The Dangers of Feedback

Greg Foley is a lecturer in the School of Biotechnology.


Feedback is one of those things in education that is always seen as a ‘Good Thing’. (An excellent paper on feedback by John Hattie can be found here.) But providing feedback also has its dangers. To explain, I need to divert. A few years ago I did a bit of research on artificial neural networks for data analysis in chemical engineering. Artificial networks are essentially a fancy form of non-linear regression and while they are very powerful, they can be misused. One of the dangers of ANNs is that that if you don’t know what you are doing you can design networks that are ‘over-trained.’ To illustrate what over-training is, considering the two curve fits shown below. The first fit, a simple linear regression, would seem to have captured the essence of the relationship between the dependent variable and the independent variable. On the other hand, the second fit which actually matches the data exactly, is probably ‘over-trained’. It is seeing patterns where it is likely that none really exist. This fit cannot ‘see the wood for the trees’.



So what has this got to do with feedback? Often, when I am giving oral feedback to students (in a lab for example) I am struck by the fact that students tend to want a sort of recipe for success. They want to be told precisely what they need to do to score a high mark. They don’t like generalities like being told that their graphs and tables should be presented in a ‘logical order’ or that they need to improve their attention to detail. Indeed, it is often the best and most ambitious students who desire this level of precision in the feedback they receive. It’s as if students want to be ‘over-trained’ so that their work matches exactly the ‘perfect’ lab report where ‘perfect’ is defined by the lecturer’s marking scheme.

Getting the balance right between providing students with useful guidance and facilitating them to jump through hoops can be tricky.

Twitter for learning: does it work for you?

Muireann O Keefe works in the Teaching Enhancement Unit in DCU. She is an academic developer – a role that assists those working in higher education to critically think about their practices as lecturers, and to make  research-informed changes to practice. See


According to learning consultants like Jane Hart and other educators out there, Twitter is a top tool for learning. In fact Jane Hart’s annual poll of learning tools  among professionals has voted Twitter as a top tool for learning 7 years in a row!

I can’t calculate accurately how many people use social networking tools for learning in higher education but I do know that growing numbers of academics and professional in higher education are logging on and signing up to services such as Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube to learn from others, to keep up-to-date, and share practice with other interested professionals.

Researchers in this area (Martin Weller, Cristina Costa and George Veletsianos) describe how academics share knowledge and scholarship with one another via Twitter. For these researchers the web is an open participatory place where sharing and connecting with others is useful for disseminating research and creating networks of people around topics of special interest.

I am an academic developer and in my job I have been helping and coaching academics on enhancing teaching practices for a number of years. Back in 2009 I began to encourage staff to use Twitter as a means of keeping up-to-date with the latest research and information regarding practice. I gave people introductory workshops on using Twitter and social networking tools. Many staff who adopted Twitter perceived it as a learning tool.

EdD research

When I started my EdD studies I chose to explore Twitter as a learning tool and this exploratory research has given me in depth qualitative insight into how Twitter has been used for learning by teaching faculty in higher education.

Research Findings

So what did I find in my research? I discovered that all of my participants perceived Twitter as a tool for learning resonating with claims from educational consultants about Twitter as a learning tool for professionals.

On further analysis…

However when I looked more closely at the Twitter data, I noticed that participants of the study demonstrated different  levels of social engagement on Twitter, the majority of my participants were not sharing practice or having conversations with other tweeters online.  In fact the majority of my participants were listening in and lurking on the Twittersphere gathering information disseminated by others but not having conversations or sharing their own practice online.

This finding jarred with me because of my social constructivist belief about learning. I consider that learning happens socially among people, we learn from one another, from our experiences and our cultural contexts. But the participants within my study who used Twitter (a platform built for social networking) did not engage in social networking activities with other tweeters.

I followed up with interviews, which revealed some very interesting data – not all of these participants experienced a sense of belonging to networks on Twitter. They were “not ready” to be part of conversations online and they gave reasons of perceiving others to be more knowledgeable than they were and feelings of vulnerability.

In contrast the minority of research participants who were highly active in social network activities said that their confidence from grounding in education enabled them to share practice and have conversations about professional educational practices on Twitter.

Lack of professional confidence is an issue

So it seems that while Twitter is perceived as a useful tool for learning, some participants did not have the courage or confidence within their professional selves to use it as tool for learning. They did not identify or feel a sense of belonging with other similar professionals online and this was a barrier to the social engagement and display of voice online.

So how can these findings be used?

This research is useful to my work as an academic developer because it has taught me that purely technical support with tools such as Twitter is inadequate, development of professional identity needs to be factored into the process.

Other issues have also come to light in my practice: If I was advocating the use of online social tools was I potentially placing people in vulnerable situations online? Safety and vulnerability are real risk factors online, which need mindful and critical discussion if advocating open online tools for learning. Certainly going forward I will be facilitating deeper discussion with learners (academics, undergrads or whoever) about how they use open online tools and about development of identity as part of their online learning process.