February 20, 2024

No Feedback, No Flow for Higher Ed Playful Learning Design

Martha Ramirez, Fabián Dulcé, Isabel Tejada, Paula García, Jimena Alviar


Welcome to the fourth post of our mini-series on playful learning in Higher Education settings! You can find a Spanish version of this post here. This post focuses on what it looks like when feedback functions as a key indicator for playful classes from student and teacher perspectives: the first perspective refers to how students demonstrate learning experiences, and the latter touches upon the elements of feedback that educators offer to support playful learning. 

Understanding feedback

We believe one of the caveats of including a playful learning approach in any education setting is creating an environment where learners feel comfortable taking risks and trying new things. This environment aligns with the principles of a growth mindset, as both emphasize the value of effort and the belief in the potential for improvement. In the same line, effective feedback aligns with the principles of a growth mindset by focusing on effort, strategies, and continuous improvement. When learners receive constructive feedback that highlights their progress and offers guidance for further development, they are more likely to view challenges as opportunities for growth.

Playful learning encourages learners to adapt, experiment, and iterate. Feedback focuses on progress and breakthroughs, designed not to boost students' self-esteem, but rather to note and point out their daily progress, encourage their participation, and stimulate their attention in a constructive way. It also implies an understanding of the fundamentals of learning: that everyone must make an effort; that an answer must always be justified, assuming the risk of making a mistake; and that making mistakes (and correcting mistakes) is the only way to learn.

We have found that playful learning and feedback can take on a two-fold relationship: on the one hand, playful learning activities are more meaningful when feedback is part of the equation; on the other hand, the way feedback is provided can be playful in itself.

Feedback is directly related to the other two indicators of playful learning we have proposed: when feedback is lacking, student engagement is stripped away and frustration sets in. Moreover, the nature of the feedback will set the stage for how challenges are framed, whether they are seen as exciting opportunities to learn and improve (growth mindset), or as threats to our students’ self-worth (fixed mindset).

Our group motto is ‘no feedback, no flow.’ The combination of playful learning, appropriate feedback, and a growth mindset promotes a lifelong learning and joyful attitude towards life.

What feedback looks like in a playful classroom

Feedback takes on various visible forms: it is linked to the decisions that students’ make throughout the learning process. In this section, we describe the kind of feedback students offer that suggests a playful classroom. The student actions presented below are feedback cues; in other words, the kind of feedback that teachers get from students (e.g., they are trying, they are smiling) that suggests a playful learning experience. These feedback cues can appear in one single activity or in different intervals depending on the objective and nature of the task.

Trying refers to the act of attempting or engaging in an activity, task, or concept with the intent of learning or accomplishing something. In the context of playful learning, trying involves exploration, experimentation, and pushing boundaries to discover new possibilities. Students might, for instance, rearrange building blocks or create an innovative solution with various materials, colors, and resources. Feedback from educators is essential when a student is trying, as it supports different exploration scenarios by acknowledging effort and persistence, providing guidance, and emphasizing the value of the learning process over immediate success. However, when there is lack of feedback students may give up trying. Trying is part of a feedback loop.
Smiling is a facial expression that conveys happiness, joy, or amusement. In the context of playful learning, smiling is an indicator of positive emotional engagement and enjoyment. When individuals are having fun and experiencing a sense of playfulness while learning, they are more likely to smile, which provides educators visible feedback on the task at hand and can be understood as evidence of a positive learning environment. Moreover, feedback that acknowledges and celebrates smiles during playful learning reinforces the connection between enjoyment and effective learning.
When students are questioning, it encourages learners to explore concepts from different angles and perspectives, challenge assumptions, and make connections. Playful learning environments that promote a culture of open-ended inquiry empower students to ask "why," "how," and "what if" questions as well as how to improve their learning. Thus, feedback is linked to questioning since it empowers learners' curiosity and guides them toward investigating answers and expanding their knowledge. Questioning is also a pathway to feedback, as it is a way students can seek information about their process. 
Understanding is cultivated through active engagement, exploration, and meaningful connections that can all be fostered through play. In meaningful playful learning, understanding and feedback go hand-in-hand. Teachers can solicit feedback from the students - such as asking for explanations, relevant examples, or prompting reflection - that can reinforce and signal content understanding. This helps learners build a deeper and more meaningful relationship with the subject matter.Understanding can be seen through facial expressions of joy in getting the answer right. A “eureka moment” – the instance when confusion or curiosity turns into understanding - could be one of the best ways to identify understanding. It becomes evident when a look of intense concentration shifts into a wide-eyed look of surprise or joy.
Open Communication:
Open communication involves the exchange of thoughts, ideas, and feelings in an environment that values honesty, respect, and collaboration. In the context of playful learning, open communication creates a safe and inclusive space where learners feel comfortable expressing themselves, sharing their insights, providing and receiving feedback, and collaborating with peers and educators. This type of communication encourages active participation, fosters a sense of belonging, and supports the co-creation of knowledge. Feedback that emphasizes open communication looks like the inclusion of diverse perspectives, active dialogue, and listening and engaging with others' viewpoints in the learning process.

