How to deliver more effective feedback for learning

Reading time: 8m

AuthorCathy SivakChief Quality Officer
Reading Time8 minutes

Giving and receiving feedback is key for developing individuals and teams within an organisation. Effective feedback is conducive to the learning process, whether that’s through assessments, performance reviews, coaching and mentoring sessions, feeding-back to colleagues or evaluating programmes and initiatives.

If you stop and think about it, we’re constantly giving and receiving feedback in our working lives.

However, we don’t always do this effectively. Sometimes feedback is given with no clear objective defined at the start. Sometimes feedback is met with defensiveness and denial if not given in the right way, which can easily discourage us from sharing feedback in future for fear of offending others.

If feedback is so critical to professional development, how can we do it better?

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What does feedback mean?

According to Professors John Hattie and Helen Timperley (2007), leading researchers in education, “feedback is conceptualized as information provided by an agent regarding aspects of one’s performance or understanding.” Taking Hattie and Timperley’s concept into the workplace learning context, an L&D manager or trainer can provide corrective information, a peer can offer an alternative strategy, a resource such as an article or video can provide information to clarify ideas, a line manager can provide encouragement, and a learner can look up the answer to evaluate the correctness of a response.

The role of feedback is to provide people with a clear path for development towards a particular goal. It’s about closing the gap between a learner’s current performance or understanding, and where they aim to be.

As Professor Royce Sadler noted in 1989, “feedback needs to provide information specifically relating to the task or process of learning that fills a gap between what is understood and what is aimed to be understood.”

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What is a feedback system?

Imagine you’re leading a training session on how to implement a new customer service process for upselling at point of sale for a fictional coffee chain, Dragon Coffee Co. You give the employees multiple opportunities to role play how they would respond to different customer situations. As each employee gives their response, you acknowledge areas of success and highlight any areas that may need to be improved. As far as you’re concerned, you’ve given the feedback and ticked the box. Job done.

But is it really enough?

This is only one component of a good feedback system, and the one you’re probably most familiar with. However, effective feedback is made up of a far more complex system comprised of three components:

  • Feed-up: defining the goal
  • Feed-back: responding to the work
  • Feed-forward: modifying future instruction

Let’s take a closer look at each one and explore how you can easily leverage it in your L&D practice for a more effective feedback system.

Feed-up: defining the goal

Feeding-up is your first, essential step – without knowing what it is that they should achieve by the end of the learning, your learners won’t have any idea of where they need to go.

To continue with the example from earlier, the objective for all baristas at Dragon Coffee Co would be to successfully implement the new customer service process for upselling at point of sale. You would therefore ensure the feed-back refers directly to the employee’s attempt at upselling.

Feed-back: responding to the work

Feed-back enables you to respond directly to the learner’s current work. In an effective feedback system, this should include feeding-back on the process taken to get there.

In the training room, feeding-back includes your responses to the role playing activities or any other work related to the new customer service process. This gives you a chance to provide detail on what went well in a learning activity and where extra work may be needed.

Feed-forward: modifying future instruction

Feeding-forward is an oft-overlooked, yet critical part of an effective feedback system. Put simply, feeding-forward is based on providing future suggestions and training sessions. It is about developing learners by outlining future actions to help close the gap between current performance and where they aim to be.

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The problem with only focusing on feed-back is that it lacks specific detail about how to improve going forward. A combination of feed-up, feed-back and feed-forward allows you to be both specific and relevant. The learner is clear on where they want to be, where they are now and how they can achieve their goal.

Going back to the role-playing activity in the training room, perhaps the majority of your learners failed to recognise a major upselling opportunity for a limited edition blend of coffee. Providing future learning opportunities that focus on maximising these types of opportunities will help them move towards their goal.

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How can you build a culture that embraces feedback?

As mentioned earlier, feedback can sometimes be taken personally and people may lose confidence or become defensive.

Establish trust

To overcome this, the first step is to establish a firm degree of trust. This is an essential part of any solid learning culture, and employees should feel comfortable giving and receiving constructive feedback in their day-to-day work.

Encourage everyone to share ideas, identify problems and investigate root causes in order to resolve them. Encourage others to see failure not as a sign of defeat, but to instead recognise it as “a necessary by-product of experimentation”. By doing this, employees will be far more comfortable contributing and experimenting with innovative ideas, and seeking ways to improve them.

Keep the feedback relevant and specific

Feedback should be relevant and specific. By incorporating the full feedback system of feed-up, feed-back and feed-forward, learners will be able to see how the feedback is relevant to their own goals, and how it can help them reach attainment.

An additional benefit of using goals is that it depersonalises the work from the individual. It helps the learner to step outside of their work and observe it without attachment, instead seeing it as a stepping stone on the path to success.

Before giving feedback, imagine the learner asking: ‘What’s in it for me?’

Make the feedback balanced, but constructive

Feedback may be praising or critical but it should always be constructive. Combine both praise and pointers for improvement to create a more balanced approach that is neither overly positive nor negative. Negative feedback should always be accompanied by clear guidance on how to improve and should never undermine the learner’s efforts. The last thing you want to do is to destroy that foundation of trust.

This will encourage learners to review and improve any areas of weakness, while still feeling encouraged by praise on those things they have done well. The more constructive and valuable the feedback, the more likely the learner is to take action to improve.

Use learning technologies to enhance feedback

Today’s advanced learning technologies are often equipped with tools that encourage collaboration and discussion, enable feedback both during and post-assessment, and provide rich data insights into learning activities.

Collaboration tools such as discussion boards and one-to-one messaging tools are perfect not only for encouraging ongoing peer-to-peer feedback, but also for facilitating a coaching and mentoring dynamic within the learning platform. With the help of rich data insights afforded by reporting and analytics tools, it becomes far easier to pinpoint where learners are performing strongly and where extra assistance is needed.

For example, if all learners struggled with the same question on the customer service assessment, it may be that extra learning activities need to be planned around this topic or that the question is unclear and needs revising.

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In summary...

Feedback isn’t always easy at first, but over time you can build a culture that actively seeks out ways to improve and values constructive advice.

As long as the feedback links back to a goal, is actionable and relevant, and the motives behind it are positive, you will see a change both inside and outside the learning setting. Remember to model the behaviours you wish to encourage by demonstrating your own openness to feedback and keep in mind that practice makes perfect.

Feedback needs to become a standard process for everybody. Want to embed a thriving culture of learning?

Feed-up, feed-back and feed-forward.


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