Listening to coaches speak during our panel on April 20, 2022 (watch the panel recording here), I was struck by how often coaches’ actions are actually “feedback” to a player that they are not doing well! One of the most obvious is the action of taking a player out of a game. The corollary to this is that a coach has to make sure a player understands the feedback and is able to make adjustments based on it. Put more explicitly, the coach needs to make sure that the player is ready to go back in, either in the same game or one of the next ones! There are two interesting elements of this. On the one hand, the coach is providing feedback on current performance AND fully expects the player will improve or return to prior level of performance and play again. On the other hand, the assumption is that the player will view this as a moment to grow and improve and also plans to get back in the game.

This topic actually came up when a colleague asked a great question: “How do you make sure a player is ready to go back in the game after being taken out, and can we translate this to helping a student recover from a bad grade?” The context for this question is the overly common experience of a student getting one (or two) “bad” grades (which can sadly be anything from an A- and lower!) and not recovering from this. This scenario can happen in a course where a student receives a bad grade early on in the quarter or can happen in the larger context of a student’s career where they have a bad quarter as a new student. It is a particular challenge for our incoming first-year students, many of which have never received a grade lower than an A!

What can happen in an academic setting is that instead of viewing a bad grade (being taken out of the game) as a chance to learn and move forward, the student reacts by deciding “I am not good at this” and giving up! Now, one might argue that this is an issue with the student and not our responsibility as faculty to deal with. But it strikes me that part of teaching is teaching students to learn from mistakes and build confidence, just as a coach does. 

The discussion of this issue raised two important questions: 

  1. How do we build student confidence?
  2. How do we accomplish this at scale in a large classroom?

For the first question, we can pull valuable lessons directly from coaching. The first comment from the panel that really stuck with me was the idea of providing small tasks that build confidence and go from there. It reminded me of my coach training where the structure of each practice was based around a goal (dare I say, “learning outcome”) in which the practice started with a straightforward execution of a core skill related to the goal. This allowed all players to have initial success and prepare for the next stage. Then, practice would involve a series of more complex activities that ultimately led to executing the goals in a game-like situation.

Many faculty utilize this type of scaffolding (or something similar) around the learning outcomes in our courses, but this also seems like an obvious place to evaluate if we are using it to maximum effectiveness. Explicitly thinking about how we design courses and learning activities in the context of building confidence and preparing students to learn from mistakes is an intriguing perspective!

Closely related to designing achievable tasks is the idea of introducing opportunities for the student to demonstrate that they have learned from an earlier mistake. A key element of sports and the arts is that participants get multiple shots at demonstrating one’s ability. I will not say much more here as I have touched on this before and will touch on it in later posts, but the basic question is what does it look like for a student to be able to demonstrate that they have learned from mistakes in the context of a class?

Another idea for building student confidence and improving student learning that I have previously discussed is the concept of ensuring that students receive appropriate positive feedback. Much of academic assessment is explicitly designed around letting students know what they have done wrong. This is clearly important, but from my experience both teaching and coaching, it is often more obvious to students when they’ve done something wrong than what they have done correctly! Providing clear feedback on what students do correctly serves several purposes:

  1. It helps students know what they are doing right, and lets them know that they should continue doing it
  2. It provides a framework for learning how to evaluate their own work by helping them identify when they are doing things correctly
  3. It helps build their confidence and helps them understand where they really are in the process of learning the material. 

It is worth saying that providing positive feedback is NOT just saying “good job” or trying to make the student feel good without any basis. It is explicitly about pointing out what was done well. It might be worth illustrating what I mean with some quick coaching, music, and teaching examples. As you are learning a team sport, there is often a time where you do something (make a pass, throw the ball somewhere, etc.) and your teammate doesn’t do what they are supposed to do, so it does not go well. The player passing the ball may not be able to determine if it was their mistake or not, so being told you did it right is needed! For an orchestra, a passage may sound bad to everyone, but individual musicians may be playing the right notes. Explicitly pointing out the musicians who are playing well ensures that they continue to do what they were doing while the other musicians adjust their playing. Finally, in a physics class, a student may start a problem completely incorrectly, but the follow up work is correct despite their incorrect context! If the grading does not make this clear, then the student may assume that they’ve done every step of the problem incorrectly. Explaining which parts of the problem the student did correctly ensures that they do not waste time focusing on skills/concepts that they’ve been doing right all along!

This last point is a great segway to the issue of how to scale. I have certainly noticed that providing specific feedback, both positive and negative, is way easier for a smaller class! However, we can once again look to coaching for some ways to overcome this challenge. While it’s true that most sports teams do not consist of 400 people, coaches do often manage very large training camps. I have witnessed this personally as I have partnered with UCI coaching staff to hold large camps for AYSO soccer programs in the summer. The key to scaling feedback to a larger group is the deployment of a coaching team with a diverse array of experiences and expertise. I have been involved in very successful coaching efforts that included a highly-experienced lead coach, several assistant coaches, and a large group of “helpers” (often the more advanced players) that work together to point out the strengths and weaknesses of the players at the camp.  

This coaching team mirrors the instructional team of faculty, TAs, and Learning Assistants utilized in many large courses. This structure achieves a level of scale that enables more personalized feedback and the ability to provide scaffolding activities for students! While I acknowledge that the use of an instructional team is not feasible for every course and does not solve all the issues of providing detailed feedback for every student, it does help with many of the items discussed here!

At the end of the day, our students are resilient. They all have strengths and weaknesses, and most do and will continue to work hard to overcome their weaknesses. Part of our responsibility as faculty and instructors is to guide and support students through this process. By making a vested effort to bolster their confidence and provide more specific, positive feedback, we can help our students find success both at UCI and in their future endeavors.