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What’s A Feedback Loop In Learning? A Definition For Teachers

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What’s a feedback loop?

What’s A Feedback Loop In Learning? A Definition For Teachers

by Terry Heick

A feedback loop in learning is a cause-effect sequence where data (often in the form of an ‘event’) is responded to based on recognition of an outcome and that data is used to inform future decisions in similar or analogous situations.

In everyday life, feedback loops for each of us occur naturally–usually in the form, ‘When I do X, Y happens.’ That’s a kind of feedback loop in the learning process.

In fact, it’s at the core of the learning process and how the human brain learns.

The Definition Of A Feedback Loop

Feedback loops are important parts of machines, electrical circuits, computer coding, statistical analysis, and economic processes but are often associated with geoscience and natural ‘systems’–namely biological processes from evolutionary science to cellular biology, ecosystems, and more.

For our purposes, we’re going to focus on the human brain as a kind of computer. So rather than think of a person learning, we’re going to think of a brain learning. The brain is a kind of computer where input becomes outputs. The processes through which this occurs are largely predictable. The brain has identifiable qualities (such as the the cognitive load theory) and characteristics that as teachers we have recognized and use to help students learn more effectively.

Critical in understanding feedback and feedback loops is understanding the structure and shape of feedback loops, something I’ll cover in a separate post. For now, let’s focus on a broad definition of feedback loops so that we can begin to understand their role in learning. Later, we can look more closely at the different types of feedback loops and their distinctive shapes, and then follow that up with strategies for implementing them into your classroom, curriculum, instructional design, eLearning, and other related areas.

According to Wikipedia, in a feedback loop the ‘feedback’ occurs when “outputs of a system are routed back as inputs as part of a chain of cause-and-effect that forms a circuit or loop.”

This is true because of the nature of these systems as self-regulating. The article continues, “A feedback loop is the part of a system in which some portion (or all) of the system’s output is used as input for future operations. Feedback loops can be either negative or positive. Negative feedback loops are self-regulating and useful for and maintaining an optimal state within specific boundaries.”

Four Steps Of A Simple Feedback Loop

A feedback loop is the part of a system in which some portion of that system’s output is used as input for future behavior. Generally, feedback loops have four stages.

Step 1: The learner receives ‘input’—as an external stimulus or observation of some kind, for example

Step 2: That input is stored as data

Step 3: That data is analyzed and conclusions are drawn by the learner

Step 4: The learner anticipates future application of those takeaways in future decisions

That’s a feedback loop.

And that feedback loop—coupled with an ongoing and fluid system of increasingly complex pattern recognition—is how the human brain learns.

Five Basic Examples Of Feedback Loops

So, how about some simple examples of very basic feedback loops?

When I go to bed early (the event), I feel well-rested (the outcome).

When I flip a light switch on (event), the light comes on (outcome)

When I touch something hot (event), I burn my hand (outcome).

When I don’t pay a bill on time (event), I am charged a fee (outcome).

When I eat poorly (event), I gain weight (outcome).

What’s a feedback loop?

The Timing Of Feedback Loops

Generally speaking, the shorter the duration of time between an event and a learner’s recognition of that ‘event’, the more effective the feedback loop is for learning.

The last example above is useful in understanding this and the general importance of timing in effective feedback loops.

When I eat poorly (event), I gain weight (outcome).

The outcome is a ‘data’ that you can use to inform future behavior. When you eat poorly, you don’t gain weight right away. For most people, it takes weeks or longer for poor eating habits to result in observable, sustained weight gain. This makes the cause-effect less noticeable and even when it’s ‘known,’ the psychological effect of the ‘knowing’ is reduced.

This is a poor feedback loop.

Consider a slightly ‘tighter’ feedback loop: When I eat spicy food, I experience heartburn. The duration is shorter, which makes the behavior easier to adjust.

Or, consider an example even more direct: When I eat hot food, I burn my mouth. This ‘learning feedback’ here is almost instant. As far as effective learning experiences go, it’s about perfect.

And so it’s easy to see how extraordinarily effective well-timed feedback is in learning. You avoid hot food because the pain is immediate and memorable even though the impact on your health and well-being is generally worse than a minor burn on your tongue.

For weight gain, the feedback loop is just too indirect and ‘loose’ to hold our attention without strong discipline–or healthy habits to begin with that don’t require moment-by-moment ‘discipline.’

For feedback loops to be effective, a lot of other elements have to exist–cues, observation, recognition, and memory among others. I’ll write more about these soon.

As far as what this looks like in your classroom, that’s also a much longer topic I’ll address in a follow-up post, but for now, consider how you respond to student behavior, respond to writing, or grade quizzes and exams.

What’s A Feedback Loop In Learning? A Definition For Teachers

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Four Stages Of A Self-Directed Learning Model

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self-directed learning stagesFour Stages Of A Self-Directed Learning Model

by TeachThought Staff

Self-Directed Learning is not new–but is perhaps misunderstood.

