Bill Gates once remarked that “we all need people who give us feedback. This is how we improve”.
But this isn’t always true. Not all feedback is equal, with some types of feedback far more valuable than others. So what makes the difference?
The Sutton Trust report that if it is done right, feedback can be one of the most effective ways to help someone improve their learning; however, research suggests that 38% of feedback interventions actually do more harm than good.
It’s not the how, but the what that matters
For feedback to be effective, it relies on the person giving it to do it well. Unfortunately, most of the feedback training that people get focuses on the wrong thing. It focuses on the how to give it, not what the feedback should consist of. This often culminates in the typical feedback sandwich of ‘praise-feedback-praise’. However, most people now see through this and ignore the praise as they are just waiting for the criticism. This leads to them either asking poor feedback questions or arguing with the person giving it.
The clue is in the name. The whole problem with feedback is that it focuses on the past. You feed back to someone about what they have done well or what they did poorly. For learning to take place, we have to make students think about how to improve. If all the information they are getting is descriptive about what has happened, this is unlikely to occur.
Feedback can and does have its place. It can be used to highlight errors, which can be a starting point for better reflection and self-awareness (two things associated with metacognition). Another problem with just focusing on the outcome, is it can lead to the person receiving the feedback to feel under attack, as they may be unable to separate the feedback of their outcome with who they are as a person.
Try feeding forward
Feeding forward puts an emphasis on what to do next and on how to get better. It offers suggestions on what to do next time. The emphasis is on strategies, behaviours and processes and not just on past outcome or current level. Whereas with feedback, the teacher does most of the work. With feeding forward, you get the students to think about what they need to do. You get them focused on moving forward.
A good way to start a discussion on feeding forward is to ask students “what would you do differently next time?”. This leverages your time effectively as it helps shift their focus away from the past and more towards what they need to do, whilst not being too time intensive on your behalf. An added bonus on feeding forward is that the emphasis is on getting better at the task, which avoids people getting defensive and arguing, which often happens if they are feeling personally judged.
Feedback obviously has it’s time and place. But the whole point of it is that students leave the conversation with a clearer understanding of what it is they need to get better at. If they only get feedback on what they have done, this may be unlikely to occur. Combining feedback with feedforward - with an emphasis on the latter and not the former - is probably more likely to save the person giving it time and help the person receiving it improve.