Why Being Too Quick to Offer Feedback Can Degrade Learning

I remember a lesson many years ago, when my teacher told me that her goal was for me to learn how to teach myself. Where I would no longer need a teacher.

I couldn’t have been more than 9 or 10 at the time, so the notion of me teaching myself was completely inconceivable. It was enough of a struggle to play in tune, never mind coming up with my own bowings and fingerings, or figuring out how to make a piece engage and capture a listener’s attention.

But she was right. One day I wouldn’t have a teacher. Or even if I did, I would only have that teacher’s assistance for one brief hour out of each week. Which meant that for 99.4% of the week, I was on my own. And if I wanted to make meaningful progress during the week, I’d have to learn how to teach myself.

So how does one teach someone to become a more independent learner?

Error-detection skills

Part of becoming a more independent learner, is developing the capacity to monitor our own playing and identify errors, so that we can fix these errors in future repetitions.

I know…totally obvious, right? But here’s the thing. When we’re learning something new, it’s often not so clear to us what we’re doing correctly and what we’re doing incorrectly.

So one of the ways we get better at gauging our performance is to receive feedback from someone more knowledgable than ourselves.

But hold on a sec…if we just keep getting feedback from someone else, how is this helping us learn to teach ourselves? Aren’t we just back where we started, dependent on this more experienced feedback-giver?

Puppies and poop

My family recently took in a little puppy. Cute little guy, but potty training has become the bane of my existence.

I must say though, that it’s been an interesting learning experience. I’ve learned, for instance, that puppies need immediate feedback for a behavior to stick. Like, if I walk into the living room and discover that he pooped on the floor, it’s already too late to do anything about it. I can’t track him down and say, “Hey, remember when you pooped over here earlier this afternoon? That’s a no-no. Bad doggie.” He doesn’t get it. He’s just like “yeah, whatever, rub my belly, oh wait is it time to eat now?” and wags his tail.

If I want him to understand that we are not fans of his indoor pooping shenanigans, I have to catch him in the act, and rush him outside so I can give him immediate praise for doing the correct thing. Because if the feedback isn’t immediate, he has no idea what he did to deserve the praise. It’s all about connecting an action with immediate positive feedback. Over and over, until he gets it.

But we’re not puppies.

Or…does it work the same way for us too?

Feedback for optimal learning

76 college students were recruited for a study designed to explore how the timing of feedback might affect the learning process.

They were split into 3 groups, and asked to learn a relatively straightforward motor task1.

The goal of the motor task was to be able to execute the specific movement, and have it take exactly 1000 milliseconds. Sort of like telling someone that they have to conduct a bar of 3/8, and their movements have to take precisely 1 second from one downbeat to the next.

Everyone was given 90 practice trials to learn this new skill, and were given their time score after each attempt, so they could get a sense of how well they were doing.

But not everyone received their time score (i.e. feedback) about their performance at the same time.

One group – the instantaneous feedback group – was allowed to see their time score instantly, as soon as they completed the motor task.

Another group – the delayed feedback group – had to wait 8 seconds before being shown their time score.

The third group – the delay/estimation group – had to wait 8 seconds before getting their time score too. But in addition, they had to estimate what their time score was, and report their best guess 4 seconds after finishing each practice attempt.

Retention tests

During the practice phase, there were no significant differences in performance between the 3 groups. They all performed better as practice went on of course, but improved their performance at about the same rate.

However, we know from other research, that the rate at which our performance improves during practice is NOT a very good indication of how effectively we’re learning. As in, just because the level of our playing improves rapidly (or not) during today’s practice session, doesn’t mean that we’re going to be able to play at this level tomorrow or next week.

So the researchers did some “retention” tests, to see how well the participants would be able to perform this new skill after taking a break. They also took the timer away, so none of the participants received any feedback about their time score, or how they were doing.

10 minutes later…

The first set of retention trials was done 10 minutes after their initial training. Which is not a huge gap, but you know, sometimes we can get into a groove and feel good about a passage, but when we come back to it a few minutes later, it’s gone back to crap again, as if we hadn’t worked on it at all.

In any case, at the 10-minute retention test, there were no significant differences in performance between the three groups.

2 days later…

But then they had everyone come back to the lab 2 days later. And this is where the differences in learning between the groups began to reveal itself.

Those who received instantaneous feedback during practice performed the worst, with time scores that averaged 156.9 milliseconds off of the target time. Their performance also seemed to be a bit more erratic.

Those who received feedback after an 8 second delay, did better. Their average scores were 131.3 milliseconds off of the target time (a 17.7% difference).

The participants in the delay/estimate group, who had an 8-second delay plus were asked to estimate their own performance after each trial, did the best. Their average time score was 90.8 milliseconds off of the target time (a 53.4% difference).

