Higher-ed leaders and instructors should rethink how students receive formative feedback--technology can play a role in making that possible

Why feedback is critical for your institution’s students


Higher-ed leaders and instructors should rethink how students receive formative feedback--technology can play a role in making that possible

Every predator in the animal kingdom who has ever gone after a brightly colored tree frog learns almost immediately not to do it again. And any human being who has ever touched a hot stove realizes how quickly the world around us can give us feedback. But as any college instructor knows well, feedback in the educational context doesn’t always happen as quickly. 

Tests and essays can take several days or even weeks to grade. In some cases, students don’t get feedback on an assignment until after they’ve already turned in the next one. In large classes where students are required to post and reply on topics in LMS discussion forums, the sheer volume of comments makes it almost impossible for professors to give timely and thorough feedback. Of course, there’s some feedback that works just as well or better with some delay–like holistic guidance over the course of a semester. But formative feedback, which responds to specific actions that students are taking, should be given in real time.

Unfortunately, most tools we use in the classroom fall short of that standard. Consider the LMS discussion forum, a platform ostensibly designed to help students improve their writing while engaging with one another. But as anyone who’s moderated such a forum knows, they often end up just “checking a box,” and in doing so enforcing a particular pedagogy: one that is designed around completing tasks rather than learning, practicing, and improving.

What would it look like if technology tools like discussion forums were a place where students could expect to receive timely and meaningful feedback that made each new post better than the last?

As colleges and universities shift from crisis-buying tech products toward making more permanent integrations that blend the virtual and physical classroom, we must take stock of which tech is worth stretching tight budgets for institutions and students alike. And if we’re encouraging instructors to provide high-quality feedback as part of a world-class teaching and learning experience, shouldn’t we be holding technology to the same best practices?

In my own work, I’ve seen that artificial intelligence makes it possible to build smart discussion communities where feedback is quick and meaningful. At the University of North Texas, we have spent the past few years conducting research into how an AI-driven discussion platform affects student learning outcomes and instructor workflow.  

What we’ve found is that the best discussion forums act more like a combination of social networking site and digital teaching assistant. That means they use AI to administer and moderate online discussion forums and track student participation–while also providing real-time feedback as students write discussion posts.  The particular platform we studied, Packback, also incentivizes student engagement by assigning each discussion forum post a “curiosity score” calculated by considering the clarity and credibility of each post and the effort that went into it. Posts that use multiple relevant and reliable sources–news articles, commentary, images and video–to clearly support an argument get higher scores. The result is friendly competition among students in the class–but also motivation that encourages students to get the best out of a discussion forum.

Our initial research findings have been encouraging. A comparison of two different online discussion platforms found that students who used Packback cited a lot more sources than students who used the other platform. It also appears that the real-time feedback feature, which suggests how responses can be improved with supporting evidence, is an effective way to push students to go beyond their gut reactions and marshal facts and figures to back up their arguments. That’s crucial for developing curiosity and communication skills–which are crucial for students’ success not only in the classroom, but also in the workplace. 

Education technology is a useful tool for enhancing teaching, learning and assessment. Done right, AI-powered software can give valuable feedback to help college students learn more and further develop their talents.

It’s clear by now that technology will be integrated into most every facet of the college academic experience. As institutions of higher education move beyond the pandemic and look for long-term edtech upgrades, they must ensure that the software they invest in truly empowers their students to be stronger writers and thinkers.

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