A Synopsis of “How Learning Works” (Part 5 of 7): Goal-directed Practice Coupled with Targeted Feedback Enhances the Quality of Students’ Learning


by Cory Budischak
Energy Management Department
Delaware Technical Community College
Stanton Campus

This is part five of my seven part synopsis of How Learning Works by Susan Ambrose et al.Read the previous posts here. Today, I’ll be examining the fifth principle proposed in the book: Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances the quality of students’ learning. As in previous posts, I’ll start by summarizing the authors’ analysis of this principle based on three questions. After that, I’ll address a fourth question of my own: How do I plan to incorporate this into my own instruction?

1. What are examples of learning issues that this principle can address?

These are the two examples from the book:

“I teach a public policy course to juniors, and I believe strong communication skills are essential to moving up the ranks in the public sector. As a result, I require my students to write frequently. The three papers I assign focus on the different types of writing my students will potentially do: a policy briefing, a persuasive memo to their boss, and an editorial for a newspaper. I had expected the students’ writing on these assignments to be at least decent because all of our students are required to take two writing courses in their first year. Then, when I saw the serious problems in their first papers, I thought at least I could help them improve. So I have been spending an enormous amount of time grading and writing margin comments throughout their papers, but it does not seem to be doing any good: the second and third assignments are just as bad as the first. As much as I think these assignments are useful because they prepare students for their future professional lives, I am ready to nix them because the students’ writing is so poor and my efforts are bringing about little or no improvement.”

“Last semester, when I taught Medical Anthropology, the students’ research presentations were all glitz and very little substance. So this time, because this project is worth 50 percent of their final grade, I tried to forewarn my students: “Do not be seduced by technology; focus on substantive anthropological arguments and create engaging presentations.” And yet, it happened again. Last Tuesday, student after student got up in front of the class with what they believed to be engaging presentations–fancy fonts in their PowerPoint slides, lots of pictures swishing on and off the screen, embedded video clips, and so on. It was clear they had spent hours perfecting the visuals. Unfortunately, although their presentations were visually stunning, the content was very weak. Some of the students had not done thorough research, and those who did tended merely to describe their findings rather than craft an argument. In other cases, students’ arguments were not supported by sufficient evidence, and most of the images they included were not even connected to the research findings. I thought I was clear in telling them what I wanted and did not want. What is it going to take to make them listen?”

2. What does research say about this principle?

The book sums up this research with Figure 5.1 (see below). As you can see, goals should be the center of practice, feedback, and observed performance. There are a couple key points that this figure conveys. First, feedback must must come in a reasonable size. One common mistake is that instructors provide excessive amounts of feedback instead of providing a few main points of feedback for the student to concentrate on. You can see an example of this in the first story above. Second, goals must direct practice, but this means that the goals must be clear to the student. Sometimes, a goal may mean something very different to an expert (the instructor), than to a novice (the student). This is why clearly stated measurable goals (CCPOs and MPOs at Delaware Tech), as well as rubrics that align with these goals, are crucial to directing practice. Third, the appropriate level of practice should be chosen—that is, a level which is “reasonable yet challenging”. Finally, according to Ambrose et al., feedback is most beneficial when it is targeted, which means that “it explicitly communicates to students about some specific aspects of their performance relative to specific target criteria, and when it provides information that helps students progress toward meeting those criteria.”

Figure 5.1

3. How can instructors teach with this principle in mind?

These are the strategies the book recommends to teach with this principle in mind (the suggestions are headings from the book):

  • Conduct a prior knowledge assessment to target and appropriate challenge level
  • Be more explicit about your goals in your course materials
  • Use a rubric to specify and communicate performance criteria
  • Build in multiple opportunities for practice
  • Build scaffolding into assignments
  • Set expectations about practice
  • Give examples or models of target performance
  • Show Students What You Do Not Want
  • Refine your goals and performance criteria as the course progresses
  • Look for patterns of errors in student work
  • Prioritize your feedback
  • Balance strengths and weaknesses in your feedback
  • Design frequent opportunities to give feedback
  • Provide feedback at the group level
  • Provide real-time feedback at the group level
  • Incorporate peer feedback
  • Require students to specify how they used feedback in subsequent work

4. How do I plan to incorporate this into my instruction?

I will take several pieces of advice from this chapter and apply it in my classroom. First, I do not currently do a prior assessment of knowledge in my classes, and this chapter just reinforced to me that I should start. I also want to make sure that I incorporate both my students’ strengths and weaknesses into my feedback on assignments. Lastly, I think it is a great idea to make the students incorporate feedback by requiring them to specify how they used it in subsequent work. I definitely want to require this on anything that involves a rough draft.

What about you? How do you provide goal-directed practice with targeted feedback in your courses? Let me know by commenting on this post below!

Join me next time when I examine principle #6: Students’ current level of development interacts with the social, emotional, and intellectual climate of the course to impact learning.


One thought on “A Synopsis of “How Learning Works” (Part 5 of 7): Goal-directed Practice Coupled with Targeted Feedback Enhances the Quality of Students’ Learning

  1. Great tips provided in your post.
    In our nursing clinicals at our level we have the student address each of the performance objectives for clinical in a written paper.. They are then provided with 20 verbs and asked to write an objective for their next rotation. Once they have completed the next rotation they address how they met or did not meet the objective. It is helpful to break assignments into “doable ” assignments.
    In our curriculum they also receive weekly written /verbal feedback on their performance.


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