Takeaways

I once had a tennis coach who made me call out “good” or “bad” after hitting each ball. Not in terms of whether the ball went in the court or not, but in terms of whether I made good contact. The idea being, for me to become increasingly less dependent on his feedback, and more in tune with my own sense of whether I was hitting the ball cleanly or not.

To me, the study suggests that we can sometimes give others too much feedback about their performance. Specifically, that providing immediate feedback all the time can stunt the development of one’s error-detection abilities.

I mean, we’re all going to take the easy way out. And if an expert is going to give us expert feedback, why would we bother to wrack our brains to come up with feedback for ourselves that is surely going to be less accurate than that of a teacher?

Unfortunately, this means that our ability to critique our own skills lags behind, and when we go off to practice on our own, and don’t have an expert’s feedback to rely on, our learning is compromised.

It may feel less productive in the moment to have students elicit an estimate of their own performance, but it seems that this can actually result in greater learning in the long run – because the student becomes increasingly capable of directing their own practice and learning between lessons.

And as my teacher said those many years ago, at the end of the day, that’s kind of the point of it all, no? To cultivate artists who can think for themselves; not just instrument-players who follow instructions really well.

Footnotes

  1. Normally, I’d try to describe the nature of the task, but honestly, it’d take a bazillion words to do so, and even then it’s sort of hard to picture, so…just imagine a kid pushing a toy car back and forth a few times, and you’ve got the gist.

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice,
Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.

Comments

11 Responses

  1. Great post, Noa. This is certainly true.
    I recently dropped out of lessons. On all my violin journey I’ve never been without a teacher and I noticed something funny: now that I don’t have a teacher, I practice with more attention to details and overall my practicing routines got better. At first I coudn’t understand why, but then I came up with an explanation that goes the same way of your post: because I know I don’t have anyone to evaluate my playing at the moment, I know I must pay 100% attention at all times and that if I’m doing something wrong, it’s going to keep on going wrong because I won’t have my teacher to tell me my mistakes. I know that means I was being lazy and over realiant on my teacher, but it’s funny how I just got to notice that after I went completely on my own. I’m currently happy about that and feeling that when I return to lessons, I can now keep this new acquired ability to practice 100% conscious of what I’m doing.

  2. An interesting post. But the most interesting thing i found in it was by following the “other research” link (under the heading “Retention Tests”.) I followed that link, which was to an earlier post by Dr. Noah, entitled “The Learning-Performance Distinction and Why Gains in the Practice Room Don’t Always Stick”. And at the very end of THAT earlier post there was a link to a book titled “Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning”.

    Wow!!! that book-link led me to an Amazon.com page that described the book. It looked very interesting, so i bought the Kindle version of it. All 300 pages of it. It’s going to take me a little while to read through it all, but the first portion that i read this morning (plus the Amazon.com description of it) was dynamite.

    i’m writing this now, rather than wait until i’ve finished it, so that other interested folks who don’ t luck out as i did and go through the multiple-link digging that i had to do to find it can check it out for themselves.

    Yours in happy digging,

    Gary Berlind/

    1. Thanks for pointing this out, Gary. Indeed, I think Make it Stick is an absolute must-read for everyone who cares about learning or teaching. I find myself recommending it to pretty much anybody – musicians, teachers, random parents on the playground at my kids’ school…

  3. OK, i’ve now finished reading “Making it Stick.” One heck of a good book. Really gets its points about learning across to the reader. A bit tedious to read through it all, because after laying out its main points in the beginning of the book, it hammers away at those points (using the techniques described in the book!) to make sure the reader really LEARNS those ideas. but, heck, that’s what learning is about, isn’t it?

    i give this book six stars: five stars for the book itself, and a sixth star for being such a “nudge” that you’ll never forget the basic premises.

    Gary Berlind/

  4. I recall a previous article which linked to a University of Texas study regarding what makes great teachers great. One of the conclusions from there was teachers giving IMMEDIATE feedback. How do we reconcile the results of these two different studies to help students learn best?

    1. Great question. And that’s one of the kinds of variables that makes teaching such an art. Because I think there are times when it’s important to stop immediately to ensure the student can appreciate what just happened – whether it’s because they did something great, or did something less than desirable. Honing one’s ear, and raising one’s appreciation for ever more subtle nuances is one important factor in lessons.

      On the other hand, teachers will often give feedback at the end of a run-through (delayed feedback), and there were times when I remember having teachers ask me to give myself feedback after a run-through (i.e. delay/estimation feedback), which would force me to think more independently. And there were also times when I would be asked to play a short passage or phrase, and asked my thoughts about what just happened (also delay/estimation feedback). All of which was also enormously valuable to my learning.

      So at the end of the day, I think it’s both – and dependent on the situation and what the student needs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Get the (Free) Practice Hacks Guide

Learn the #1 thing that top practicers do differently, plus 7 other strategies for practice that sticks.

Share321
Tweet1
Email