Saturday, April 6, 2013

The New York Times on Giving Effective Feedback

The lack of effective feedback to students is one of the top deficiencies of legal education.  Doctrinal classes give very little feedback.  Most doctrinal classes have one exam at the end of the semester.  Six weeks later, when the student gets the exam back it will usually only have a grade on it with no comments.  Most professors will meet with their students about the exam, but this comes well after the exam is over and the student has moved on to other topics.

This is not an effective method of educating students.  Students need frequent formative feedback to be effective learners.  Frequent formative feedback allows students to progress slowly, fixing their mistakes before they move on.  Without effective feedback is it any wonder that law students forget what they learned in the first year by the third year?

A couple of days ago, the New York Times had an excellent article on giving students and employees effective feedback.  The article argues that, while novice learners prefer positive feedback and experts prefer negative feedback, it is important to give both types of feedback to all learners.  The article notes, "Those who have studied the issue have found that negative feedback isn’t always bad and positive feedback isn’t always good. Too often, they say, we forget the purpose of feedback — it’s not to make people feel better, it’s to help them do better."  As one expert remarked, ""We need to separate the emotional side from the technical points.”

It is important to be clear when we give negative feedback. “We say, 'That was a great piece of work, there was just a small problem,’ ” Mr. Harford said. “What we tend to hear is, ‘That was a great piece of work.’”  "Professor Fishbach also said people giving feedback often didn’t give enough information, offered it too late or told subordinates what would happen if they did something wrong rather than what they were actually doing wrong. Employees need to know in detail what they should do to get promoted, for instance. If you tell them simply that they’re not going to get promoted, she said, 'That’s not feedback — it’s already an outcome.'"

While it is important to be clear in giving negative feedback, one should also avoid judgmental language.  For example, "Peter Sims, author of 'Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge From Small Discoveries,' said the film company Pixar used an idea it called 'plussing.' The point, he said, is to 'build and improve on ideas without using judgmental language.'"

In sum, "That’s the trick then: making negative feedback precise and timely enough so that it’s helpful but neutral enough so that it’s not perceived as harshly critical. That’s particularly difficult in a culture like ours, where anything short of effusive praise can be viewed as an affront.  But, again, if we look at feedback as an opportunity to make someone work better rather than feel better, we’re more likely to do it successfully. As Professor Fishbach said, 'We’re probably unaware that people would like to know how to improve, and they deserve to know it. It’s their right.'"

(Scott Fruehwald) (hat tip: Ruth Anne Robbins)

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