Exercises, scaffolding, and formative feedback


Exercises are tasks that students do. Writing a program, debugging a program, improving a program, explaining a program to someone else. In each case, students create or change an artifact. Exercises encourage deep learning to varying extents.

In the Cyco way, multiple-choice questions are not exercises. Cyco doesn’t support them out of the box, though they can be added with the Quiz module.

Students can’t learn skills, unless they do exercises.


Suppose a pattern has four steps. It might be too hard for students to learn all four at once. Scaffolding helps students by doing some of the steps for them, say, two of the steps. Students then focus on learning the other two. When the students have learned those, the scaffolding is removed, and the students learn the entire pattern. They already know part of it, so learning is easier.

Bicycle training wheels are scaffolding.

Backward chaining is one version of scaffolding (the term is used differently in artificial intelligence). Suppose a pattern has five steps in sequence. Students are given an exercise where the first four parts are done for them. They learn to do the last part. Next, they get an exercise where the first three parts are done for them. They learn to do the last two. Next, they get an exercise where the first two parts are done for them. And so on.

Here’s scaffolding from a programming Cycourse. The authors starts with a pattern:

Scaffolding - pattern

Later, the author does part of the task of using the pattern:

Scaffolding - one step of the pattern

Students do the next step: writing code that uses the pattern and the mapping.

Formative feedback

Students need feedback on their work. There are two types of feedback: summative, and formative. Summative feedback is giving grades. “You get 7 out of 10 on this exercise.” Formative feedback explains why: “Here’s what you did wrong: …”

Humans can explain what is wrong with students’ work. Computers cannot. They can’t grade programs or essays in any but the most shallow ways. For example, a computer could check an essay for spelling and, to some extent, grammatical errors. It can’t judge whether the student is writing for the audience, or using appropriate metaphors.

Giving formative feedback at scale is a logistical challenge. Cyco solves the problem. More later.

Formative feedback helps students learn, but only if they pay attention to it. Ideally, they take their flawed work, and fix the problems listed in the formative feedback. They confront their errors and improve. They learn more deeply as a result.

Cyco lets students get formative feedback, correct their errors, and resubmit. More on that later.

Feedback, not praise

Suppose Jack is taking a programming Cycourse. He does well on an exercise, and gets the feedback “Wow, Jack, you’re really smart!” Great for Jack’s self-esteem. That feedback will make him motivated to do well in the future, right?

Maybe not. Learning happens when students exert effort, and take risks. Praising Jack could get in the way. Why? Because “Jack, you’re really smart” is about Jack himself, his personal attributes. The grader has told Jack that:

“X does well on an exercise” implies “X is smart.”

It’s easy for Jack to conclude:

“X does poorly on an exercise” implies “X is not smart.”

The conclusion is invalid, according to the rules of propositional logic. That doesn’t matter. Your species draws conclusions like this quite naturally.

Later in the course, the exercises get more difficult. It’s harder to do well. Jack thinks, “I guess I’m not that smart after all.” Since he thinks that intelligence is innate – you have it or you don’t – he gives up. The fact that intelligence is not innate doesn’t matter. Many humans think it is, and this belief has become part of their emotional responses.

What’s a grader to do? John Orlando give some suggestions. One approach is to give Jack feedback on his work, rather than himself. Give him a list of the things he did well or poorly, on each exercise. Summarize the list like this:

  • “Good work, Jack! You did well on this exercise. Thanks for the effort.”
  • “Not so good. You have more work to do.”

Notice the focus on effort, not on Jack himself.

Cyco’s feedback system helps graders give feedback like this. Here’s an exercise, from the demo you can try:

Dog joke

Each exercise has a list of rubric items graders use to assess student work. The items for this exercise are:

  • About a dog
  • Funny

Each rubric item has a list of standard evaluative phrases graders use to give feedback. Here are the phrases for Funny:

Rubric item phrases

Graders click on a response for each item (or give a custom response). This is the “clickable rubric” in action. Here’s a grader giving feedback about Jack’s work:

Rubric items

Notice that Jack gets feedback about his work on the exercise. The feedback is not about Jack himself.

This is another way that Cyco uses learning research to improve skills courses. Wow, does Cyco rock, or what?


Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Prove that you are sentient.
2 + 0 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.