In the linked post above, Terry Heick wondered about the relationship between self-directed learning and the purpose of education:

The goal of the model isn’t content knowledge (though it should produce that), but rather something closer to wisdom–learning how to learn, understanding what’s worth understanding, and perhaps most importantly, analyzing the purpose of learning (e.g., personal and social change). It also encourages the student to examine the relationship between study and work–an authentic ‘need to know’ with important abstractions like citizenship and legacy.

Studied in terms of adult education and vocation for years, self-directed learning is increasing in popularity for a variety of reasons, including growing dissatisfaction with public schooling, and the rich formal and informal learning materials available online. This is the ‘age of information’ after all.

Self-directed learning is one response, something slideshare user Barbara Stokes captures in this chart, based on the model by Gerald Grow. The four stages–very similar to the gradual release of responsibility model–appear below.

The Four Stages Of The Self-Directed Learning Model

Learner                            Teacher

Stage 1   Dependent        Authority, Coach

Examples: Coaching with immediate feedback. Drill. Informational lecture. Overcoming deficiencies and resistance.

Stage 2:  Interested          Motivator, Guide

Examples: Inspiring lecture plus guided discussion. Goal-seting and learning strategies.

Stage 3:  Involved             Facilitator

Examples: Discussion faciliated by teacher who participates as equal. Seminar. Group projects.

Stage 4:  Self-Directed     Consultant, Delegator

Examples: Internship, dissertation, individual work or self-directed study group.

Theories of Teaching and Learning: The Staged Self-Directed Learning Model, G.Grow. from Barbara Stokes; Four Stages Of A  Self-Directed Learning Model

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The Benefits Of Competency-Based Assessment

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The Benefits Of Competency-Based Assessment

contributed by David Garrick, Dean of Graduate School of Education, UCDS College for School Culture

The general idea behind a competency-based assessment is that it provides students and families with specific feedback about student performance that can lead to a clearer understanding of progress and skills gained over time.

As Dean of the Graduate School of Education at the UCDS College for School Culture, I’ve gained a unique perspective on the possibilities that competency-based assessment can provide. Students who attend University Child Development School (UCDS) in Seattle don’t earn A’s, B’s, or F’s. Instead, student assessments are communicated through our own set of competency-based continua for various subjects.

These continua, paired with narrative communication with students and families, make up the school’s framework for assessment, based on skill progressions. I’ve seen the benefits first-hand in Pre-K through elementary classrooms, and also in training at the graduate level.  

By providing specific information about the academic and social skills students exhibit, schools provide detailed and actionable information. This empowers students in their learning and educators in their teaching practices. Here’s a general overview of the benefits of competency-based assessment.

Building Competency-Based Assessments: The Benefits

1. Improved clarity & transparency

Greater clarity allows teachers and families to identify areas of strength and areas where students may need additional support. In all cases, these assessments provide teachers with detailed knowledge about student progress that can be used to build individualized goals and educational plans.

In addition to evaluating proficiency in these domains, teachers should regularly share comprehensive feedback individual student accomplishments and struggles. For example, UCDS teachers provide narrative commentary to families where they focus on how a student engages within each domain, as well as notable accomplishments and struggles.

Focusing on comprehensive feedback brings clarity to the learner, and clarity to the family about what’s happening in the classroom. Letter grades don’t show the full picture (suggesting alternatives to letter grades), and a competency-based model is better equipped to provide students, families and future schools with clear information about each student’s social and academic progress.

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2. More seamless personalization of learning

Through Competency-Based Learning, educators have a better chance to provide a deeper view into each student’s learning attitudes and strategies and can provide resources that best support individual needs. This type of information is key to understanding the unique modes, strategies, and coaching to which each student responds best. This is the foundation of personalized learning.

3. It helps shift towards a culture of assessment

To successfully adopt competency-based strategies, teachers and administrators must first reevaluate assessment. While traditional forms of assessment (i.e., exams and quizzes) are valuable when placing students on a general scale of progress, they don’t show the whole picture. Making changes to assessment can be daunting for some educators, especially those who have been using traditional assessment practices throughout their career. It can also be a shift for parents to evaluate their student’s performance without a grade.

It’s important that teachers pursue resources and professional development that introduce different methods of assessing student progress, and why they hold value. As every teacher knows, the learning never stops – and by staying on top of current trends, curriculum can be adapted to meet every students’ needs.

4. Students better understand their own learning profile

Through comprehensive, competency-based assessment methods, teachers can help students to reach college and career readiness with greater self-knowledge about their learning approaches and needs. Working from a continuum of skills ensures that every student is being challenged in a way that is appropriate to what they want and need to learn and that educators can give individualized support as needed to help them move forward.

Removing the stress of being placed on a tiered grading scale shifts the focus back to learning, while building the confidence to make mistakes. Students take ownership of their learning. They feel empowered when mastering a skill and learn to identify what’s next.

Conclusion

For teachers, competency-based assessment brings depth and value to curriculum. With the focus shifted away from letters and percentages, students become more involved in long-term progress and are more apt to become engaged and take risks while learning.

Ranking students based on undefined competencies and then using that rank to determine their future prospects and contributions is a practice best left to past eras. Competency-based assessment provides more detailed information that promotes better-targeted teaching and learning for all parties involved.  

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5 Learning Strategies That Make Students Curious

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Causing curiosity in students boils down to knowing that student.

