Young people’s expectations for feedback

The Brilliant Blog

Annie Murphy Paul

In general, I’m skeptical of generational arguments in education: that common line of reasoning that goes, “Millennials [or Generation Y or digital natives or . . . ] have grown up doing X, so we in education need to do X, too, to maintain their attention and engagement.”

If X isn’t supported by research on how people actually learn, then doing more of it isn’t a good idea, no matter how comfortable it makes young people feel. (See, for example, the negative consequences of multitasking while learning.)

But sometimes the young people are onto something. That’s the argument of Scott Warnock, English professor and director of the Writing Center at Drexel University, and I think he’s right. In a post on the blog Faculty Focus, Warnock describes the lived reality of our students:

“After going out for tacos, our students can review the restaurant on a website. They watch audiences reach a verdict on talent each season on American Idol. When they play video games—and they play them a lot—their screens are filled with status and reward metrics. And after (and sometimes while) taking our classes, they can go online to

It may surprise us to think of it like this, but today’s students grew up in a culture of routine assessment and feedback. Yet when they click (or walk) into our courses, the experience is often quite different: there are few high-stakes grades, big exams, or one-shot term papers.”

Yes, our students have grown up in a culture of continual feedback—and more important, they’re right to feel that such continual feedback is essential to improvement and progress. Too often, our current testing regime offers little or no feedback all semester long, then inflicts a high-stakes assessment at the end of the year—and even then doesn’t offer much feedback beyond a rather uninformative numerical score, delivered weeks or months later. From a science of learning perspective, this makes no sense.

Scott Warnock advises instructors to implement what he calls frequent, low-stakes (FLS) grading—”simple course evaluation methods that allow you to provide students with many grades so that an individual grade doesn’t mean much.” I like his account of the benefits of such an approach:

It creates dialogue. Frequent grades can establish a productive student-teacher conversation, and students have an ongoing answer to the question, ‘How am I doing?’

It builds confidence. Students have many opportunities to succeed, and there is a consistent, predictable, open evaluation structure.

It increases motivation. FLS grading fits into students’ conceptions—and, perhaps, expectations—of assessment and evaluation: This is the culture they grew up in!”

The affirmative testing approach recommends frequent low- or no-stakes testing as a support for student recall and retention, as well as a source of feedback that allows students to spot gaps in their knowledge, correct misconceptions, and track their progress toward their goals.

This practice of continual feedback is, as Scott Warnock notes, what young people want and expect. And in this case, they’re absolutely right.

In the e-course I launched earlier this week, Turn Testing Into Learning, I provide step-by-step instructions on how to use feedback to create dialogue, build confidence, and increase motivation.

You can try out a sample lesson by clicking here.

You can read about the course as a whole by clicking here.


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