Flattery or feedback?

Reading this week’s New Scientist (23rd October 2010) on the train on my way to the Centre for Distance Education Conference in London yesterday, I found an interesting opinion piece from Clifford Nass ‘More than just a computer…’ The article talks about how people like to be flattered, even when the flattery is unjustified. This resonates with my own reaction to praise – I like to be told I’ve done well even when (and perhaps especially when) my own gut reaction is that I haven’t!

However I’m not sure how well this sits with the work of Carol Dweck on self-theories and motivation, which I stumbled across a while ago, and which also seems to make sense. Dweck takes the view that praise for previous achievements, if attributed to high intelligence (‘you’re a clever girl’) or ‘goodness’ (‘you’re a good girl’) can lead to helplessness in the face of later difficulties. And certainly, following the findings of the FAST (Formative Assessment in Science Teaching) Project, I now encourage my Open University tutors to indicate what is good about a piece of work rather than just giving praise in general terms.

 Nass also suggests that computer-generated praise might be as effective as that from a person – even if generated randomly. That sounds bizarre (and I know that some people report feeling patronised by praise from an iCMA question). However, think back to Eliza, the computer therapist. People trusted ‘her’.

 So there are conflicting ideas. It was timely then that both keynote speakers at the Centre for Distance Education Conference (Josie Taylor and Hilary Perraton) pleaded for more research into what students are actually doing (rather than what they think).

Returning to New Scientist : the same edition included an article about the fact that people seem to have missed the most obvious consequence of global warming, namely that people die in heat waves so vast areas of the planet will become uninhabitable, and another article reporting research findings that indicate that the fine structure constant may not be a constant after all. So it is not only in topics relating to feedback on e-assessment tasks that cherished notions are being challenged. More work is needed all round.

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