The importance of meaningful feedback

The importance of meaningful feedback: A-plus gradeMy husband just came in to read a bit of consumer feedback on a product he was researching. The book received rave reviews but the reviewer gave the author three out of five stars because “the box was dented.”

We’ve all seen this kind of feedback. Excellent restaurants downgraded because they happened to be closed by the time the reviewer showed up. Great books getting one or two stars because they arrived a day late. A fabulous resort blasted because “they hassled me for smoking on the patio outside our room.” (This last one being the very review that convinced us to book our vacation there. A very good call, by the way, but that’s another blog post…)

As someone who spends a good bit of time on the road, I have come to depend on consumer feedback, especially when I have a good bit of flexibility about where I’m likely to stay or eat or shop, and I have discovered some incredible places for all three based on comments someone has taken the time to make. But consumer feedback, and the easy access to places to share one’s personal opinion or experience also has a gladiator-like, thumbs-down, shadow side.

I reckon that some people get off on tearing someone’s best efforts to shreds, and to be sure, those little comment boxes can offer people a place to remedy whatever frustration or powerlessness they experience in their lives. (And yes, some products, places, and services deserve the cautions and criticisms they receive.) But a simple thumbs down, whether an unexplained 1-star review or some other ungracious comment like, “It sucked,” “I couldn’t get through the first chapter,” or “I’ll never go back there again” may give someone a sense of authority or simply satisfy their need for self-righteous smugness, but tells me absolutely nothing about the experience I’m likely to encounter.

The ones that really get me are the low-score rave reviews, each one reminding me of years’ worth of feedback I’ve gotten from teachers (so much so that I often wonder if those consumer comments were written by someone in the education field). You know the ones: “Best seminar I’ve attended in 27 years of teaching.” Five out of seven stars, no explanation. Or even better, another downgraded review I got excitedly listing the dozens of ideas the participant was eager to use in the classroom, a rating, she explained, “that would have been a 7 if we had had muffins at the break.” Okaaaay…

Whether working with editors or coaches or reading evaluations from seminar participants, the input from another set of eyes and ears has enhanced my work more than I can begin to express. So I get the importance of feedback for personal and professional growth.

However, the simple fact is that some feedback is more meaningful than others. Telling me that I need to spend more time on a particular topic is helpful. Telling me you hate my hair is not. Giving me feedback that will help me pace my presentation, clarify a point, or even fix a typo on a handout makes for a better job next time. The hair thing? (Yes, this was the entirety of an actual evaluation from one of my very first presentations about 30 years ago.) I guess you’ll just have to take my word for it that I’m doing the best I can with what I’ve got and let’s move on from there.

Where this really “lives” for me is in our interactions with kids, as well as in our interactions with one another in our personal relationships. I’ve known parents who will inspect a child’s efforts (whether to clean up a room, draw a picture, or get dressed, for example) and ONLY seem to notice the one thing not put away, the smudge on the paper, or the frayed cuffs on the shirt. This practice is actually so familiar that I wonder if many of us don’t even realize how negative our orientation can be.

Our school traditions are hardly much better. Most teachers will admit that the majority of feedback they give (and indeed, had received as students themselves) focuses on errors, flaws, and omissions. Or they refuse to give the highest grade possible because they fear, what, that it will go to a student’s head? That kids will stop trying? Or maybe they withhold recognition and praise for no reason other than the simple fact that they can.

I remember one conversation with a seminar participant who had given me a score of 6 on a 7-point scale. I had just started out working with this seminar sponsor and would occasionally ask for more specific feedback. (The guy had just circled the number. No comment.)

I thanked him for filling out the form and asked, “What would have made this a 7 for you?” He looked at me, completely surprised, and said, “Nothing. It was great.” “So OK, what would have made it better?” Again, surprise. “Nothing. It was awesome.” I tried another tact: “So you evaluated the program on a 6-point scale?” “No,” he assured me. “I used all 7.” (A bit of an Abbott-and-Costello routine, if that means anything to you.) One last try: “Well what would have to happen for you to have given a 7?” “Oh,” he said, a bit of understanding registering at last. “I don’t give 7s.”

And that was where it landed, in a place I could really understand: “I don’t give 7s.” A sudden flashback to a story about a college professor who welcomed a class of freshmen with the promise that most of the ones who didn’t drop out would fail by midterms. Or the high school teacher back in the 80s who bragged that he didn’t give As, with me naively thinking he had some alternate way of rewarding achievement and excellence. Not on your life. “If they do A work, I give them a B. I want them to really try next time.”

Really try? But didn’t they just… oh never mind.

I suspect that people who underestimate the power of encouragement, especially with a child, or someone learning a new skill who is vulnerable to making unsuccessful stabs at new experiences, also don’t realize how easily a discouraging word— or grade— can shut down whatever sense of safety and confidence is required any time we’re learning something new.

I think that “power” is the operant word here and adults who use their power to discourage, disparage, dismiss, and downgrade a child’s efforts rather than teaching, building on existing skills, and pushing (or pulling) learners beyond what those learners believe they can actually accomplish are, to my mind, guilty of abuse of their authority. So are the ones who label a behavior as rude or inappropriate rather than explaining the positive behavior they want instead. I begged the guy who “doesn’t give 7s” to do the opposite with his students, to give them 8s on the bits they got right once in a while and watch what happened.

So I thought I’d write this blog to beg my site visitors, especially those of you who live or work with children, to consider the feedback you give— verbal, nonverbal, and written. (Impatience, disgust, or even a roll of the eyes teaches others a great deal about who they are and what they are capable of achieving. By the way, every bit of this applies to adult learners as well.) And yes, I remember the trend, years ago, to stop using red pens for corrections, but have come to believe that color is not the issue here— it’s the content of the feedback that matters, including the content of positive feedback. (An A+ may be a rush to receive, but pointing out the specifics of what I did right will reinforce and help me develop those skills.)

So the next time you’re about to offer up your response to someone’s efforts, ask yourself: Does this comment, behavior, tone, look, or reaction help the other person learn or grow? Feel safe enough to take the next step? Try again? Do it better? Do it right?

Keep it positive. Build on existing skills and passion. Be specific with your suggestions. Because, my friends, the answers to these questions will provide the kind of feedback that connects you to the learner and can encourage commitment, achievement, and growth beyond what you have come to expect— or even believe is possible.

Related links:

A Report Card for my Teacher
Teacher Self-Assessment
Guidelines for Reinforcing Positive Student Behavior
Guidelines for Reinforcing Cooperation with Your Children
Motivation vs. Manipulation
Feedback from Students— Who Cares? by Ruth Moeller

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4 thoughts on “Thumbs up, thumbs down

  1. Excellent submit, very informative. I wonder why the other specialists of this sector do not notice this. You must proceed your writing. I’m sure, you have a great reader base already!

  2. That’s why reviews need to be taken with a grain of salt – if they like your outfit, you get high scores. If the planner screwed up they score you low and hope you’ll take that info to the planner (serve muffins, for example). Your point about kids, though, is right on. They don’t have the emotional maturity to discriminate between what’s the commentators problem and what’s theirs.

  3. Chick Moorman is an expert on creating and developing this
    kind of feedback. He influenced my writing and methodology greatly.

    1. Thanks, Gail. I have quite a bit of Chick’s work on this site. There are also several other links to posts about giving feedback to motivate, shape, and reinforce behavior.

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