A Darwinian view of feedback effectiveness

Please don’t treat this too seriously – but please do stop and think about what I am trying to say, in the light of the fact that the effectiveness of feedback on assessment tasks is, despite the huge amount that’s been written on the subject, poorly understood.

Many people talk about the issues that arise when the grade awarded for an assignment ‘gets in the way’ of the feedback – and this is something I have seen evidence of myself. Authors also talk in quite damnatory terms about extrinsic motivation and surface learning. However, we have to face the fact that many of our students probably have no aspiration to submit perfect work – they just want to do OK, to pass, not to fall too far behind their peers.

Now sidestep to the theory of natural selection and evolution. Individuals with advanatagous characteristics have a a greater probability of survival, and therefore of reproducing. Provided that these characteristics are inherited by offspring, individuals possessing the characteristics will become more common in the population. If something like an environmental change (a common example is a decrease in soot in the atmosphere) means that there is a change in what is advantageous (so, in the example, dark coloured moths – which were well camouflaged from their predators when the atmophere was sooty – become less well camouflaged and so more likely to be eaten) then relatively rapid evolution will be seen (in the example, light coloured moths will become more common). When there is no change in the environment, natural selection will still be taking place, but you won’t see a lot of evolution.

Now, think feedback. If a student only wants to pass and is getting pass grades and feedback that says they are doing OK, then [in their view] is there any need for them to do anything differently? Perhaps there isn’t really a ‘gap’ (Ramaprasad, 1983; Sadler, 1989) to close. Perhaps this is just the natural way of things.

One Response to “A Darwinian view of feedback effectiveness”

  1. Galatia Politopoulou Says:

    Dear Sally,
    as a Biologist I have a gut instinct to urge caution RE; extrapolating from mechanisms that are in place to promore survival of genes, as natural selection does, best adapted to a particular environment, to situations like whether one is motivated to excell or just pass or not submit an EAE at all, on an Open University course.
    My point is, ones survival seldom depends entirely on performance during ones course, especially in the current job market where qualifications become less and less of an obvious ‘advantage’, as they were previously…even though I admit in the case of ones first degree- undergraduate course…
    The peer pressure phenomenon where more complex social ‘survival’ factors are perhaps at play, than a simple Darwinian notion, may offer better explanations.
    It is not entirely clear to me why the educational system we currently have evolved or rather expanded, under a strict Darwinian view.
    Your thoughts on this?
    At the moment it seems to me that in much of Europe where unemployment is over 25%, the less educated non-elite, often have a better chance at admittedly poorly paid employment and ”survival”
    The other problem being how well one does in assessment doesn’t always accurately reflect ones knowledge or effort, or what they gained or didn’t from a course, but you know more about this than I do, so I stop at this point.

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