Finding the Right Recipe for Giving Feedback

Last time around I mentioned that I thought it a big no-no to refer to feedback as constructive criticism. The notion of something being both helpful and hurtful at the same time is both confusing and, in this case, just plain wrong. Feedback is only information so should not contain any emotion. Therefore, if feedback is seen as hurtful it’s either a result of the giver adding emotion to it (e.g., “What are you doing! Why can’t you see that this paragraph doesn’t come close to supporting your argument?”) or the receiver adding emotion to it (e.g., “The teacher thinks I’m stupid”). For that reason, how to receive feedback probably needs to be taught as much or more than how to give feedback.

For this blog, let’s focus on the how to give feedback piece. Specifically let’s look at prescription. What’s the right recipe? A great deal will depend on the receiver’s experience level with the task at hand. Here’s what I’ve found from putting together, over the years, what the research has said.

There are three tiers:

T1 — right/wrong, correct/incorrect (good for intermediate learners);

T2 — concrete steps and specific information that targets the task directly or that provides strategies that can be applied/transferred across concepts (good for novice or struggling learners or any level of learner who has a fixed mindset); and

T3 — questioning (good for most experienced learners). The third level helps learners to develop their metacognitive skills (self-assess and use their insights to improve).

Generally speaking, you’d try not to combine T1 and T2 feedback as it does too much for the receiver and makes the learning experience shallower. Highly skilled learners are often very good at understanding how learning happens and so create their own feedback by asking themselves questions like: “Did I interpret this correctly?”, “Do I remember what I need to remember?”, or “Do I understand how to apply this info?”.

For the proficient learner, feedback received through experiencing puzzlement and making errors can stimulate them to ask questions, explore concepts, engage with challenges, and experiment with possibilities. Confusion is okay for topics that are being presented at a very advanced level but not for topics that are just being introduced. It is important to make sure that novice learners have the black and white basics first before going to the grey areas of the topic.

Learning can be seen as having three phases: 1) fundamentals; 2) remembering; and 3) mastery. Feedback is more necessary during the first stage where fundamentals are developed. That feedback may also need to be more thorough (the correct answer plus the why’s, where’s how’s). Brief feedback is better during the remembering and mastery phases. More empathetic feedback is important during the fundamentals phase then during the remembering or mastery phases. Waiting to give feedback until the learner has shown what he/she remembers is more important during the mastery phase than during the fundamentals phase (feedback can be given before the learner remembers what to do).

Delayed feedback may be more valuable than immediate feedback because it forces the learner to first search for answers as opposed to waiting for an answer to come from the teacher/coach/instructor/facilitator. Immediate feedback is more useful during the fundamentals stage of learning when discriminating between similar bits of information can make things ambiguous for novice learners.

Feedback should be provided when the learner is correct if the learner struggled to come up with the correct answer and/or seemed less than confident that the answer was correct. Feedback should also be provided when learners are relatively new to the topic or the topic is very complex. Finally, feedback should almost always be provided when the learner is incorrect.

Without mistakes there would be no need for feedback. Learners need to understand that when you push yourself out of your comfort zone, mistakes will happen. Feedback aims to corral those errors before they get so large they’re hard to come back from. However, that means the person receiving the feedback has to do so willingly and with gratitude. I’ll talk about that next time around.