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Fitbits, Feedback & Framing

I recently purchased a Fitbit. I’d always wanted one but walking used to be painful and I didn’t need to wear a gadget to remind me how little I was walking each day. But with a new hip, counting steps is fun. The techie-nerdy-competitive aspects of my personality are thoroughly enjoying my new toy.

Every hour it gently buzzes my wrist. A humorous/encouraging message follows: It’s step o’clock! Take me for a walk! Just ____ steps to reach your goal!  Ten mins to get ______ steps!

If I take the hint and get moving, it buzzes again when I reach the hourly target (250 steps). It buzzes furiously and showers my screen with fireworks when I hit my daily goal. It also sends updates when I’m over the target, calling me an overachiever.

Who wouldn’t love a gizmo like that?!

The answer: my sister. She hated hers. She has an earlier generation. It tracked steps but didn’t provide the encouragements. At the end of the day she simply got feedback telling her she didn’t reach her goal. It was discouraging.  She stopped wearing it.

How much does the feedback we give our students resemble my Fitbit? How often is it more like my sister’s? In the past, much of the written feedback I gave students was in the context of graded assignments. Often the focus was on what they missed. Based on how well my Fitbit’s encouragement motivates me, I’ve increased the number of times I provide formative feedback.  I try to comment on the positives, not just what was missed. I’m also much more aware of tone and word choice when delivering correction.

One of the features I like about the Fitbit software is the graphics. Little red dots accumulate throughout the day as the hourly target is met. Gaps, representing hours where I sat too much, bug me. It’s a game-like quality where I am competing with myself. That motivation is more powerful than I appreciated, suggesting it’s probably worth exploring how adding game components in my instructional repertoire might improve motivation for some of my students.



My Fitbit also taught me how important it is to frame experiences carefully. Each hour and day is an opportunity to meet small and large goals. While the American Heart Association recommends 10,000 steps per day, my step goal is lower, recognizing that I’m still healing. Similarly, students start from different places.  The goals they set should reflect that. I’m not suggesting lower standards or expectations.  But teachers do need to recognize student differences within each class. “One size” instruction doesn’t necessarily fit all.

Here are additional questions for teachers to think about:

  • Are there numerous opportunities to meet small and large goals throughout your course?
  • How frequently are students given formative feedback?
  • Is the tone of the feedback encouraging?
  • If corrective feedback is necessary, is it presented as a growth opportunity?
  • Do students have a say in establishing goals and deadlines?
  • Do assignments and assessments integrate prior learning and feedback?  Meaning- if we bother to write and provide it, does it matter?

What other questions come to mind?  Please share below.

The bottom line for teachers: we need to recognize that some students respond to negative feedback as a challenge to do better. But others may withdraw or give up. Motivation matters. Corrective, negative feedback is a necessary part of learning and teaching. Let’s be sure we’re giving it often, kindly, and in time for students to learn from it. Perhaps more important, let’s remember the power of encouragement in spurring students to persist and succeed.

Recommended reading:

Bies-Hernandez, N.J. (2012). The Effects of Framing Grades on Student Learning and Preferences. Teaching of Psychology, 39(3): 176-180.