Better feedback? Level up.

@witty_knitter has been tweeting this morning from a feedback in science education forum, and of particular interest to me has been the need for immediacy and relevance of feedback balanced with the practicalities of very large cohorts. It has long been realised that timely feedback is difficult to provide on essay-based assessments and paper exams, and most people’s solution to this has been LMS-based multiple choice quizzes. M-H’s tweet below highlighted the issue nicely:

[blackbirdpie url=”!/witty_knitter/status/96754596097179650″]


A following tweet referred to a unit with a cohort of 1200 enrolled – how on earth do we balance students’ desire for interactivity and personalised and immediate feedback with the practicalities of managing such large numbers?

My answer? Games.

WoW has an enrolled cohort of 11.4 million. Angry Birds has 12 million on iOS alone.  Yet each of these ‘students’ gets immediate, rich and personalised feedback on every action. The level of interaction is huge and tests far beyond basic recall, yet the system is completely automated from a ‘teacher’ point of view. The ‘marking’ load is nil, yet ‘students’ are completely satisfied. It might not be possible for you to use commercial games or to design a serious game with a UI on par with commercial games, but even borrowing a few simple concepts from gaming can solve many of the current issues with feedback:

  • Level structure/quest chains – most LMSs now support conditional/selective release criteria, and the simple act of having to complete one task before accessing another is an effective feedback mechanism. Some systems additionally allow you to stream activity release based on certain criteria (grades etc), allowing a degree of personalisation of feedback.
  • Exploratory environments – hide things. Don’t tell students where or how to do every task in the unit. Finding an item or process is a reward for effort, and that reward is a feedback mechanism, with built-in win conditions that let students know how they’re tracking.
  • Competition – don’t be afraid to let students compare themselves (whether in forums, via completion tracking, gradebook etc). When success/failure conditions are low-stakes (moving to next level, locating a resource), competition can be an extremely effective feedback mechanism.
  • Wisdom of crowds – use informal peer review as a feedback mechanism. I can guarantee there will be at least one student who is online more frequently than you are – use that immediacy to your advantage.

For those of you reading that list and thinking ‘Yes, but how do I…’ (or even better, ‘why would I…’), I have a quest for you. Next unit you run, provide a simple introductory activity (forum introduction, 3-question prior knowledge quiz etc etc) and make your unit information dependent on its completion (ie the first activity must be done to ‘unlock’ the unit information document). If your LMS doesn’t support conditional or selective release, ‘hide’ your unit information document somewhere unexpected and ask students to find it. See what your students think*. Use it to kickstart a discussion on how students feel about feedback. It’s simple to build and low-commitment, but might just get the ball rolling on an improved feedback workflow for both teachers and students.

*Expect some of your students to hate it, vocally and repeatedly. They will get over it. My philosophy in regards to change and innovation in teaching and learning is ‘illegitimi non carborundum’ (don’t let the bastards grind you down) – in other words, don’t let the whingers be your reason for not trying something new.

2 Replies to “Better feedback? Level up.”

  1. Actually the cohort was **2000**! Several first year Units of Study at Sydney have cohorts this size.

    I agree with the use of conditional release. There are many creative ways to use this tool to structure the information you’re providing students, and the tasks that you want them to undertake.

    AS for games, one of the huge first-year units (Chemistry) organised a treasure hunt for students (partly using the LMS and partly walking in the Real World) that was published here: There are lots of other fun activities for junior science students published in that journal.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *