Smarter interventions can mean faster and more efficient feedback and facilitation. In this post we look at a range of techniques to use when supporting learners.
When thinking about which approach to take with feedback and facilitation we're asking these kinds of questions:
- Do I need to intervene?
- Might other learners be able to help with the answer?
- What pieces of feedback, encouragement or guidance do I give frequently?
- Where are the "critical touchpoints" for the course?
- What narratives are getting in the way for learners?
Thinking about these questions leads us to some different approaches to facilitation than just giving learners the answer. Below you'll see a range of approaches.
- Intervene less - Support learning by not jumping in with all the answers.
- Intervene wisely - Disrupt mindsets that might be holding learners back.
- Get learners involved - Help learners assess and give feedback to themselves.
- Try video or audio feedback - A more "human" touch that can save time too.
Some include example phrases (shown in italics). Our main goal for the approaches below is actually "better learning", but a bonus is that these approaches also require more from learners and less from you - freeing up time for you to focus your feedback and efforts where they count most.
We often want to help learners all the time. But sometimes that's just not in the best interest of learning. We learn the most when we do challenging work, make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes. A productive struggle. Below we've got some examples of techniques to intervene less.
Answering a question with a question
When you find ways to help your learners answer their own questions, you're helping them become more metacognitive (better at thinking about thinking). Generally, when you're answering a question with another question, you'll be scaffolding. For example, if a learner is asking how mass and frictional force are related, the response might be something like:
Good question. Okay, let's unpack this a bit by answering some related questions. Think about: How would you define friction? What are some other directions of forces that are affected when an object has more mass?
Encouraging learners to think of strategies they could use
Sometimes your learners might be stuck on using one strategy and just need to try another approach. Using phrases like the ones below also help cultivate a growth mindset in learners and grow their toolkit of strategies so they'll be better off next time they're stuck.
This is challenging! I can see you are using your notes. What other strategies could you try?
Let’s review all of your attempts so far and see if we can think of the best course of action.
Remind yourself that you're still learning. Let’s break down the problem/task and walk through it step-by-step. Perhaps you need something specific, a little more information or guidance to get to the next step?
Okay, let’s think about how to approach this differently. Would you like to try [different strategy]?
Encouraging other learners to jump in with their thoughts
Novices are sometimes better at explaining ideas to other novices because they're at a more similar level. It can also support social connections which we know is useful in online courses. You might say something like:
That’s a great question [Learner]. I want to encourage discussion about this question. So I wondered… does anyone else have any thoughts about [Learner's] questions? Particularly [add clarification to help other learners help this learner].
Give no feedback
In other instances, feedback might not be needed at all, especially if the automatic feedback is clear and supports learners' ability to self-assess. So remember, we don't have to give feedback on everything. A simple way to acknowledge learners might just be with a like (thumbs up) or marking a task as "complete".
Wise interventions are targeted, small interruptions with the hope of disrupting mindsets, beliefs, or processes that are hindering learning. These are what we're talking about when we ask: "What narratives are getting in the way of learning?". Intervening wisely means choosing places where your feedback or messages are going to have greatest impact. These can be effective with just a sentence or two in the right spot.
Below are a few examples of what wise interventions might look like. They show that feedback isn't necessarily all about marking.
Communicating (reasonable) high expectations to learners can increase achievement. One example found that learners did twice as much revision on an essay with this message:
“I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them,”
As compared to:
“I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your task.”
Normalising small setbacks and social-belonging
Another example helped learners understand that worries about belonging in a new school are normal but dissipate with time. Learning and reflecting on this in an exercise led to African American college students’ halving the racial achievement gap, and reporting being happier and healthier at the end of college.
“Studying online can be challenging, there can be a big learning curve. But you'll learn and try different techniques over time and it will get easier. For those of you who have studied online before, share one of your favourite techniques below.”
Empathy and forming relationships
The Culture Code describes a study that found people were four times more likely to let a stranger borrow their phone if the stranger started with “I’m so sorry about the rain...” Statements like this which show empathy can lead to a shift in behaviour because they signal a relationship.
Small personal statements - referencing something a learner said earlier, an aspiration they shared, or empathising with struggles - help to form relationships in online courses. This can lead to learners putting in more effort before assessments or in reviewing your feedback.
Get learners involved
When you ask: "Who's doing the work in this class?" the answer should be "learners". Because if they're not working, they're probably not learning. Below we've got two general approaches to help get learners involved.
Tell learners how many things to fix, not what and how
Instead of providing the corrections, you could tell learners the number of errors and let them know that next, they must find the errors and fix them.
As this technique focuses on identifying errors, you don't want to overuse this one as it could be demotivating for learners. It's best used for very focused skills that are a requirement of the course e.g. citations and paraphrasing and for formative tasks that lead to summative tasks. For instance you might have one small section of an assessment where you acknowledge their good work on the content of their assessment, then say:
"... your last activity for this task is to find the [x] fixes to citations and [y] small formatting changes to meet APA referencing. If you get stuck [link to resource] but I'm sure you'll be on your way once you spot them."
Help learners to self-assess
You could follow this general approach to help learners self-assess.
- Learners have a first-attempt at or plan a piece of work - presentation, equations, report, project etc.
- Read and discuss exemplary work (either as a group or learners on their own).
- Learners rate their own work (either a simple 1-10 or using a rubric), and write a sentence or two to justify their rating.
- Learners share with you their ratings and what they noticed when comparing their work to the example.
- Use those thoughts to plan an actionable path forward together.
Your role in this approach is mainly asking questions and helping learners to orient in the right direction. Learners have already laid the groundwork, allowing you to jump in at a high level.
Try video or audio feedback
One last time-saving option is to feedback with audio or video instead. In iQualify, you also have the option to give your feedback via video or audio. You could even hold a mini conference - a 5(ish) minute one-on-one opportunity to offer individualized instruction and feedback, fix misconceptions, build relationships, and give learners the opportunity to be heard. Any of the techniques above work equally well in audio or video form.
There is much more to facilitation and feedback than answering questions and giving marks. The techniques described above can work to the benefit of both the facilitator and the learner. You might find that not all will work with your personal facilitation style. But just choose one or two to try with your next class. Remember, you're the guide on the side so intervene less, intervene wisely, and get those learners involved.