What have I done to bring this into the classroom?

  • Have created a “mindfulness” section of my course site where I suggest exercises to the students (i.e., “try this during the week”)
  • Present on evidence-based benefits of mindfulness in class
  • Do short mindfulness exercises in class (breathing, listen to the sounds)
  • Have a classroom discussion where students share their experiences of mindfulness in their schools
  • And, this week, together with Dr. Erin Graham who teaches the same course at the same time, we took the class to the Nitobe Memorial Gardens  where they practiced mindfulness in this lovely setting. Before hand, we sent students “instructions” with various exercises to try out.

In the past offering of this course, I received positive feedback from students on the incorporation of mindfulness. I will continue to invite feedback from students to get a sense of how this is going for them.

Some useful resources I have discovered along the way:


Educational development: common sense or content expertise?

As teachers and educational developers, we have all undoubtedly come across people who believe our work is “common sense”. Though I am convinced we apply common sense to our work, I am equally convinced that our content expertise (in this case, our subject knowledge of teaching and learning in higher education) factors in strongly.  As Shulman (1986) asserts: The way you understand your subject influences the way you teach. In my work at the teaching and learning centre, the educational developer is the teacher, and the students are the learners who participate in our workshops and with whom we consult.

Because of the course I am teaching (Education, Knowledge, and Curriculum, in the Bachelor of Education Program), I have been reading again about pedagogical content knowledge (PCK), or “the ways of representing and formulating the subject that makes it comprehensible for others”. It has gotten me thinking about how PCK might apply to my educational development work.  Like the teacher candidates in my course, I wonder if I’m under-rating my knowledge of “the subject”—in this case educational development.

knowledge eyechart
Here are some of statements and questions, pulled from the references below and modified, that I find particularly useful as I think about our educational development knowledge and work:  (I have replaced the word “teachers” with “educational developers”):

  • How does somebody who really knows something teach it to somebody who doesn’t?
  • Educational developers are often unaware of the knowledge they possess–it being often contextualised and associated with particular learners, events, and teaching situations.
  • What are the most powerful examples, explanations, analogies that I use to promote the learners’ understanding of x, y or z?
  • Teaching in educational development is not generic (was “teaching is not generic”)
  • How do I prepare to teach (in an ED context) something I have never previously learned?

On Monday in class, I urged the teacher candidates to honour their content knowledge.  I think I need to take my own advice.

Photo credit: Nancy White, “Knowledge eye chart”. https://flic.kr/p/5Sy5Cq, Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Shulman, L. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher, 15(2), 4-14.
Shulman, L. & Sparks, D. (1992). Merging content knowledge and pedagogy: An interview with Lee Shulman.  Journal of Staff Development, 13(1). 14-16.
Berry, A., Loughran, J. & van Driel, J.H. (2008). Revisiting the roots of pedagogical content knowledge. International Journal of Science Education, 30(10). 1271-1279.