September 15th, 2020 Course Creation

Should you tell your learners right away when they’re wrong, or do you let them work it out on their own?

Delivering assessment is a key component of any online course. It’s how learners and instructors alike measure progress and identify areas that require more learning. Sometimes assessments come in the form of direct feedback, like telling a learner if they’re right or wrong. In other situations, such as scenario-based learning, the feedback can come indirectly through consequences, such as a customer in a scenario growing angry and needing to be calmed down.

Assessment is a tool for instruction. For instance, it seems obvious if you’re giving learners a short micro quiz at the end of a lesson, you’d clearly want to tell learners which problems they got right and which they got wrong. However, you could improve your assessment by also giving them the reason for why they got an answer right or wrong.

On the other hand, using hints and indirect feedback can help a learner think more creatively about how to solve a problem. Indirect, consequence-based feedback is also more realistic, as there are rarely situations in life where a learner will be told directly when they’re wrong. Here’s how to understand when to use different feedback methods for your course.

Feedback: How quickly do you tell your learner the answer?

Direct feedback is usually used in situations that have an obvious right or wrong answer. This is probably also the most common assessment type you’ll use in your course, as it’s what forms the backbone of a lot of quiz types.

It’s common wisdom that the faster you can flag a mistake the better it is for the learner. If you wait longer to tell a learner that they’ve made an error, then they’re more likely to learn the error and will have a hard time replacing the bad knowledge with the good.

In my own experience, immediate feedback has been most crucial in language learning, where mistakes in grammar or vocab can stick quite quickly, and be frustrating and difficult to un-learn.

However, this isn’t always the case. While immediate feedback prevents a mistake from sinking in, it can also be a crutch that causes learners to become sloppy in how they answer questions. Delaying feedback leads to better outcomes for the learner when it helps them to be more careful with their work.

Immediate feedback is best when you need to train learners to form a habit or instinct, or when the learner needs to memorize information and can’t risk incorrectly memorizing a wrong answer. Delayed feedback is best when learners need to practice certain levels of caution and fact-checking.

Situations that require immediate feedback:

  • A learner makes a grammar or vocabulary errors in language learning.
  • An employee misses a step in a compliance training scenario.
  • A musician plays the wrong note in a piece of music.

Situations that require delayed feedback:

  • A learner needs to find their mistake in a complex math problem.
  • The learner needs to identify a flaw in the way they’ve set up a research experiment.
  • The learner needs to find a certain number of typos in a report.

Consequences: How long do you let a learner work out a problem on their own?

An indirect way of offering learners feedback is through consequences, which usually come up in training scenarios. Consequences let learners know that they’ve made a misstep along the way, but won’t let them know immediately how to fix it. Instead, learners have to interpret the consequence and think of what they might have done to avoid the problem earlier.

Like direct feedback, consequences can also be either delayed or immediate. Immediate consequences are usually used in intense situations where a learner must be able to think on their feet and doesn’t have time for deliberation.

For example, if you’re training customer service employees, a scenario designed to help them respond to an unhappy customer should use immediate consequences. This will help a learner quickly understand which responses will upset a customer and which will sooth them.

In real life, these consequences for certain decisions aren’t usually so obvious. Sometimes, what can seem like a good decision at first comes to have negative effects further down the line.

My favorite example of this is with chess, where a seemingly good move early in the game can lead to unexpected vulnerabilities later. Part of becoming a better chess player means taking the time to trace back one’s decisions to find which were responsible for a bad board position.

Learning scenarios that benefit from immediate consequences:

  • A learner makes a social blunder in a business meeting scenario.
  • A firefighter chooses a poor response in an emergency training scenario.
  • A pilot trainee chooses the wrong option in a flight simulation.

Learning scenarios that benefit from delayed consequences:

  • A learner makes a strategy error during a chess puzzle that leads to poor board position.
  • A leader-in-training chooses a response that earns short-term good will at the expense of later effectiveness.
  • A learner in a financial planning course makes a poor budgeting decision.

Give immediate responses to reinforce instincts, and use delayed responses to promote thoughtfulness.

Assessments in any online course should be designed to help learners understand their mistakes and learn from them. However, the kind of response you give will affect how learners process that feedback.

Immediate feedback focuses on the what. It doesn’t leave a lot of time for learners to think about why they were wrong—and that can often be a good thing! If you’re trying to train someone to respond quickly and without thinking, immediate feedback will drill the right action into a learner’s head until it is second nature to do the correct thing.

However, there are plenty of cases where we want learners to think through what they’re doing so that they can form a deeper understanding of the material. This is important for training learners to consider long-term ramifications of their decisions, or to think through hidden consequences that may not be immediately apparent.

So, if your learners need to respond without thinking, the faster you can deliver feedback the better. If you want learners to understand immediately when they’ve made a mistake but still want them to work the answer out on their own, give them immediate consequences. If you want learners to take extra care in checking their work, use delayed feedback, and if you want them to focus on the big picture impact of their decisions, use delayed consequences.

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