The Importance of Feedback in the Learning Process

As a learning skills specialist, I am acutely aware of the importance of continual feedback in the learning process. In Learn Better, Ulrich Boser writes:

The best feedback mixes an observation with a structured way to produce the proper outcome.

Never did this idea become more obvious than when I was watching my 5-year-old son’s swimming lesson the other day. My son is in the process of learning the front crawl. During the lesson, his instructor would have him do a lap of the pool. Then she would point out something that could be done to improve my son’s technique. She used a variety of methods—demonstration, analogy, or hands-on—to show a specific aspect of the skill.

My son would listen attentively and sure enough, when he did his next lap of the pool, his technique improved. Once again, the instructor would provide feedback and guidance, focusing on a single technical component of the stroke. And on it went: lap, feedback, lap, feedback. I observed a marked difference in my son’s mechanics as the lesson progressed.

Whether it’s learning a new skill such as swimming when you’re five, driving a car when you’re a teenager, or conversing more diplomatically when you’re an adult, the value of feedback should not be overlooked. It is essential for mastering any skill.

Braving with Brené

I saw a book on our coffee table one day.

wilderness book
Cover of book Braving the Wilderness. Photo by M. Fleming

I recognized the author. A couple years ago, I had watched a TED talk she gave on vulnerability. It’s actually one of the most-viewed TED talks of all time.

Back to the book Braving the Wilderness, I asked the reader of the book on our coffee table if it was any good.

“I think you’d like it,” she said.

So I started reading.

“What do you think so far?” she asked.

“I’m not sure I can relate. I’ve never felt like a teenager girl who doesn’t fit in,” I said.

“Well, there must be times in your life when you feel you don’t belong,” she said.

“All the time! But it doesn’t really bother me.”

Well, yes and no.

Belonging to ourselves means being called to stand alone—to brave the wilderness of uncertainty, vulnerability, and criticism.

I have seen this wilderness.
I have been to this wilderness.
I have become this wilderness.

And you’re right, Brené:
It’s a difficult place.
It’s a desolate place.
It’s a lonely place.
It’s an unpleasant, painful, and awful place.

I try to run from this place.

Yet it pulls me back.

Because you’re right, Brené:
It’s a beautiful place.
It’s a mystical place.
It’s a daring place.
It’s an amazing, vibrant, and loving place.

It’s where I want to be.

Developing a Growth Mindset

A number of years ago when I was a number of years younger, I worked with a particularly challenging student. It seemed that it didn’t matter how many different ways I tried to explain a concept, she didn’t get it. If she did understand something, it seemed she forgot it the next day. I thought there would be no way she would pass a course.

But this particular challenging student who I worked with a number of years ago when I was a number years younger surprised me. She worked hard. She persisted. If she did poorly on a test, she worked harder. If she did well on a test, she worked harder. She persevered. Not only did she pass a course, she completed an entire college program.

I had misjudged her. I made the mistake of believing her abilities were fixed and that no amount of effort would help.

Whereas I had a fixed mindset, my student had a growth mindset.

Book Mindset: The new psychology of success.
Cover of the book mindset. Photo by M. Fleming

In her book Mindset, Carol S. Dweck writes:

This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts, your strategies, and help from others. Although people may differ in every which way—in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments—everyone can change and grow through application and experience.

This growth mindset is something I’d like to have. But it’s not something one has; it’s not a possession. Instead, I believe a growth mindset is something you constantly work towards. And I’m grateful that a particular challenging student in my past helped me realize this.

Three Lessons from a Life of Learning

At dinner the other night, my four-year-old son asked, “Dad, can I be whatever I want when I grow up?”

I said, “Yeah, pretty much.”

He got really excited. “Then I’m going to be a builder, a fixer, a machine driver, a baker, and a pirate!”

Sometimes, as adults, we lose sight of this simple innate desire: to be someone that we look up to and to do something that we look forward to.

It’s been said by people who say things that a key to happiness is the pursuit of goals. It’s my belief that there’s no better way to pursue these goals than to immerse yourself into the vat of life-long learning.

Coincidentally, I’ve been a life-long learner my entire life, and I’ve made some discoveries while swimming in the vat.

First, it’s okay to ask for help. I’ve always told students there’s no need to feel embarrassed about getting assistance. Even the best athletes in the world have coaches! Recently, I had to take my own advice. I was struggling with a graduate-level mathematics course in proofs and was reluctant to seek help. Once I asked my instructor for help, I immediately felt better, and her guidance helped me achieve success. A willingness to ask for help is a character strength, not a flaw.

Second, keep the long-term goal in mind. Sometimes when we’re overwhelmed by life’s demands or struggling to stay motivated, it’s easy to lose sight of a distant goal. Remember the ultimate reason why you’re studying to be a pirate. You want to be rich. You want to be respected. You want to fend off rodents of unusual sizes as you protect Buttercup in the Fire Swamp. Remembering the final objective helps during difficult times.

Third, embrace challenges and learn from them. Einstein said that instead of pursuing goals that are easily achieved, we need to pursue goals that are challenging and require effort. There is greater potential for learning when tasks are difficult. There is greater potential for growing when we make mistakes. Even though you may not dream of being a pirate, you have a dream residing in the core of your being to become something better than your current self. Challenge yourself. Learn from your mistakes. Become a life-long learner. Realize your dream.