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Study: Feedback can hinder kids’ math outcomes

Giving a child feedback during problem solving may do more harm than good, according to a new Vanderbilt study (iStock)

A child solves a math problem and gets the wrong answer. A teacher or a parent tells her, “Good try, but your answer is incorrect.” This kind of instructional input is helpful to the child’s learning, right? Not necessarily.

Emily Fyfe headshot
Emily Fyfe (Vanderbilt)

A new Vanderbilt study finds that sometimes providing verbal feedback (positive or negative) actually causes more harm than good. Developing ways to improve problem solving and early mathematics understanding is the research focus of Emily Fyfe, a doctoral student at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of education and human development.

A new paper published in the Journal of Educational Psychology by Fyfe and Bethany Rittle-Johnson, associate professor in the Department of Psychology and Human Development at Peabody, continues their examination of how feedback provided to elementary school students affects their mathematics learning.

Bethany Rittle-Johnson (Vanderbilt)

Fyfe’s recent study included 108 children from second- and third-grade classrooms in Nashville-area schools. One group of students received instruction on how to solve the problems. The other group did not receive the instruction; they were true novices with low prior knowledge of the problems.

All of the students were then asked to solve a set of math problems. Some students were assigned to the no-feedback condition, meaning they solved all the problems without any input from the tutor. The other students were assigned to the feedback condition—after each problem, the tutor told them if their answer was right or wrong.

“Most people assume that giving children feedback after they solve a math problem is helpful because it allows them to see their errors and adjust their approach,” Fyfe said. “But we found that feedback only had positive effects for children who didn’t know much about the problems. For children who were already taught how to solve the problems, giving them feedback during problem solving actually led to lower performance on subsequent math problems than giving them no feedback at all.”

One possible reason for the negative effects is that the feedback may have distracted the higher-knowledge learners by drawing attention to their self-image and performance. The children who already knew how to solve the problems likely had some expectation of performing well, she said. Feedback may have fixated their attention on whether they were right or wrong, and how getting a wrong answer reflected on their self-image, rather than on how to approach solving the problems.

“This study shows that children with really low prior knowledge of the task benefitted from feedback,” Fyfe said. “ But, the higher-knowledge children performed best when they were allowed to practice a set of relevant problems at their own pace without feedback.”

The study results challenge the notion that feedback is always a good thing. It also reinforces that small changes to teaching approaches may significantly improve a child’s learning experience.

“More and more research shows that micro-level changes to instructional input can affect how children learn and understand mathematics,” Fyfe said. “This means that small, purposeful changes can help shape children’s understanding and performance in a positive way.”

Another takeaway, Fyfe said is that there is value in allowing a child to have time for unguided problem solving.

“Although our natural inclination may be to step in and guide children through the difficult tasks, it may actually undermine their efforts and deprive them of the opportunity to make sense of the math problem on their own,” she said. “Under some conditions, we may need to refrain from ‘rescuing’ children by providing them with feedback, and instead let them struggle, engage and learn on their own.”

Read Fyfe and Rittle-Johnson’s paper, “Feedback both helps and hinders learning: The causal role of prior knowledge,” in the Journal of Educational Psychology. Fyfe is supported by a graduate research fellowship from the National Science Foundation.

Download the paper.