UNPACKING FEEDBACK

“This work is no good! It is of poor quality. No one in the industry will accept work of this standard!”

I heard these words in a jury that I was part of quite recently. They were uttered by an ‘expert’ external juror from the same said industry. This juror had not been briefed about how feedback should be given or even what feedback is. This jury member was merely ‘giving feedback’ in the way he knew best — the way he was given feedback when he was a student.

Both of us share the same alma mater, and I knew exactly where he was coming from. In the esteemed institute where I pursued my undergraduate studies, complete emphasis was laid on making the students ready for professional situations/careers — and this meant — no mincing of words. Whether we were 17 or 25, our work was viewed with a professional lens, our teachers were much like future clients. The standards were very high, and either we buckled up and faced the pressure or we could quit.

Most of us did pull through this rather objective, systematic and detached system. Several did not. Many of my peers quit or were asked to leave. Some others took more regrettable and extreme steps. Now when I look back at this, I wonder what such a professional education did for me? What good did it bring? What damage did it do?Among the good things are my own high level of professionalism and commitment to work; the total focus I bring to anything that I do; punctuality; adherence to deadlines; acceptance of varying opinions, criticisms and the openness to constantly learn; skills of presentation; the ability to grasp a situation quickly; and of course the quality of the output. Among the negatives — I think I take my work far too seriously and it would really help to not have such high expectations of myself all the time; I find it very difficult to expect anything less from others as well; often I have to hold myself back from judging too quickly and too harshly; if a student/learner/peer does not have the same level of commitment — the disappointment I feel is tremendous and personal and often… lasting.

Coming back to the question of feedback — this is a rather problematic area. One has to always bear in mind how much feedback is too much or too little; how much is too harsh or too easy; how much can one push a student and when does one step back? Often I have noticed, that we as educators, are not really giving feedback to a student about the work that the student has produced and is presenting — we are in fact going on and on about what the work could be — not what it is. And the student is not even listening anymore! We are pushing a student’s idea to where he/she clearly does not see it going! And we are pushing this idea, because in our minds we see it travelling down this glorious iterative path leading to — our idea.

Ideally feedback must loop back to the individual’s creative process. It is cyclic. Feedback is input that affects output. Output again invites feedback. Much like making and reflecting looping back together for an iterative process.

Here is what the recommended ‘Ladder of Feedback’ looks like (“Ladder of Feedback.” MakingLearningVisibleResources. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2017.):

Step 1: Clarify
Ask clarifying questions to be sure you understand the idea or matter on the table. Avoid clarifying questions that are thinly disguised criticism.
Step 2: Value
Express what you like about the idea or matter at hand in specific terms. Do not offer perfunctory “good, but,” and hurry on to the negatives.
Step 3: State concerns
State your puzzles and concerns. Avoid absolutes: “What’s wrong is . . .” Use qualified terms: “I wonder if . . .” “It seems to me . . .” Avoid criticizing personal character or ability and focus on ideas, products, or particular aspects.
Step 4: Suggest
Make suggestions about how to improve things. This step is sometimes blended with step 3: people state concerns and then offer suggestions for addressing them. There is no set time limit for this process: It can be done in a few minutes or over the course of an hour.

The ladder of feedback is invaluable! It is empathetic and requires for the person/s giving feedback to actually consider the work presented to them, carefully, deliberately, step by step. Not just should it be used by design educators but also by anyone in any situation that requires a response!

I have been trying to do this myself and it requires practice. What comes to us naturally is to be interruptive and corrective/prescriptive right from the go. This method requires a slowing down, a keeping aside of the prejudices that jump out immediately. It is more deliberate and draws out conversation, it allows for listening. For the past few weeks I have been trying to take this a little further. Most of our feedback is just words. I see and hear myself and my peers giving all their feedback using just words, reactions and response. I have noticed that after a point students are not even listening, much of the feedback they do not understand, much of the feedback they do not agree with and most of the times — it is just all a bit too much to take in.

I know this because, after every seminar/jury I spend time with each student unpacking their understanding of the feedback they have got. And sometimes, the gaps in their understanding are shocking. I use a very simple question and answer tool. I call it ‘Unpacking Feedback’. Students are encouraged to reflect and write down their answers to these questions before they meet me in person with any further clarifications that they may need.

Here is the tool:

ANSWER THESE QUESTIONS TO UNDERSTAND FEEDBACK AND UNPACK WAYS TO MOVE FORWARD

1. What was your first reaction when you saw/heard this feedback?

2. Which bits did you understand?

3. Which of these were actually useful to you? Why?

4. Which bits did you not understand?

5. Which bits can you work out now?

6. What of the feedback would you ignore? Why?

7. How did the feedback make you feel? Give specific examples

8. What did you actually learn from this feedback? (with specific examples)

9. Did you do anything else with the feedback once you read/heard it through (either immediately or for revision purposes later on)?

10. After reading/hearing the feedback, how did you feel about your work?

11. Based on the faculty feedback and your own assessment, what are the steps that you plan to take?

12. Is there any specific area/master-class/input that you would benefit from?

Student responses have been incredible. Here are a few:

In response to the question — What was your first reaction when you saw/heard this feedback?  “Initially, I disagreed with the idea of changing my outcome, but reflecting back while the panel explained me the significance of it, I agreed to the same. The panel was critical yet sophisticated in making me understand the drawbacks along with the positive aspects of my project. I was overwhelmed by the feedback and response on my project.”

In response to the question — Which bits did you not understand? — One opinion that was voiced was that although my target audience research and insights were accurate, maybe it would be useful to extend the T.A to lower classes or sectors of women who need this platform to voice they problems. I know there is a pressing need for the women of certain lower classes to have a say in the matters of their lives, however I did not quite understand how that would be relevant to what I am trying to do with my project. This is one bit I could not quite wrap my head around.”

In response to the question — What of the feedback would you ignore? Why? — Incorporating memory into my project: Opinions and beliefs are illustrated through incidents that come from memory. It already exists in the project; I don’t think I want to emphasize this as a specific element of the project.”

I have also been experimenting with backing my verbal feedback with visual thinking. I have been drawing ideas, clarifying questions, even suggestions while talking with my students. I see them watching the drawings I am making and listening. It is too early to tell if this has any impact at all. But I think I may be on to something.

Below the student’s storyboard is my visual feedback.

Over the next few weeks, along with the Unpacking Feedback Tool, the Ladder of Feedback method and this method of Visual Feedback — I will be trying to understand this whole process better and looking at ways in which I can possibly measure the impact of bringing these three methods/approached together.