What feedback feels like in a playful classroom

Feedback evokes a myriad of feelings, which can connect to specific emotions or states within physical and mental responses. In our practice, students have expressed that feedback feels like vulnerability, confidence, validation, progress, clarity and trust. Let’s see what each of these imply.

Vulnerability is the state of being open and emotionally exposed, often involving a willingness to share thoughts, feelings, and experiences, even if they involve uncertainty or discomfort. In the context of playful learning, feedback can come from the teacher, peers, or the experience itself.  For instance, when students lose or get an answer wrong, they feel exposed. When an activity requires getting out of their comfort zone (e.g. creating, improvising, acting, drawing, dancing, etc.), they also feel exposed. Thus, vulnerability is linked to a willingness to take risks, make mistakes, and explore new ideas without fear of judgment. Playful environments encourage learners to embrace their vulnerability as a way to foster creativity, adaptability, and personal growth. Because feedback may place students in a state of vulnerability, it is crucial that it be provided in a way that helps learners feel safe and understood, promoting a positive and supportive learning atmosphere. 
Feeling confident has to do with a learner’s sense of self-assurance and belief in their abilities. In playful learning, confidence is nurtured through opportunities to engage in challenges, problem-solving, and creative expression where learners are given a chance to build confidence by trying new things, making discoveries, and achieving small successes. When feedback highlights and reinforces these achievements, it helps boost our learners' confidence, motivating them to take on more complex tasks and challenges.
Students feel validated when others recognize and acknowledge their thoughts, feelings, or experiences, conveying that they are valued and important. In the context of playful learning, validation is crucial for creating a positive and supportive learning environment. Learners seek validation for their efforts, ideas, and progress, which encourages them to stay engaged and motivated. Feedback that validates learners' contributions, even if they are still in the process of learning, helps build a sense of self-worth and encourages continued active participation.
Progress is often associated with a positive emotional state that arises, such as when learners perceive that they are making meaningful advances or improvements toward achieving something important to them. In playful learning, progress is about celebrating small victories, incremental achievements, and the journey of learning itself. Playful learning experiences often emphasize growth over perfection, encouraging learners to focus on their development rather than solely on final outcomes. Feedback that acknowledges and highlights progress reinforces the value of continuous learning, motivating learners to persevere and keep exploring.
Feeling clarity refers to a state of mental or emotional clearness, understanding, and focus. When students feel this way, their thoughts are organized, their intentions are well-defined, and they have a strong sense of direction. This mental state often leads to increased confidence and decisiveness. In playful learning, clarity is important for effective communication and comprehension. Playful learning environments strive to present concepts, instructions, and tasks in a clear and engaging manner to promote understanding and engagement. Moreover, feedback that offers clear explanations, examples, and guidance supports learners in making sense of complex topics, reducing confusion, and facilitating meaningful interactions with the subject matter.
Trust is the reliance or confidence in the integrity, abilities, and intentions of others. Learners who feel trusted feel secure, comfortable, and confident. In playful learning, trust is fundamental in establishing positive relationships. When learners feel that their educators trust and support them, they are more likely to engage actively, take risks, and embrace challenges. Feedback that demonstrates trust by respecting learners' autonomy, providing constructive guidance, and acknowledging their efforts fosters a sense of partnership and collaboration, enhancing the overall learning experience.

