Right Answer Diagnostic Feedback

When I was first learning instructional design, I was taught that providing explanatory feedback was an essential practice because it takes advantage of the perfect teachable moment–the moment when you are told you are wrong is the moment you are most inquisitive: “Why?”

Explanatory feedback means not just conveying whether an answer is right or wrong, but also describing why.

That said, I was also taught that while explanatory feedback for wrong answers is very powerful, the impact of right answer explanatory feedback was much less, maybe even negligible. The reason? Once learners have chosen the correct answer, they’ve already moved on emotionally and are unlikely to spend time absorbing the right answer feedback.

That doesn’t make it bad to include–one can easily envision scenarios where a conscientious learner guesses, gets lucky, and wants to know more. But if development time is scarce (that is, always), wrong answer feedback is the better place to invest energy.

I wonder if anyone has tested the value of explanatory feedback against the expertise reversal effect…

Anyway, I was not surprised to see in Ruth Clark’s book that she upholds the value of explanatory feedback. I was a little surprised that the example she gave was of a right answer feedback, though: “Yes, in a low sunlight environment, a large leaf has more room to make food by photosynthesis.” Thinking that maybe the advice I was given all those years ago was out of step with current research, I took a look at the article Clark cited. I would have been very happy if this was the case as the governing body in my industry mandates unique explanatory feedback for all multiple choice question alternatives, right or wrong.

But, alas, the article cited by Clark doesn’t specifically test whether explanatory right answer feedback had a positive effect on learning. It still could be that only wrong answer explanatory feedback has a measurable impact. Oh, well. When I have some time I’ll dive back into the feedback literature and see if I can find greater corroboration for Clark’s position.


5 thoughts on “Right Answer Diagnostic Feedback

  1. Rob Foshay

    The problem here is that there are two issues: timing of feedback, and opportunity for reflection. The argument from Kulhavy’s work 20+ years ago was that immediate feedback after a right answer has little impact, beyond knowledge of results. The argument from the constructivists is that elaborative feedback after a right answer could actually supplant reflection/integration, but instead delayed feedback on complex cognitive knowledge/skills works because it allows for time for reflection. If I recall correctly, Ruth Clark doesn’t get into this, but van Merrienboer does.

    1. robertmulcahy Post author

      Hi, Rob. Abrogating the thought process of reflection with explanatory right answer feedback is an interesting point, and one I’ll have to ponder further (I’ll dig out my van Merrienboer). I miss working with you!

  2. theburrs6

    Recently, as an instructional designer, I have had to incorporate question level feedback into e-lessons, however the feedback that was requested was not constructive or beneficial. Just to tell a learner that yes they got the answer correct and repeat the correct answer is not constructive feedback to me. In addition, telling a learner they got the answer wrong, then tell them what the correct answer should have been is neither constructive or beneficial. Feedback should have meaning and add to the learning experience, reinforce skills and tell them why their answer was incorrect. There are so many differing views on constructive feedback, educating people in constructive feedback is a feat withing itself.

    1. robertmulcahy Post author

      For sure. I’ve found at points in my career that some people with power are suspicious of any argument that begins, “Research shows that…” As instructional designers, we need to be aware of the underlying research (and also its limitations), but to be persuasive, I’ve had the most success focusing on the whys (e.g., why explanatory feedback takes advantage of the teachable moment). Also, as much as you can, experiment on your own target populations and compare results!


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