5 Learning Strategies That Make Students Curious

by Terry Heick

Understanding where curiosity comes from is the holy grail of education.

Education, of course, is different than learning but both depend on curiosity.

Education implies a formal, systematic, and strategic intent to cause learning. In this case, content to be learned is identified, learning experiences are planned, learning results are assessed, and data from said assessments play some role in the planning of new learning experiences. Learning strategies are applied, and snapshots of understanding are taken as frequently as possible.

This approach is clinical and more than a smidgeon scientific. It arrests emotion and spontaneity in pursuit of planning and precision, a logical trade in the eyes of science.

Of course, very little about learning is scientific. While data, goals, assessment, and planning should all play a role in any system that purports to actually accomplish anything, learning and education are fundamentally different. The former is messy and personal, painful and fantastic. The latter attempts to assimilate the former—or at least streamline it as much as possible in the name of efficiency.

An analogy might help. (I love teaching with analogies.)

learning : education :: true love : dating service

True love may very well come from a dating service, and dating services do all they can to make it happen, but in the end—well, there’s a fair bit of hocus pocus at work behind it all.

Hubris & Education

Education is simultaneously the most noble and hubristic of all endeavors. There are two minds to every educator. This may all reek of sensationalism, but watch anyone at play, honing a craft, lost in a book, or engaged in a digital simulation and you’ll see a completely different person—one there physically, but far removed in spirit.

In a better place.

Causing this in a classroom is possible, but is as often the result of good fortune than good planning. The best substitutes that can masquerade as curiosity are dutiful compliance and engagement. Neither of these are curiosity, which has among its sources a strong sense of volition, accountability, and curiosity.

Here, let me try.

I want to show you what I can do.

I want to know.

And that last one—a sign of curiosity–is a bugger, one we’ve talked about before. Like the caffeine in coffee, the chords on a guitar, or the wet in water, genuine curiosity is not a thing, it’s the thing.

Not temporarily wanting to know, or being vaguely interested in an answer, but being able to put together past experience and knowledge like the millions of fibers on a network–only to be maddeningly stopped from branching further without understanding or knowing this one bit.

Like stopping an incredible movie right at the climax—that awful, crazy feeling inside would be unfulfilled curiosity—and it’d just kill you not to know. But where does it come from?

And can you consistently cause it in a learner?

If formal learning environments driven by outcomes-based systems have taught us nothing else, it’s that while we often can “cause” something to happen in learner, it is only by considerable effort, resources, and angst.

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But we certainly can create ideal conditions where natural curiosity can begin to grow. What we do when it happens—and disrupts our planned lessons and tidy little units—is another story altogether.

5 Things That Make Students Curious

1. Revisit Old Questions

The simplest curiosities arise from old questions that were never fully answered, or that no attempt to answer was made.

Of course, any question worth its salt is never ‘fully answered’ any more than a good conversation is ever finished, but as we learn and reflect and grow, old answers can look positively awkward, as they are bound by old knowledge.

Strategy to actuate: Revisit old questions—through a journal prompt, Socrative discussion, QFT (Question Formulation Technique), or even a fishbowl discussion. And also revisit the thinking from the first go-round to see what has changed.

2. Model & Promote Ambition

Ambition precedes curiosity. Without wanting to advance in position, thinking, or design, curiosity is simply a biological and neurological reaction to stimulus. But ambition is what makes us human, and its fraternal twin is curiosity.

Strategy to actuate: Well thought-out mentoring, peer-to-peer modeling, Project-Based Learning and a genuine ‘need to know.’

3. Play

A learner at play is a signal that there is a comfortable mind focused on a fully-internalized goal.

It may or may not be the same goal as those given externally, but play is hypnotic and more efficient than the most well-planned instructional sequence. A learner playing and learning through play, nearly by definition, is curious about something, or otherwise they’re simply manipulating bits and pieces mindlessly.

Strategy to actuate: Game-Based Learning and learning games and simulations like Armadillo Run, Civilization VI, Bridge Constructor, and Age of Empires all empower the learner to play. Same with Challenge-Based learning and other forms of learning.

4. The Right Collaboration At The Right Time

Seeing what is possible modeled by peers is powerful stuff for learners. Some may not be initially curious about content, but seeing what peers accomplish can be a powerful actuator for curiosity. How did they do this? How might I do what they did in my own way? Which of these ideas I’m seeing are valuable to me—right here, right now–and which are not?

Strategy to actuate: Grouping is not necessarily collaboration. To actuate collaboration, and thus curiosity, students must have a genuine need for another resource, idea, perspective, or something else otherwise not immediately available to them. Cause them to need something, not simply to finish an assignment, but to achieve the goal they set for themselves.

5. Use Diverse & Unpredictable Content

Diverse content is likely the most accessible pathway to at least a modicum of curiosity from learners. New projects, new games, new novels, new poets, new things to think about.

Strategy to actuate: Invite the learners to understand the need for a resource or bit of content and have them source it. Instant diversity class-wide, and likely divergence from where you were going with it all. At worst you’ve got engaged learners, and a real shot at curiosity.

5 Learning Strategies That Make Students Curious

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