What Do You Know: Does Feedback Improve Learning?

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Many learning practitioners find the topic of instructional feedback confusing, so I thought it might be a good topic review. Feedback is quite complex, so let’s start off with a basic question: Does feedback improve learning? You might think the answer is obvious, but actually, it’s more complicated than many L&D practitioners might realize. 

To understand feedback, let’s define what it is and what it should do. The kind of feedback I’m talking about is written or verbal responses to answers or performance on instructional questions or activities. In Table 1, I show examples of questions and activities where we would typically supply feedback.

Table 1. Typical Questions and Activities Where Feedback May Be Given

Questions Activities
Oral response Case studies
Written response Simulations
Multiple choice Scenarios
Fill-in-the-blank Realistic tasks
Scenario questions On-the-job practice

The main purpose of feedback is to reduce gaps between current knowledge and performance and desired knowledge performance. In a Review of Educational Research article, Kulhavy describes a continuum of feedback similar to what’s described in Figure 1. Complexity increases as it moves further to the right. 

Figure 1. Continuum of Feedback Complexity


L&D practitioners mostly assume feedback helps learning. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t write it and quiz or test systems wouldn’t offer places to input it. But does feedback really have an impact? Before talking about what research says, I’d like you to consider the following question. Then we’ll discuss what the research says and its implications. 

QUESTION: Does instructional feedback (in response to learning questions and activities) improve learning? Select the correct answer. 

A. We don’t know if feedback improves learning. 

B. Feedback improves learning. That’s why we write it. 

C. Feedback can improve learning, but it doesn’t always. 

Does Feedback Help Learning? 


Feedback has been shown to help learning most when it specifically addresses forgotten information or strategies, difficult aspect of performance, or a faulty interpretation (misunderstanding), explain Hattie and Timperley in their Review of Educational Research article, “The Power of Feedback.” Feedback doesn’t help nearly as much when it addresses a lack of understanding. A lack of understanding implies that the instruction didn’t meet its goals or has one or more of the following problems: 

  • The instruction didn’t consider the prior knowledge levels of participants (for example, we assumed they know more than they did) 
  • The delivery of the instruction is problematic (for example, participants were unable to find or review parts they sought to review) 
  • Content, practice, or assessment elements are problematic (for example, there is inadequate practice to help remember or apply on the job) 

Trying to fix a lack of understanding in instruction is generally beyond its scope. Even well-written feedback, given in the right circumstances, cannot always help because participants don’t always understand or use it. 

Feedback Types and Conditions 

Hattie and Timperley reviewed instructional feedback meta-analyses (a statistical approach to combine results from multiple studies), to show what types of feedback are likely to help the most and the least. The most powerful outcomes came from feedback about tasks and how to do them more effectively. Goal-oriented feedback and cues (hints) could also be effective. The least powerful outcomes came from praise, rewards, and punishment (extrinsic rewards).  

They then looked at how to make effective types of feedback work well. Remember how in the beginning I said that the main purpose of feedback is reducing gaps between current knowledge and actual performance and desired knowledge and performance? Hattie and Timperley explain that to reduce this gap, feedback must answer three questions: 

  • What are the goals? 
  • What progress am I making towards these goals? 
  • What do I need to do to make better progress? 

Clear goals along with knowing where you are and how to move forward targets the right places to focus effort to reduce gaps between current knowledge and actual performance and desired knowledge and performance. Some feedback strategies work in the opposite manner. These include nonspecific or fuzzy goals, accepting poor performance, and not offering enough information. Research shows that when people don’t know what to do, feedback can be demotivating. 
Goals must supply actions and outcomes for a specific task or performance. They must also include success criteria that allow for consistent performance when facing common obstacles. Feedback cannot lead to a reduction in the “gap” if the goal and the criterion aren’t clear. Otherwise, people may rely on any method that works (for them), and their methods may have undesirable consequences. 

Telling people how they are doing shouldn’t wait for formal assessment. People need specific feedback against specific goals (with success criteria) while learning in order to learn to self-correct. Learning to self-correct is one of the MOST critical aspects of learning and feedback. Metacognition (being able to assess your thinking and learning) and self-correction are often extremely more important aspects of learning, yet these approaches are often under used. 

Instruction often builds on things learned earlier (I’m seeing a lot of L&D practitioners discussing instruction like this doesn’t happen!). As Hattie and Timperley explain, too often when designing instruction, we keep piling on more information, one topic after another. One central goal of learning design should be helping people answer important metacognitive questions, such as: Do I remember what I need to remember (for work and more learning)? Do I understand how to apply this? Did I interpret this correctly? If these questions go unanswered and we simply pile on more content, we are building on faulty foundations. 

For example, when learning to be a bank teller, there are specific account and math concepts that new hires need to master to understand later concepts. If people don’t understand these, they will not be able to correctly learn new tasks that are based on these concepts. This is true in most job training but too often, we train without considering what people must master before moving on to other, related topics. 

I hope you can see that feedback is complex, and we shouldn’t write it only as an add-on response to instructional assessments. We need to better integrate feedback into the design of instruction. In some of my next articles I will answer more complex questions: 

  • Where (else) does feedback fit into instruction? 
  • Are their different levels of feedback? 
  • How should we design feedback to make it more valuable? 

The answer to the question near the beginning of this article is C. I’d love to know your questions about this article. Please share your thoughts in the Comments; they will help me write later articles on this topic so they meet your needs. 


Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77, 81- 112. 

Kulhavy, R. W. (1977). Feedback in written instruction. Review of Educational Research, 47(1), 211-232.

About the Author
Patti Shank, PhD, CPT, is a learning designer and analyst at Learning Peaks, an internationally recognized consulting firm that provides learning and performance consulting. She is an often-requested speaker at training and instructional technology conferences, is quoted frequently in training publications, and is the co-author of Making Sense of Online Learning, editor of The Online Learning Idea Book, co-editor of The E-Learning Handbook, and co-author of Essential Articulate Studio ’09.

Patti was the research director for the eLearning Guild, an award-winning contributing editor for Online Learning Magazine, and her articles are found in eLearning Guild publications, Adobe’s Resource Center, Magna Publication’s Online Classroom, and elsewhere.

Patti completed her PhD at the University of Colorado, Denver, and her interests include interaction design, tools and technologies for interaction, the pragmatics of real world instructional design, and instructional authoring. Her research on new online learners won an EDMEDIA (2002) best research paper award. She is passionate and outspoken about the results needed from instructional design and instruction and engaged in improving instructional design practices and instructional outcomes.
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