Utilizing constructive feedback for better learning.
I often ask for constructive feedback from friends, colleagues, peers. I recently did a podcast, and I asked for some constructive feedback and got this note:
Feedback! Everyone receives it at work, in school–even at home from family–and it can sometimes be difficult to hear, like I should have given more examples in an interview.
But feedback is central to learning, and it’s important to know how to use it most effectively. In this article, I’m going to give you some tips and tricks that will allow you to make sure feedback is constructive, no matter the context.
In my mind, there are a few general rules to constructive feedback.
We’re going to come back to these rules because everything comes back to them, but first.
People have to pay attention to it, they need to hear something relevant or unexpected in it, and people have to want to change their behavior because of it.
Constructive feedback is informative.
In an educational setting, feedback can really be considered constructive or even effective unless students improve as a result of it, which means they must know how to use feedback effectively. The first is a challenge of classroom culture. The second is a challenge of student knowledge. How students respond to a teacher’s feedback is usually a pretty good indication of whether it’s informative or not.
We spoke to Dylan Wiliam. He is the Emeritus professor of Educational Assessment at the UCL Institute of Education and an expert on feedback.
“If the feedback you are giving your students is getting you more of what you want from your students, it’s good feedback,” he said. “If it’s getting you less of what you want, it’s bad feedback.” In other words, teachers should focus on the reaction of the students, and, ideally, ask them, “How did you use the feedback I gave you to get better?” If they can’t answer that question, then you probably need to re-examine the feedback you are giving.
Those are important questions to ask because when asked, many students will tell you that they’re not sure what to do with the feedback they get from their teachers. One study of college students, for example, found that they had difficulty implementing feedback if they didn’t also understand the problem it addressed. The students were more likely to understand problems with their work once teachers identified it for them, offered solutions and summarized the student’s work.
In other words, students saw value in their teacher’s feedback and used it to improve academically because it revealed to them a shortcoming in their work and it helped them understand how they could address it.
How students respond to a teacher’s feedback is usually a pretty good indication of whether it’s informative or not.
Constructive feedback is somewhat timely.
This is tricky, because while feedback should be given quickly, it needs to be good constructive feedback given quickly. Bad feedback given quickly isn’t usually worth much.
OK, so what does it mean to be “timely” in your feedback? Good question. The truth is, we’re not 100% sure about that, either. Research on feedback timing is more complex than it might seem.
Generally, you want to deliver your feedback as close to immediately as you can. In some cases, delaying even a few seconds can make a huge difference on how the feedback is received. Context here, though, matters a lot. In some research studies, “immediately” meant right then and there, but in others, “immediate” feedback was delivered the next day.
One research project conducted on a college-level engineering class highlights the squishy nature of timeliness and feedback. The students in the study received feedback on their weekly engineering homework either immediately after it was due or their feedback was “delayed” by one week. Students who received the “delayed” feedback performed better on course exams than did those whose feedback was ‘“immediate.” But! The students who received the delayed feedback reported that they benefited most from immediate feedback, even though their grades proved otherwise.
So, the takeaway? Try giving feedback at different times and see how your students, co-workers or employees respond. If immediate feedback gets good results, keep doing that. For those who respond to feedback that’s given at a later date, try to follow that schedule.
In some cases, delaying even a few seconds can make a huge difference on how the feedback is received. Context here, though, matters a lot.
Constructive feedback needs to consider the receiver’s emotions.
There are two aspects of feedback that are intimately intertwined: whether the feedback is praise or criticism and how the feedback makes the person feel.
By criticism, I mean pointing out what someone did wrong and usually indicating, in some way, how they could fix this mistake in the future. Sometimes people call this “negative feedback”. By praise, I mean pointing out what someone did right, and encouraging them to do it again. Sometimes people call this “positive feedback”.
Most of the time, criticism is more informative than praise. The reason is that students, like anyone else, tend to do what they did before unless they have a good reason not to. Praise tells someone, “keep doing what you’re doing,” but it’s often something they would have kept doing anyhow. Criticism calls for improvement in some way, shape, or form.
But there’s a problem with criticism: it can make people feel bad. This is not constructive.
People have developed a variety of methods to help “soften the blow” of criticism, like the sandwich method. Sandwich criticism in between praise because if you can get students to hear criticism without feeling threatened by it, you’ve solved this problem.
There is, however, another, potentially more powerful way of approaching this problem. And that is to work to make the perception of criticism more positive.
A lot of the mindset research, for instance, is fundamentally about feedback. Students can interpret criticism as fundamentally about the limits of their abilities—“I made these mistakes so I must not be any good at the subject”—or as a guide to improvement—“these are the areas I need to work on if I want to get better.” This is important, because students who seek critical feedback improve their skills more rapidly than those who do not.
This is really hard to do, because it has more to do with the person receiving the feedback than it does the person giving it. But, if you can frame your feedback as a mechanism for growth and development, that may help your students feel more positive about receiving it.
Sandwich criticism in between praise because if you can get students to hear criticism without feeling threatened by it, you’ve solved this problem.
Constructive feedback is elaborative.
If you want your feedback to result in change, then it needs to tell the student something about their work that they didn’t see for themselves, and it should specifically describe how a problem can be remedied, and why.
But! (There’s always a “but.”) It can’t be so overly specific that the student can’t readily see the solution. Feedback that is too-specific runs the risk of the student getting “lost in the weeds” when trying to implement it.
Let’s begin again with the extremes:
Vague, non-specific feedback isn’t really feedback at all. If, for example, after a match of tennis, I ask my coach, “How’d I do?” and he replies, “Fine,” that’s not feedback in sense that it would help me improve my game.
On the other hand, greatly detailed feedback can be equally unhelpful and not constructive. If, after a match, my coach responds: “On your first point, you learned about two inches too close to the ground and you opened your racket too soon. On the second point your slip step was mistimed ...” This level of detail can be overwhelming to those receiving it, reducing its effectiveness.
The right constructive feedback lies in between these extremes. Often, it’s a matter between correcting all mistakes vs. prioritizing the biggest or most easily addressed mistakes. Pick your battles, in other words.
Let’s return to our tennis scenario. A new tennis player makes a ton of mistakes. The coach doesn’t say: “your racket is too open, and you’re not standing on the balls of your feet, and your shoulder is too high and you’re not watching the ball, and your grip is slightly off, and you’re not twisting your body correctly, and you’re too close to the ball.” Instead, the focus on the most significant mistake that will create the biggest improvement when corrected.
In some cases, it’s probably not overwhelming to see all of the mistakes a student has made. In a typical math problem, for instance, the student might have only made one or two key mistakes. They didn’t make twenty mistakes. But take an essay, presentation, or performance. There’s often lots and lots of ways to improve.
Returning to tennis. A tennis coach might say “make sure you open your racket face a little more and always follow through” (prioritizing these mistakes over others for a beginner). Or, they might just say “try to imitate what I’m doing” and physically demonstrate an ideal baseline stroke. In the latter case, the student gets a model of “best practice” as part of the feedback. And can move to match the coach’s movements without the need for explicit verbal instruction.
Feedback that is too-specific runs the risk of the student getting “lost in the weeds” when trying to implement it.
What can we conclude from all of this research?
There is no one, best way to give constructive feedback. You need to tailor the type of constructive feedback and its delivery to the person receiving it. In other words, know your audience. That said, stick to the four basic ground rules we’ve outlined above and watch for how your students respond. Listen and watch how they respond to you–that’s feedback!–and use it to improve how you communicate with them next time.
Send me your constructive feedback in the comments below.
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