Feedback vs. Advice
› You need more examples in your report.
› You might want to use a lighter baseball bat.
› You should have included some Essential Questions in your unit plan.
These three statements are not feedback; they're advice. Such advice out of the blue seems at best tangential and at worst unhelpful and annoying. Unless it is preceded by descriptive feedback, the natural response of the performer is to wonder, "Why are you suggesting this?"
As coaches, teachers, and parents, we too often jump right to advice without first ensuring that the learner has sought, grasped, and tentatively accepted the feedback on which the advice is based. By doing so, we often unwittingly end up unnerving learners. Students become increasingly insecure about their own judgment and dependent on the advice of experts—and therefore in a panic about what to do when varied advice comes from different people or no advice is available at all.
If your ratio of advice to feedback is too high, try asking the learner, "Given the feedback, do you have some ideas about how to improve?" This approach will build greater autonomy and confidence over the long haul. Once they are no longer rank novices, performers can often self-advise if asked to.
Feedback vs. Evaluation and Grades
› Good work!
› This is a weak paper.
› You got a C on your presentation.
› I'm so pleased by your poster!
These comments make a value judgment. They rate, evaluate, praise, or criticize what was done. There is little or no feedback here—no actionable information about what occurred. As performers, we only know that someone else placed a high or low value on what we did.
How might we recast these comments to be useful feedback? Tip: Always add a mental colon after each statement of value. For example,
• "Good work: Your use of words was more precise in this paper than in the last one, and I saw the scenes clearly in my mind's eye."
• "This is a weak paper: Almost from the first sentence, I was confused as to your initial thesis and the evidence you provide for it. In the second paragraph you propose a different thesis, and in the third paragraph you don't offer evidence, just beliefs."
You'll soon find that you can drop the evaluative language; it serves no useful function.
The most ubiquitous form of evaluation, grading, is so much a part of the school landscape that we easily overlook its utter uselessness as actionable feedback. Grades are here to stay, no doubt—but that doesn't mean we should rely on them as a major source of feedback.
What Is Feedback, Anyway?
Feedback is a term often used to describe comments made after the fact, including praise, advise and evaluation. Yet strictly speaking, none of these are feedback.
Feedback is information on how we are performing in our efforts to reach our goal. I hit a tennis ball with the goal of keeping it in the court, and I see where it lands—in or out. I tell a joke with the goal of making people laugh, and I observe the audience's reaction—they laugh loudly or barely snicker. I teach a lesson with the goal of engaging students, and I see that some students have their eyes riveted on me while others are nodding off.
Here are some other examples of feedback:
A friend tells me, "You know, when you put it that way and speak in that softer tone of voice, it makes me feel better."
A reader comments on my short story, "The first few paragraphs kept my full attention. The scene painted was vivid and interesting. But then the dialogue became hard to follow; as a reader, I was confused about who was talking, and the sequence of actions was puzzling, so I became less engaged."
A baseball coach tells me, "Each time you swung and missed, you raised your head as you swung so you didn't really have your eye on the ball. On the one you hit hard, you kept your head down and saw the ball."
Note the difference between these three examples and the first three I cited—the tennis stroke, the joke, and the student responses to teaching. In the first group, I only had to take note of the tangible effect of my actions, keeping my goals in mind. No one volunteered feedback, but there was still plenty of feedback to get and use. The second group of examples all involved the deliberate, explicit giving of feedback by other people.
Whether the feedback was in the observable effects or from other people, in every case the information received was not advice, nor was the performance evaluated. No one told me as a performer what to do differently or how "good" or "bad" my results were. (You might think that the reader of my writing was judging my work, but look at the words used again: She simply played back the effect my writing had on her as a reader.) Nor did any of the three people tell me what to do (which is what many people erroneously think feedback is—advice). Guidance would be premature; I first need to receive feedback on what I did or didn't do that would warrant such advice.
In all six cases, information was conveyed about the effects of my actions as related to a goal. The information did not include value judgments or recommendations on how to improve. (For examples of information that is often falsely viewed as feedback, see "Feedback vs. Advice" above and "Feedback vs. Evaluation and Grades" on p. 15.)
Decades of education research support the idea that by teaching less and providing more feedback, we can produce greater learning. Compare the typical lecture-driven course, which often produces less-than-optimal learning, with the peer instruction model developed by Eric Mazur (2009) at Harvard. He hardly lectures at all to his 200 introductory physics students; instead, he gives them problems to think about individually and then discuss in small groups. This system, he writes, "provides frequent and continuous feedback (to both the students and the instructor) about the level of understanding of the subject being discussed", producing gains in both conceptual understanding of the subject and problem-solving skills. Less "teaching," more feedback equals better results.