Feedback & The Importance of Self-Directed Learning for Students in Traditional Schools

I’m delighted with the growing interest in self-directed learning over the last several years, but some quickly associate SDL with what certain people might consider more extreme examples, places like Summerhill or Sudbury schools. Yet, I contend that SDL is just as important, perhaps more so, for those students who will spend years going through much more traditional primary, secondary, and tertiary schools.

I’ve been conducting informal research on grading plans in syllabi, especially college syllabi.  To date, I’ve reviewed close to 200 syllabi that are publicly shared on the web, all from US colleges and Universities. Especially looking at general education and liberal arts courses, there is a consistent pattern: four or fewer graded items in the entire course. In fact, I’ve come across many syllabi where the only graded assessments are a midterm and final exam.

These syllabi rarely tell me about the nature of ungraded feedback in the courses. How often do the students get feedback from the professor or someone else on their progress toward meeting learning objectives? Well, that is a bit challenging because a large number of the syllabi do not even list course objectives.

Feedback is among the most important features of a high-impact learning experience. If we don’t know where we are going or if we are making progress, that can quickly lead to confusion or even downright academic despair. Yet, when I try to have conversations with college professors about their plans for feedback, I commonly get responses that seem to show disinterest, confusion, or even the conviction that it is not their job to provide feedback.

Eventually, I hope to conduct a study on student experience and perception of feedback in undergraduate coursework. What is the frequency, nature, and helpfulness of the feedback? Does the instructor create opportunities for this feedback, or is it the responsibility of the student? This seems important to me since the benefit of feedback is one of the more substantiated findings by educational researchers, and yet it seems to be among the more rejected or ignored aspects of many professor’s course preparations.

Even without conducting such a study, I can say with confidence that students attending traditional colleges and Universities in the United States are in for a wide diversity of course experiences when it comes to feedback. Some instructors will create frequent and intentional opportunities for students to get feedback. Others will do nothing to provide feedback on student progress and learning. That is just the nature of the higher education teaching profession right now, as faculty have different levels of education training, different educational philosophies, different teaching styles and preferences, and different understandings of what it means to be a professor and what it means to be a college student.

What does this mean for students? If I am to prepare students to thrive in widely diverse college and University classrooms of today, that means helping them to be flexible, resilient, self-directed learners who are capable of getting as much as possible out of any college class we might throw at them. This means helping them to become the kind of self-directed learners who can fill in the gaps left by the many teachers who remain most interested in presenting good content, “covering the material”, maintaining academic rigor, and other such admirable goals. This means helping them learn how to establish their own feedback loops and mechanisms.

Self-directed learning is not just for the few democratic schools, innovative project-based learning schools, informal learning researchers, or unschooling families. It is a body of literature that has immense benefit, even (maybe especially) for the learner sitting in large lecture halls, following the systematic ring of bells from class to class, and working their way through contemporary classrooms that may be designed based upon the preferences and interests of teachers more than current educational research along with the real needs and interests of learners.

Posted in education, heutagogy, self-directed learning

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.