Education Plus

When feedback is meaningful

Comments like “You are irresponsible” or “You are unproductive” castigate a person’s character and do not serve a useful purpose.  

Nita is elated when her professor hands back her Zoology exam answer sheets. She has topped the class and eagerly scans her paper for her teacher’s comments. “Well done!” the professor has written in her characteristic scrawl. As Nita leafs through the other pages, she notices that she hasn’t got full marks for her heart diagram. Likewise, for two essay questions, she has scored 75 per cent. But as she has scored a solid 91 per cent overall, neither Nita nor her professor pay much attention to her mistakes.

Mahesh, on the other hand, is dejected after reading his boss’ appraisal. In addition to the boss stating that he is dissatisfied with Mahesh’s performance, the boss has mentioned that Mahesh has received poor ratings from his colleagues as well. The letter tersely informs Mahesh that his job confirmation will be subject to the improvement he makes in the next quarter. After putting in his heart and so many extra hours into his job, Mahesh did not expect such a harsh review. Moreover, he is flummoxed as to what he should do differently.

Ineffective review

While Nita and Mahesh experience emotions on two ends of the spectrum, the feedback given to both of them is similar in some respects. The professor and the boss have provided generalised comments on overall performance. But neither of them has written specific comments to bring about effective change. Even though Nita has done remarkably well, she does not know what she has to do differently the next time. Her professor has not indicated why she didn’t get full marks for her heart diagram. Likewise, Nita does not have any pointers on how best to approach essay questions. Mahesh, too, has not been given clear guidelines by his boss on what aspects he should change. The boss does not spell out why Mahesh’s performance has been disappointing or why his colleagues have rated him poorly.

Knowing what constitutes effective feedback can help you give and receive constructive comments. In his 2006 book on emotional literacy, Steve Killick offers the following guidelines for providing effective feedback. When you want your inputs to have an impact, he says that it is essential to be specific.

Generalised comments do not provide the reader or listener with a clear path to follow. This holds true for both positive and negative comments.

For example, broad generalisations like “Good job,” “Nice work” or “Poor performance” do not convey what is right or wrong. In contrast, when a professor writes, “Your explanation is clear and concise,” you are motivated to be lucid and succinct the next time too. Similarly, if your boss says, “You could have made a more convincing presentation by backing up your data with figures,” you know exactly what to include next time.

Constructive criticism

Another important criterion regarding feedback is that it targets a person’s behaviour and not the whole person. Comments like “You are irresponsible” or “You are unproductive” castigate a person’s character and do not serve a useful purpose.

In fact, such comments are likely to make the person feel victimised and defensive. On the contrary, saying, “Handing in your paper late was irresponsible,” or “Spending so much time on graphics was unproductive” spells out exactly what was amiss without denigrating the person.

Even if a student or colleague repeatedly makes the same mistake, it is counterproductive to confer the person with a negative label. Rather, when the mistake is pointed out, chances are the person may correct it the next time.

Further, Killick reminds us, especially when we give negative feedback, that we describe the problem without first passing judgment.

A statement like, “Your performance was disappointing” is evaluative. Instead, we may state the issue more objectively by saying, “It appears that you find it difficult to complete your projects on time.

What can you do to ensure that you meet your deadlines next time?” Posing the problem in this manner allows the student or colleague to problem-solve and come up with possible solutions.

Make a difference

We tend to point out people’s weaknesses and often overlook their strengths. Thus, the feedback we give and receive tends to be negative. Making a concerted effort to provide positive feedback can make a dramatic difference to sagging motivation levels. In addition, when giving negative feedback, you may point out one or two areas that are going right for the person.

While we may follow the criteria mentioned above for giving feedback, how do we handle ineffective feedback when we are at the receiving end? If a professor or boss provides comments that are vague or generalised, you have the right to elicit more specific details from them. Approaching them politely, you may ask, “You said my performance was disappointing. Can you highlight specific instances when I did a poor job?” Further, by asking them what you can do differently the next time, you convey your willingness to learn and also get clear-cut criteria to gauge yourself.

Finally, for feedback to be truly meaningful, it has to be ongoing. Once you notice that a student or colleague is making progress, convey to them that you have noticed a difference. Likewise, if you feel you are unsure about the path you are treading, it does not hurt to ask for feedback along the way. Making corrections midway is preferable to being off-course again.

The author is Director, PRAYATNA. Email:

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Printable version | Oct 14, 2021 2:31:24 PM |

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