JT Torres is director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Quinnipiac University. With Jill Flanders Crosby, he co-authored the book Situated Narratives and Sacred Dance: Performing the Entangled Histories of Cuba and West Africa. The book chronicles a decade of research into the learning of Arará social memory. Torres is also the author of the novel Taking Flight, which follows a Cuban-American family struggling with the illusion of assimilation and identity.
His research into feedback is published in the Journal of Studies in Educational Evaluation and the Journal of the Scholarship into Teaching and Learning.
How Conversations Help Us Learn
Typically, when we try something new—whether that’s sporting a new outfit or cooking a new meal—we turn to someone we trust and ask, “What do you think?” Generally, we are seeking “feedback,” and it is one way we learn. Feedback is so important that many researchers dedicate their entire careers into understanding how it works, when it works, and why it works. One thing we know with a high degree of certainty: it works. Sometimes.
Studies into feedback come from a wide variety of settings—education, sports, business. Rarely is feedback defined consistently, and these definitions matter. When considered as “praise,” “evaluation of performance,” or “criticism,” feedback often fails to assist learning. For instance, when I was a child, I would write story after story. Of course they were bad. And yet, invariably, my mother would read the stories and call them “cute.” Over time, I learned that “cute” was pretty meaningless praise.
Instead of starting with a specific definition of feedback, my research took an opposite approach. I studied college students in evaluative interactions: written comments, email exchanges, meeting a professor during office hours. After identifying cases that resulted in learning, measured by improved grades on course assignments, I analyzed themes across the cases that could offer a more useful definition of feedback. What I found was that the more feedback resembled a conversation, the more likely it led to learning. Here are three features of conversational feedback:
Interpretive: rather than providing an answer, provide students options for interpreting the answer.
Dialogic: provide space for students to discuss feedback, as well as what to do with it.
Revisionary: encourage students to revise, which is not always the same as “improve,” previous performances or ways of thinking.
At the very least, when we ask someone, “What do you think?” we should be prepared to hear, “What do you think?”