Helpful Hints: The Art of Teaching, Not Telling

Fulcrum Labs
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Remember the old saying: “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, but teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”?

The same is true in learning, especially when it comes to feedback. Giving students the correct answers as a primary form of feedback is a lot like giving them a fish. They might be able to pass the test tomorrow, but for deeper learning that can be carried well into the future, they need more. We have to teach them to fish. Meaning, we have to help students pursue the underlying principles of the subject matter (not just the facts) so that they can remember more of what they’ve learned, be able to apply it and innovate more freely.

Teaching Learners to “Fish” Through Hints

One way that’s proven to help students “fish,” and take ownership of knowledge, is a hint-based, elaborated feedback model. Within this model, detailed components guide students to successful task completion without immediately providing knowledge of the correct response.

In fact, several researchers have concluded that feedback is significantly more effective when it provides details of how to improve an answer, rather than just indicating whether the learner is correct or incorrect (e.g. Bangert-Drowns et al., 1991; Pridemore Klein, 1995). Additionally, research shows that response-specific feedback (a fancy way of saying feedback on a specific answer choice) enhances student achievement, particularly learning efficiency, more than other types of feedback, like simple verification or “answer until correct” (e.g. Corbett and Anderson, 2001; Gillman, 1969; Mory, 2004; Shute, Hanson and Almond, 2007).


Why Hints Work

Hint-based feedback is so effective because it:

  • Builds cognitive scaffolding – Organizing feedback into helpful hints – ones that either point the student in the direction of the correct answer or explain why their current answer choice is incorrect – provides a form of cognitive scaffolding on which to build new learning (Hartman 2002). These types of hints support the learner until the content becomes so well engrained that it, in and of itself, serves as a scaffold for the next learning (Vygotsky, 1987). Indeed, research into hint-based feedback shows an overlap between students who systematically use hints and better performance.


  • Supports self-efficacy and motivation – Elaborated feedback (e.g. hints, cues and good-to-know information) offers opportunities for students to engage in mastery experiences, or moments of success. By giving a hint, rather than the correct answer, students have another chance to practice, another chance to succeed. These mastery experiences are one of the most important sources for developing positive self-efficacy, or positive perceptions of one’s competence (Bandura, 1997; Usher and Pajares, 2006). And they can, in turn, impact a student’s motivation. It turns out that people who have a high level of self-efficacy – or confidence in their ability to complete a task/achieve a goal – are more likely to remain motivated in pursuit of said learning/goal and are much more resistant to failure and setbacks.


  • Addresses needs of adult learners – Andragogy tells us that adult students (including college-age learners) have a clear concept of self and do not like others imposing their wills on them. They don’t want to be controlled; rather they want to be able to practice ownership over their own learning. Hints, as opposed to other controlling-and-correcting forms of feedback like “repeat-until-correct” or “error flagging,” provide higher ed students with the environment they need to learn more successfully and control their own metacognitive process.

Hints within Fulcrum

All this research supports our system’s hint-based feedback model. Our platform is designed to perform like a virtual, one-on-one tutor. Within each course in our platform, students can practice their skills with a series of adaptive assessments and not be penalized for incorrect answers. Rather, the platform’s AI guides them toward learning the correct knowledge with answer-specific hints for every question. For example, questions often have common wrong answers; our hint feature presents specific pieces of knowledge and insights that give people an opportunity to learn the correct answers. And instead of simply giving a single hint per question, Fulcrum helps students learn the correct answers by delivering hints based on their unique answer choices, just like a personal tutor would. (In other words – our hints aren’t one-size-fits all.)

And just like a one-on-one tutor would, our system also provides this hint feedback in the moment – the time that research tells us is most critical for efficient retention of the content (Phye and Andre, 1989).

See the examples below for three different variations of hints within a single question in the Fulcrum Platform:

Example 1 (above): A multiple-choice assessment in a Critical Thinking Section of a course wherein a student has chosen “evidence” as their answer selection. This answer is incorrect. But rather than providing the right answer, Fulcrum’s platform gives a helpful hint that points the student toward the accurate information.

Example 2 (above): The same question as Example 1, but a different answer selection highlights the variation in Fulcrum’s hint capabilities. Here, the student has selected “judgments”, which is also an incorrect answer. The student has chosen to show the hint and take advantage of this short tip. Hints can include text, images or even external links


Example 3 (below): A “Good To Know” hint once a student has selected the correct answer provides context and further elaboration that, in turn, improves retention.


As always, the platform incorporates its machine learning capabilities to collect and analyze data regarding hint efficacy, use and students’ subsequent behavior. This data informs both our internal learning experts and the system’s AI, and enables us to optimize hints based on performance and behavior metrics.

Deep learning requires that students think critically and arrive at the answer on their own, rather than being spoon-fed. Hints are a perfect way to guide them toward mastery of the content, improve knowledge application and enhance performance. In fact, this notion goes to the very heart of the Fulcrum Labs mission: To turn students into learners and learners into confidence subject matter masters.

If you’re interested in learning more about how Fulcrum provides students with the optimal feedback to meet their learning needs, let schedule a demo so you can see our tutor-like AI and machine learning behind the adaptive curtain. We’ll also show you our library of 11 academic courses and 3 skills courses, such as Steps to Success and Fundamentals of Reading & Writing – all Fulcrum-enabled and all off-the-shelf ready for deployment in higher education classrooms.

You can also learn more about our adaptive platform from this short overview video.

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