Computer-based feedback matters when relevant prior knowledge is not activated

Julie F. Shirah, Pooja G. Sidney

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: How feedback is given may influence its utility. Aim: We examined the effect of activated prior knowledge on learning from feedback by manipulating whether knowledge of a foundational concept was activated before solving fraction division problems. Sample and methods: Undergraduates (N = 171) were randomly assigned in a 3 (feedback timing: delayed, immediate, or no feedback) x 2 (knowledge activation: relevant or not) between-subjects design. Results: If irrelevant knowledge was activated, immediate feedback enhanced learning as compared to no feedback during the learning task, whereas if relevant knowledge was activated, then there was no impact of immediate feedback. On the posttest, any feedback (immediate or delayed) resulted in greater performance, but feedback timing did not matter. Thus, activating prior knowledge moderates the effect of feedback on learning. Conclusion: When researchers or practitioners are investigating or giving feedback, they must also consider individual differences of the learner such as the prior knowledge they bring to the task.

Original languageEnglish
Article number101796
JournalLearning and Instruction
StatePublished - Oct 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Although it may seem advantageous to give feedback immediately after answering so that learners can adjust strategies sooner in the process, it remains unclear whether immediate feedback is more beneficial to learning than delayed feedback, and if so, for which learners under which conditions. Immediate feedback that verifies whether the answer is correct or gives feedback on strategy (Brosvic et al., 2006; Fyfe et al., 2012) has been found to improve learning on basic arithmetic compared to no feedback in some studies. This research suggests that for simple problems, immediate feedback may be beneficial. However, other studies have indicated that delayed feedback is best for long-term memory retention, improving problem-solving strategies, and comprehension (Butler et al., 2007; Butler & Woodward, 2018; Cepeda et al., 2006; Metcalfe et al., 2009; Sinha & Glass, 2015). Butler and Woodward (2018) conducted a literature review on feedback in which they found support for the benefits of delaying feedback. According to their analysis, students may learn best from delayed feedback for at least two reasons. First, Butler and Woodward note that delayed feedback often includes information about the students’ original responses; therefore, students are better able to encode feedback because they are reminded for their incorrect response in addition to the correct answer. Second, they note that delayed feedback promotes recursive remindings, which connects past experiences with current problem solving by reminding the student of the earlier problem-solving event (Butler & Woodward, 2018; Hintzman, 2009; Jacoby & Wahlheim, 2013). They argue this effect is similar to that of distributed practice; when feedback is delayed, learners are initially exposed to concepts through practice, then a spaced period of time elapses before knowledge of those concepts are re-activated through feedback. In contrast, when feedback is immediate, knowledge of those concepts is already activated from practice itself and no recursive reminding, or re-activation, occurs. This account is in line with a meta-analysis on other forms of distributed practice in learning contexts (Cepeda et al., 2006).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023 Elsevier Ltd


  • feedback
  • Fraction learning
  • Knowledge activation
  • Prior knowledge

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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