The research is clear: good feedback is essential to learning at high levels. Alas, too few people understand what feedback is and isn’t.

Don’t believe me? Here’s a true/false quiz: which of the following 4 statements is feedback?

“Nice job on the project, Sheshona!”

“Next time, Sam, you’ll want to make your thesis clearer to the reader”

“The lesson would be more effective, Shana, if your visuals were more polished and supportive of the teaching.”

“You taught about ants, Stefan? I LOVE ants!”

This was a bit of a trick question. None of these statements is feedback. The first and fourth merely express a personal liking for something, separate from a performance goal. They are not feedback since there is no descriptive information about the performance nor is the implied goal of pleasing the person the right goal.

The middle two are not feedback; they are advice (which is different). Yet, I am sure that many readers likely thought at least one of those two statements was true.

In writing about and running workshops on feedback for over 25 years, [I find*] this mistake comes up over and over again. And it has unfortunate consequences. It leads teachers and supervisors to be unwittingly bossy instead of truly helpful; it leads to performers being passive and dependent upon authority: “Is this right? Is this what you’re looking for?” become the constant questions, alas.

On the whole people need less advice and more feedback. Or, if advice is needed, it should be given after feedback is given and understood; rarely first.

What feedback is and isn’t. Feedback is useful information about the effects of an action in light of a goal. If I tell a joke, the goal is laughter; the “effect” is whether or not people laugh and to what extent. The specific kind and amount of laughter is the feedback. Advice might follow from a veteran comic to a joke that fell flat: “You need to work on your timing.” But unless I have clear feedback related to timing the advice is not very helpful.

Similarly in music. In playing Chopin’s Etude #4 on the piano, I can hear the mistakes as I play. I can take note of when I make those mistakes and work on those parts. I don’t need a coach to give me advice (unless there is tricky fingering or time signatures involved that I don’t understand.) I need only to attend to feedback and learn from it.

Thus, the young comic or musician may not need much advice. They almost certainly need less advice than teachers are prone to give. Lots of attention to when people laugh and when they don’t; careful note of mistakes on the piano can often lead to great improvement as the performer learns what works and what doesn’t – learns from the feedback. The advice is then (ideally) self-given.

Note that in both cases the aim is crystal-clear: make them laugh; as a relative novice, play the piece accurately. It is only when I am clear on my purpose as a performer that I can seek and use feedback effectively. Otherwise, I wait timidly to learn from an authority how I did without knowing myself.

In education, we should aim long-term for a similar system. The feedback should be as clear as the joke-telling and music, and linked to self-conscious purposes, so that the performer – be it a student or teacher – can learn from the results.

That’s the ideal; why does it rarely happen?

There are five reasons why students and teachers get too little feedback and why the feedback is often unhelpful:

  1. Most so-called feedback is really advice or praise (as in the four examples above)
  2. The feedback is not clear and descriptive enough about what did and didn’t happen as a result of some action taken to achieve a purpose. (e.g. a total score of 72 out of 100 on a math quiz is the feedback; it’s meaning for action is unclear.)
  3. The purpose of the task is so unclear (or non-existent) to the performer that the feedback is either random or mysterious. (Without a specific teacher goal for the observed lesson, feedback and advice are pointless.)
  4. The learner has not been provided with any exemplars of excellence against which to compare their work and thus obtain feedback. (Rubrics are NOT specific enough for the performer; they are inherently general. Models plus rubrics provide the basis for useful feedback). 
  5. The feedback is too late. (Thanks to a commenter for reminding me to highlight this crucial issue, as I have done in earlier posts. It is especially noteworthy on standardized tests and final exams: there is NO feedback.)

To better understand what helpful feedback is, let’s return to the opening 4 comments and make them provide feedback:

“Nice job on the project, Sheshona! You answered the essential question in great depth, with lots of illustrative examples, and your oral presentation was polished and informative.”

I found it very difficult to grasp your main point. At the start, it seemed that you were arguing against mining coal, but in paragraph three you focused on the need to provide healthcare to all workers. Next time, Sam, you’ll want to make your thesis clearer to the reader”

Your spoken delivery was clear and your account of the topic was a helpful and interesting summary: most students were engaged. Alas, the supporting materials you supplied looked unfinished and rough; 5-6 students were confused by them. The lesson would be more effective, Shana, if your visuals were more polished and supportive of the teaching.”

“You taught about ants, Stefan? I LOVE ants! However, the task was not to please me; the task was to make students ignorant or afraid of an animal to become interested in them. Yet, you began as if the students already shared your interest in ants instead of helping them overcome their distaste and become more interested in them.”

Note that even with this added feedback, much of this might be less necessary if the teacher/supervisor provides a set of varied models, along a continuum of quality, for students/teachers to study and to use in self-assessment during and after the performance. Now, the system is approaching that of comedy and music: a self-correction system, with minimal input from coaches.

Imagine a world in which students and teachers had access to videos of all key performances, on a continuum of quality.

As I have noted before, the best example I have ever seen in person was a welding class where students were expected to examine welds on a table – some of excellent quality, some not – before placing their own weld down and signing off on it. I watched a boy, thinking he was done, inspect the welds and go back to his station: he realized his weld was not up to standard just by comparing his to the models. So, feedback need not be labor intensive or wildly time consuming. Video games and the use of clickers make this point clearer.

In my next post, I want to comment on an important point on feedback in the recently-released Gallup survey on student engagement and learning. HINT: “positive reinforcement.”

Want to learn more? Here are earlier posts – this one with more practical examples.

PS: John Merrow of the Merrow Report sent a humorous piece of feedback on my post by email. Note his accurate feedback (and my accurate feedback back.)


I enjoyed and learned from your column on feedback, but, as a former English teacher, I cannot keep myself from giving you feedback on one grammatically incorrect sentence: In writing about and running workshops on feedback for over 25 years, this mistake comes up over and over again. And it has unfortunate consequences. 
In the offending sentence, the introductory phrase modifies the first noun in the basic sentence, which in this case is ‘’mistake.’  Clearly ‘mistake’ has not been writing about and running workshops; you have.  To continue the feedback, I suggest you construct a sentence in which “I” is the subject, such as ‘I have run into this mistake over and over again.’
All the best and with admiration and a smile,
Ha! Correct of course. The English teacher in me is bloodied (but unbowed). Yet, I must say, in return, that your last sentence, while helpful, is NOT feedback. It is the advice that follows from the feedback, not a ‘continuation’ of the feedback.