Ideas to provide playful feedback

Using avatars 

Integrating avatars into rubrics and checklists cultivates a playful and relatable dimension to what is often presented as a plain document. Featuring personalized avatars can inspire student-teacher bonds as they provide a visual representation of the teacher that students can relate to. This is a simple way to inject an element of fun in the assessment and task accomplishment experiences.

In this example, Jimena designed a website to provide feedback on her students’ process of creating a Learning Portfolio. She included her avatar and some Gifs. This visually engaging web page format, plus the avatar, motivated students to carefully read the information related to what they did well, and on what they could improve in their portfolio creation.   

Using a game to wrap up a course
Creating a game to evaluate student understanding and provide feedback is a fun way to wrap up a course. In this example, Martha, Isabel and Paula designed an online “Mindopoly” game for a course on Growth Mindset. The game had a hidden answer key that only the assigned "Answer Banker" knew how to find (by clicking on the plant icon). This added an element of intrigue.

Using agile feedback practices to self-direct work in engineering students

Applying a systematic weekly feedback process for working prototypes is an engaging way to involve teachers and students in any design process. In this example, Fabian uses an agile retrospective ceremony, which opens the conversation around design errors without fear of punishment.  Although the teacher provides some technical guidance to correct design flaws, it is the students who autonomously evaluate, question and adjust their own designs (using retrospective ceremonies) so that the delivery of the final product meets the requirements of the final product users.

Role-playing through mission quests & combining them with rubrics 

In this activity, Isabel proposes a role-playing task with a mission. Students take the role of secret agents while the teacher fulfills the role of commander. After completing their mission, students (agents) are given a secret letter with their feedback. They receive highlights on their performance and a rubric in a pdf file. In this task, Isabel’s students also responded to an email in a playful way.

Based on our field experience, we've confirmed that playful feedback combined with good reflection habits enhanced performance in our students (Anseel, 2009), and allowed them to learn from both their successes and failures (Ellis, 2014). Reflection, on an individual, peer to peer, or group basis, is important because it helps us squeeze more value from how the playful experience looks like and feels like.

To learn effectively, it is necessary that the environment (depending on the case, parents, school, university... or even a video game) provides the student with feedback as quickly and accurately as possible, allowing the student to reflect on his/her error as part of the learning process.

According to learning theory, grading is a reward (or punishment) signal. However, one of its peculiarities is that it is completely devoid of precision, and by means of a number or a letter, different sources of error are summarized without any distinction. Hence, the grade does not provide enough information, since by itself it does not allow one to know why one made a mistake or how one can correct oneself (Dehaene, 2019).

The design of playful learning classes (using play/game strategies) allows the learner to make visible and understand, within a safe environment, what kinds of mistakes or successes occurred, why they emerged, and how the learnings from the experience can be incorporated in a next time. As a result of this, constructive feedback and non-punitive evaluation processes can be developed that lead to joyful, actively engaging, iterative, socially interactive, and meaningful growth learning experiences.

Want to see how and why the challenge completes the playful indicators triad for playful learning in Higher Ed? Stay tuned for our next post!

About the authors

‍Martha Ramirez is a teacher educator, academic consultant, author, and researcher specialized in flipped learning and growth mindset. Throughout her teaching career, she has sought ways to teach outside the box: playful learning has been one of the key approaches she uses in every teaching scenario she can.

Fabián Dulcé is an edupreneur and a highly curious lifelong learner. Passionate about making things different in education; enjoys integrating game and lean-agile thinking to create innovative learning experiences. Since 2013 he’s been working in varied educational institutions in Colombia as a trainer, lecturer, researcher and consultant. 

Isabel Tejada is a Professor at the School of Education at Los Andes University (Bogotá). She's a passionate and playful life-long learner, growth mindsetter, and intercultural educator.

Paula García teaches future teachers at the School of Education at Universidad de Los Andes, Colombia. She has devoted her life to learning through a number of approaches, and found playful learning one of  the most challenging ways to make sure learning happens and stays.

Jimena Alviar is a proud and passionate English teacher who has devoted more than 10 years to exploring engaging and playful learning scenarios. Her curious and committed teaching spirit has allowed her to apply and navigate different teaching approaches with a varied range of students from preschool to higher education.