photo credit: Simon Grubb via photopin cc

photo credit: Simon Grubb via photopin cc

This summer I have had the privilege and joy of taking my son around the region doing college visits. Two of the schools he’s looking at are in cities I don’t visit often: New York and Pittsburgh. Thankfully, though, my car has a GPS navigation system, so we were able to do our visits to those unfamiliar cities with little difficulty. (Other than the horrible traffic around the Lincoln Tunnel, anyway.)

As I was driving my son to dinner in Pittsburgh a couple of weeks ago, I started thinking about how I used to get around without my GPS, and what it felt like to navigate an unfamiliar city. Now, I love maps, and I’m good at reading them. When I was a kid, I was in charge of navigating on our family trips. So plotting a route in new territory is something I’m comfortable with.

But even so, navigating a new city is always nerve-wracking for me. I might have a good idea of the route and my heading, I could miss a turn, or an intersection might look different in real life than I imagined it from the map, or there might be construction that detours me away from the known path. In each case, I can pull over, look at the map, and try to find my way again. But in a city this is easier said than done, and it just piles anxiety on top of worry. Worst is that I don’t really know until the end of the journey if I was successful: either I get to my intended destination, or I give up and go home.

Now, with my GPS, I have a constant awareness of where I am, where I’m going, and what’s the best next step to get there. Where before I would study a map thoroughly to get familiar with the entire territory, now I can just hop in the car, plug in the address, and go, confident that I’ll arrive where I need to arrive. Even better, I can now attend to the more pleasurable parts of the trip, enjoying the journey and the view instead of focusing entirely on whether I’m still on track. And if I do miss a turn, the GPS, with infinite patience, will recalculate the route and tell me the new best way to get there.

Grades are the old-school approach

Grades work like a map. The teacher gives students a description of how grades are calculated, what factors into them, and how they are all weighted. Then it’s up to the student to plot the route and figure out along the way whether they are still on track to get to their destination. At the end of the route, whether it’s an assignment, a test, or the whole course, the student finds out if they arrived. If not, it’s too late to do anything about it. In between, the student is focusing entirely on maintaining her course, anxious about whether she is going to arrive on time.

Feedback is a GPS for learning

Feedback, on the other hand, works like a GPS. The teacher focuses on one turn at a time, instead of the entire route. Students know that if they make a wrong turn, they will get help with finding their way back. And they pay attention to the journey, the learning, instead of worrying about the destination.

Fearless learning

My GPS has made me fearless. I have discovered that I do not hesitate to look for new places to explore, or to wander around in an unfamiliar place, because I know that I have a way out. I no longer stick with comfortable favorite places; I try new locales that I would never before have considered attempting to find, knowing that a wrong turn will just make my trip a few minutes longer. I know I can reach my destination.

Teacher feedback without grades has this same effect on students. Instead of being terrified of getting something wrong, of making a mistake that will have catastrophic results on the grade, students can hop fearlessly into the learning experience, knowing that it might take longer to get the learning done, but that with guidance from the teacher, the destination is in reach.

[This post originally appeared August 25, 2014, at Brilliant or Insane. To comment, join the conversation there.]