Good Teaching Matters, pt. 4: Practice and Feedback

Dr. Barbara Martin, a former professor in the College of Education at the University of Central Florida and at Kent State University in educational technology and educational psychology, specializes in instructional design (ISD), criterion-referenced testing, evaluation strategies, distance education, and instructional theory. She has written articles on ISD and educational technology, including a book on designing instruction for affective behaviors.

In part 4 of this five-part series, Good Teaching Matters: five teaching practices to improve the quality of a training course, Barbara shares her expertise and experiences aligning technical information with effective training.   Whether you’re an educator or a student, you’ll want to read Martin’s piece on five important teaching practices that can improve the quality of a training course.

“If teaching were the same as telling, we’d all be so smart we could hardly stand ourselves!” But it’s not; teaching isn’t the same as telling.

In the last two columns, I discussed (1) the importance of establishing observable and measurable objectives; and (2) writing assessment instruments, (e.g. tests, checklists), to determine whether students have mastered the desired competencies. Once this road map to learning is prepared, it’s time to decide how to best present the information to students.

What is the best way to present information to students?

That’s a loaded question because there is not one best way.  However, there are some principles to keep in mind when planning in-class activities.  I’ve included three as a guide.

Principle #1:  Students must be actively involved with the content to learn. Many times, subject matter and technical experts focus on how much content they must present.  They often see instruction as a one-way information flow from instructor to student. Even when the instructor encourages questions and involves students in practical labs, the majority of classroom time is often spent telling students about the content. This is called the “spray and pray” method of instruction:  spray the students with information and pray that they get it. Even labs focus on demonstration.  However, it’s always better when learners interact with the content.  This means students are mentally engaged, but do not have to be physically involved.  That is, they must practice.

A better strategy than “spray and pray” is to spend a good deal of time developing application and problem-based activities so that students can try out their new learning. In-depth content explanations can spring from questions and issues that arise during student practice. For example, rather than explaining what is wrong with a defective PV, solar thermal, or wind  system, ask students to identify where the problems are and make suggestions about how to correct those problems.  As the instructor, you can use students’ strengths and weaknesses about the content to help them learn more.

Principle #2:  Use examples rather than explanations to teach. Let teaching come from students’ needs and understandings while they are working with examples in a problem-solving or decision-making mode.

When students are actively engaged with content, they tend to learn more if they also receive feedback.  There are two primary types of feedback:  confirming and corrective.  When using confirming feedback, instructors are acknowledging that the student “got it right.”  Students often already know if s/he got it correct, but reinforcing the students by saying, “good job,”  “perfect,” “that’s right on target,” confirms that the student has learned what was intended.

Corrective, is actually a continuation of the teaching process where the instructor points out the students’ errors or misunderstandings.  This helps the students reorganize their knowledge and thinking.  Once students comprehend their mistakes, it is important to give them another problem to solve to make sure they can correctly apply what they have learned in a new situation.

Principle #3:  Use both confirming and corrective feedback to insure student learning.

Here is a list of some of the learning activities and strategies you can use to promote practice and feedback.  Encourage students to:  answer questions, engage in case studies, do scenario- or problem-based exercises, respond to troubleshooting examples, and participate in hands-on labs.  All these are designed to let learners practice new skills. Using practice and feedback is especially important where a process is complex. A good strategy is to provide lots of examples at all difficulty levels.  Remember, when a student fails to understand an idea, an example with explanation is more likely to clarify the issue than an explanation alone.

The bottom line?  Practice makes perfect. If you want your students to be able to perform correctly on the job, they need the time to practice and learn from their mistakes.  Ideally, we want their failures to happen in the classroom, not on the job. In providing job-related examples, you are building in time for students to practice what they are learning and to get feedback about how well they are doing, how much they know, and how proficient they are in using analytical skills. Both practice and feedback are essential for learning.  A wonderful by-product of teaching this way is that instructors, as well as students, are actively engaged.

In summary, teaching is not the same as telling!  Use practice and feedback as often as you can with a variety of examples at different difficulty levels. Not only will students learn, they will also enjoy the process.

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