For those of us in people development, sharing feedback is a big part of our day-to-day. Annual reviews, project evaluations, peer-to-peer feedback - sometimes, giving and receiving feedback can feel more like an obligation than a truly valuable exercise.
At 360Learning, we think that’s a real shame. Sharing and receiving feedback is critical to everyone’s learning process, and creating an environment where feedback can be effectively shared is essential to any organization’s long-term growth.
Recently, I had the chance to speak with Mirjam Neelen about the keys to giving and receiving effective feedback, and how to avoid a lot of common mistakes in the feedback process. Mirjam is an L&D expert, author, and learning practitioner, and is the co-author, along with Paul Kirschner, of the fantastic 3-Star Learning Experiences blog.
We got the ball rolling by discussing a broad question: what is the overall purpose of feedback in the learning process?
As Mirjam explains, the basic purpose of effective feedback is quite simple.
“The main purpose of feedback in the learning process is to help people achieve their goals,” says Mirjam. “In particular, it’s about helping people close the gap between where they currently are with regards to their performance, and where they need to go to achieve their goals.”
“Put very simply, that’s what the purpose of feedback should be.”
In a recent blog series examining the works of the Dutch L&D researcher and academic Wilfred Rubens, Mirjam and her co-author Paul Kirschner looked at the twelve different building blocks of using learning technologies effectively. In one of these articles, Mirjam and Paul unpacked the different dimensions of effective feedback.
"[Feedback] it's about helping people close the gap between where they currently are with regards to their performance, and where they need to go to achieve their goals.”
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As Mirjam explains, breaking down effective feedback into its different dimensions can help learners to get the most out of the feedback process.
“Feed-up is about where the learner is going. It’s about helping people understand where they are in regard to their goals. What’s really important is that goals are clearly defined. Without that, people don’t have enough clarity about where they need to go.”
“Next, feed-back is about how you’re going. This gives you more detail around where you still need to improve, and what your strengths and weaknesses are.”
“Finally, there’s feed-forward, which is about where you need to go next. Usually you can do this by giving people specific tasks or challenges, or suggesting actions. This really helps them to take steps to work on their areas of improvement and achieve their goals.”
By breaking effective feedback down into these specific steps, you can understand more about what a learner needs at different stages. Even better, you can help avoid one of the most common mistakes in giving feedback - a lack of relevance and specificity.
“You don’t want to give people random feedback with items that are not actionable,” says Mirjam. “The recipient must know what they need to do as a result.”
Another great way to avoid common mistakes in learning feedback? Turn to technology and tools.
“You don’t want to give people random feedback with items that are not actionable. The recipient must know what they need to do as a result."
As Mirjam explains, modern learning technologies are helping people to provide feedback that is more timely, relevant, and helpful.
“The most common technology that helps people is what experts call ‘retrieval practice’, such as low-stakes quizzes where people provide their responses,” says Mirjam. “For example, this could involve multiple choice questions using automated feedback. This goes beyond just saying that an answer is correct or incorrect, but also explains why.”
This is critical, says Mirjam, because it allows learners greater insights into where they’re going wrong. “This retrieval practice helps point out common misconceptions and give the information learners need. You can point out exactly how an incorrect answer relates to a correct answer. It takes more initial work to design these exercises, but it’s worth it.”
Another great technology in providing effective feedback to learners? Analyzing open questions.
“You can also use open questions through technology, and work with an instructor to offer context around responses,” says Mirjam. “There are some systems which work with AI to analyze text and provide automatic feedback, too. The advantage is that you get immediate feedback. That’s a real benefit for a novice.”
“As a learner, it’s good if you still remember which answer you gave, and why you gave it. That’s why timely feedback is so important.”
“Simulations are another example of great feedback technology,” says Mirjam. “With simulations, feedback is implicit, so you experience consequences in the simulation based on your behavior. Sometimes that’s sufficient, but it’s important to make feedback explicit around certain consequences, too.”
As Mirjam explains, there’s still a lot of room for improvement when it comes to using technology in offering learning feedback.
“Generally, we still use a lot of correct vs. incorrect responses to questions. This is more of a summative evaluation, but it would be a lot better if we could use low-stake and formative evaluations. This isn’t so much about a judgement of correct vs. incorrect, but unpacking exactly what a learner got right or wrong, and where they need further work.”
Often, feedback in the workplace comes from managers or executives. But as Mirjam points out, peer-to-peer feedback can be really helpful - provided the company has the right learning culture.
“I have seen instances of good peer-to-peer feedback, but I haven’t seen it work well structurally. It’s not surprising, because having a good process in place for peer feedback is really challenging. There are a lot of prerequisites.”
According to Mirjam, these prerequisites involve a mixture of trust and the right incentives.
“What is the organizational culture? To what extent is there trust between peers? If we work in the same organization, we’re peers, but we’re more than that. We may be competitors at a certain level, because we both want to be promoted. It’s tricky to balance non-judgemental feedback against all the other dynamics about rewards and incentives.”
“It depends a lot on the team culture, and how things work structurally. For example, how long has the team been working together? Is it clear what everyone’s individual goals are? You have to have a really structured process in place to encourage everyone to give that continuous feedback based on what you know the recipient wants to achieve.”
"If we work in the same organization, we’re peers, but we’re more than that. We may be competitors at a certain level, because we both want to be promoted. It’s tricky to balance non-judgemental feedback against all the other dynamics about rewards and incentives.”
Lastly, we talked about the importance of qualitative feedback in the learning process. Specifically, Mirjam explained the two steps to incentivize people to provide concrete and relevant feedback.
“First, it’s really important for the giver of the feedback to understand what the recipient is trying to achieve. This way, they can look for behaviors to help them get to that goal. They need to help them with concrete examples, saying, ‘Remember when you did abc, and the impact was xyz?’ This way, you ground things in real examples.”
“Second, as a peer, the person providing the feedback needs to offer specific suggestions. They should ask the recipient, ‘why did you do it in that way?, or, ‘how could this have gone better?’”’ This is called epistemic feedback. It helps to create more open and reflective conversations.”
One last pointer Mirjam had to share? Making feedback less personal.
“It’s important to recognize that feedback is not just a personal matter,” she says. “You don’t want to offer generalizations based on your own subjective views. These might be nice to hear, but they’re risky, because they’re based solely on personal opinions.”
Many thanks to Mirjam for taking the time to share her effective feedback insights with us!
While you’re here, be sure to take a look at Mirjam and Paul’s excellent book on evidence-informed learning design.
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