August 31, 2021


In the months leading up to the 2020 Olympics held in Tokyo in July 2021, the media covered not only the athletes’ preparation in relation to COVID procedures and protocols, but their preparation for the mental stress and anxiety that they would face while competing in an Olympics like no other in history. As part of the latter, some athletes were involved in bio-neurofeedback training “…to optimize the management of their stress response through self-awareness and self-regulation of the activation levels of their autonomic and central nervous systems” (Dupee and Werthner, 2011). Athletes involved in this training are taught to recognize even minute biological reactions to stress and then are taught to regulate their response. This feedback cycle is a powerful way to maintain peak performance, despite demanding and challenging environmental and contextual factors.

In our systems, schools, and classrooms, the feedback loop that leads to powerful learning is not much different. A high-performance athlete cannot respond as successfully to a general sense of stress or anxiety, neither can students respond successfully to generic feedback and that is because not all feedback is created equally. “Great job!” or “Go back and try that again.” is extraordinarily different than “I noticed that you described your thinking in order and explained how you corrected your errors. Next time you could add how you will apply what you learned to new mathematical problems” (feedback given in relation to mathematical justification).

Feedback is meant to both support and feed learning forward. Increasing the specificity of the feedback that teachers offer students is certainly helpful, but as Heidi Andrade (2010) states, if it is left “…exclusively in the hands of teachers, it can be argued that students cannot be entrusted with managing their own learning, and self-regulation skills thus are less likely to be developed” (p. 224).

Therefore, let’s view feedback not as an event, but a process – a process guided by learning goals and one that teachers and students engage in together. Then, students can use feedback to develop more profound insights into the ways in which they learn; they become self-regulated, self-monitoring, and self-directed.

What might this require?

  • Students need to be essential players in the feedback process. As partners in clarifying learning goals and setting success criteria, students can compare current performances with those descriptions of quality and proficiency.
  • Students need to understand that the purpose of feedback is knowing how to do something differently; they can use the information provided to formulate an action plan and identify next steps. In other words, receiving feedback is not simply something to endure or a ‘hoop’ that must be jumped through. The purpose of feedback is to grow and progress.
  • How to give and receive feedback can be taught. A learner who only offers statements to other learners like, “Your writing is great!” or “I think that you could do better here.” can be taught how to increase the specificity of their feedback. At the same time, students can be instructed in what to do with the feedback they receive. We should not assume that students come into our schools and classrooms knowing how to do both; our intentional instruction in this area can help students for their lifetime.

Of course, students, being human, need to hear comments like, “Wow! Your work has absolutely improved!” or “Thanks for getting this in on time.” And at times, they may also need to hear us tell them, “You have a way to go. I can help you with that.” or “It’s time to get back on track.” And yet, if we stop there, we miss the opportunity that rich, meaningful feedback provides – students whose competence, clarity, confidence, and focus  increases – just like Olympic athletes.


Andrade, Heidi L., “Students as the Definitive Source of Formative Assessment: Academic Self-Assessment and the Self-Regulation of Learning” (2010). NERA Conference Proceedings 2010. 25.

Dupee, M. & Werthner, P. 2011, ‘Managing the Stress Response: The Use of Biofeedbackand Neurofeedback with Olympic Athletes’, Biofeedback, vol. 39, no. 3, pp. 92-94.