A recent study by the Michigan School of Information, in collaboration with Blackboard, sought to determine whether providing students with personal performance data and motivational feedback at specific times throughout the semester will improve study habits and GPAs.

To test this hypothesis, 47 student volunteers were enrolled in a simulated classroom environment and divided into four groups based on GPA (B and above, C+ and below) and attributional feedback type (internal vs. external).

Feedback was provided at three key points throughout the course: 1) early in the term, 2) after the midterm, and 3) before the final exam. Students received a graph comparing their performance with the class average along with one of four messages (e.g., “You’re a rock star in this course”, or “You haven’t been around much lately”). Each time, students were asked to write a reflection on whether the feedback would motivate them to change their study habits in a real classroom environment.

Results indicate that students with a GPA of C+ or lower are more likely to improve their study habits and seek assistance from an academic advisor after receiving their feedback. No other student group significantly benefited from the feedback; however, a potential boomerang effect was found within high-performing students who received external attributional feedback, as they felt the instructors were dismissing their effort.

The study suffers from a number of methodological issues, and while not providing statistically significant results, it does highlight the positive impact competition may have on students’ study behaviours.

One professor provided a fascinating analogy to this study within the comments section of Inside Higher Ed. Each Friday, his fifth grade math teacher gave students their percentage grade and class ranking. The professor was ranked near the top of the class and the feedback encouraged him to put in more effort to maintain his high ranking. One of his classmates however, was ranked dead last. Instead of giving up, the student began to see math class as a competition and began to work his way up to the very top of the class.

A number of other institutions are embracing new ways of motivating students through post-assessment feedback. For example, instructors at Carnegie Mellon University regularly provides assessments back with the inclusion of “exam wrappers”, brief handouts students complete where they reflect upon their individual performance and feedback.

Encouraging students to reflect upon their assessments and use them as a learning experience is invaluable for both instructors and students. Whether benchmarking performance relative to the class or introspective reports, having students digest more than their percentage grade encourages them to become more effective learners.

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About the Author: Dustin is a senior account manager with DesignedUX, providing communications and strategy to organizations in education and technology. Dustin is also board member of the Canadian Public Relations Society and contributes as a communications researcher with McMaster University.