Feedback Loops

class='author'>Alexandra Davatzes, Temple University
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Initial Publication Date: August 6, 2019 | Reviewed: December 10, 2020


This assignment requires students to use analogical reasoning to identify the key attributes, the causal structure, that make a feedback loop positive (by amplifying/accelerating the effect) or negative (by moderating/dampening the effect).

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The activity is designed to introduce students to the idea of feedback loops. I use it in a General Education class for non-geo majors, but I could see it being used in a physical geology course or intro to climate change course.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered


How the activity is situated in the course

This is used in an online course, but it could be used as a homework assignment in any course. In the online course, the students are asked to do the homework prompt first, then they are given the quiz questions as a follow up to see if they have learned the concept.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

The goal of this assignment is to allow students to identify the difference between positive and negative feedback loops. This is a critical basic concept in systems thinking, and traditional teaching has led students to have misconceptions that positive feedback loops result in a desirable outcome and negative feedback loops are ones that result in an undesirable outcome and do not realize the looped nature of the feedback.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

analogical reasoning

critical thinking

Other skills goals for this activity

Description and Teaching Materials

This assignment was given early in the semester prior to teaching students about systems thinking or anything about climate change. In my online class, it was given as a two part homework assignment. The first part was the "Student homework prompt" in which students had to compare "everyday" and scientific positive and negative feedback loops. They are asked to break down the feedback loops and align components of both examples, as well as identify similarities and differences. Care was taken to ensure that the 2 examples did not both have desirable outcomes. For example, in the positive feedback loops, the students were likely to interpret the overall result to be desirable in one example, and the students were likely to interpret the result as undesirable in the second example. This is pretty open-ended, so some students found a lot of similarities and differences and others did not. Once that is returned electronically, the "quiz" opened up, which asked students to classify a variety of new feedback loops (from economics, everyday life, biology, geology, etc.) as positive or negative feedback loops.

Science of Learning: Why It Works

This teaching activity makes explicit use of analogical mapping to support student understanding of feedback loops. Analogical mapping is the process of matching (or "mapping") relational commonalities from something that the learner already understands (the "base concept") onto a new topic (the "target"). This mapping allows the learner to draw inferences about the target concept based on their understanding of the base concept (Jee et al., 2010; Jaeger and Davatzes, 2016). Building an analogical mapping begins with retrieving knowledge of the base concept and establishing correspondences between elements of the base concept and the target concept. The learner's understanding of the base concept can then be extended onto the target concept using the correspondences.

Effective teaching with analogies includes making use of the following strategies (Jee et al., 2010):

  1. Have students make the analogical mapping explicitly. For example, ask them to list what objects / materials from the base and target correspond to each other and what processes correspond to each other.
  2. Have students also identify where the base concept and the target concept are different.
  3. Using analogies with "surface" similarities when possible, especially for very unfamiliar target concepts.

In this exercise, students build on their understanding of "everyday" feedback loops by mapping earth science feedback loops onto them.

Teaching Notes and Tips

This is pretty self-contained, and students were able to do this without any instructor intervention. It is a fairly quick homework assignment, but requires the students to think critically to do the alignment.


Students were quizzed on the same 4 climate feedback questions immediately after the assignment in the weekly quiz, again during the midterm, and again in the final exam. These questions were also used in a prior semester during the same three assessments using a more traditional method of teaching feedback loops, but also with a single assignment dedicated to teaching this concept. Students performed on average 10 points higher on this assignment compared to the prior year, and did not make as many errors in describing feedback loops in later essays and assignments.

References and Resources

Jaeger, Allison J. and Alexandra Davatzes (2016). Using Analogies to Teach in the Geosciences. GET Spatial Learning Blog: Postcards from a trading zone. Retrieved August 6, 2019, from

Jee, Benjamin D., David H. Uttal, Dedre Gentner, Cathryn A. Manduca, Thomas F. Shipley, Basil Tikoff, Carol J. Ormand, Bradley Sageman (2010). Analogical Thinking in Geoscience Education. Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 58, n. 1, p. 2-13.