Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances the quality of students' learning.

We’ve all heard the saying ‘practice makes perfect’ and ‘the more feedback the better’. But is this the full picture? And if it is, how on earth do we balance our students' need for practice with the constraints of the course length and the amount of time it takes us to provide tons of feedback?

Whilst it’s clear that both practice and feedback are two essential parts of an effective learning cycle, we need to explore how we can do this in the most productive way possible.

Let’s start with some simple definitions:

Goal The outcome we want the student to achieve. Goals should be student-centred, specific and measurable. You might hear them referred to as learning objectives or learning outcomes.
Practice Any activity in which students engage their knowledge or skills (for example, creating an argument, solving a problem, or writing a paper).
Feedback The information we give students about their performance, which helps them adapt their future behaviour.

Let’s see how these three elements work together in a positive cycle to direct, repeat and refine performance to guide the student towards achieving the goal.


So, we know we need to give students opportunity to practice, but is all practice equally beneficial? In short, no — lots of kids spend time practicing the piano without becoming an expert pianist. Let’s look at what the research tells us about effective practice and what this means for us in practice.


Strategies to Consider


Build opportunities for deliberate practice
  • Be more explicit about your goals in your course materials
  • Use a rubric to specify and communicate performance criteria
  • Give examples or models of target performance and contrast these with poor examples. It can be particularly helpful to annotate model or poor papers to highlight what they do well or poorly, or how they could be improved
Identify an appropriate level of challenge
  • Conduct a prior knowledge assessment to target an appropriate challenge level
  • Build scaffolding into assignments
Plan for accumulating practice
  • Build in multiple opportunities for practice
  • Set expectations about the amount, type and level of practice students need to complete to master the skills or knowledge required
  • Refine your goals and performance criteria as the course progresses

It’s one thing practicing towards a specific goal, but it’s not much help if you don’t know where you are in relation to the goal and what you need to do to improve.

Imagine two people are asked to arrive at a specific destination. Amanda is given a map with the goal highlighted. When she arrives at the goal destination, she is told that it took her 11 minutes.

Strategies to Consider

Provide targeted feedback that explains how their performance measures against the criteria and what they need to do to improve future performance.

Prioritize your feedback

Don’t overwhelm and demotivate your students with too much feedback. Pick out the most salient points for where they are in their development

Balance strengths and weaknesses in your feedback

Remember students may not be aware of the progress they are making, so it’s important to give positive reinforcement, as well as direction on where they can improve.

Look for patterns of errors in student work

This can allow you to give feedback to the group, rather than at an individual level. It might also prompt you to see if you had an expert blind spot when assessing their prior knowledge.

Provide real - time feedback at the group level.

By using effective questioning in a group or lecture, with clickers or ‘post it’ notes to collect student answers, you can quickly give group level feedback and address common misunderstandings.

Incorporate peer feedback:

Having students review their peers work and give feedback can help them become better at spotting good work and diagnosing their own weaknesses. Remember to set clear guidelines on both the criteria and how to give constructive feedback.

Provide feedback at a time and frequency that supports the learning goal
  • Generally having frequent opportunities to give feedback is beneficial as it allows students time to adjust their performance. This is especially useful when you build in multiple practice opportunities
  • Encourage reflection and ask students to explicitly state how they have used feedback in their next draft or assignment