How do I make sure my feedback is timely and appropriate

Feedback is a vital part of education and training. When the process of providing feedback is carried out well, the feedback can motivate learners and help them to improve their performance. Constructive feedback is information-specific, issue-focused, and based on observations. Constructive feedback will identify strengths (what the student has done well) and areas for improvement (where the student might have done better). The process of providing learners with constructive feedback should be part of the overall interaction between teacher and learner, should include student’s self assessment and not be a one-way communication from teacher to learner.

Price (see taking it further) suggests that feedback can serve a number of purposes

  1. Correction (helping students to put things right by taking corrective action);
  2. Reinforcement (a stimulus providing positive or negative reinforcement to behavior);
  3. Forensic Diagnosis (diagnosing problems with the work so that students can see how to improve);
  4. Benchmarking (identifying a gap between current performance and the standard of expected performance); an
  5. Longitudinal development (supporting improvements in the next assignment and beyond).

 

It is important that both staff and students are clear about a) the purpose(s) of feedback and b) the value of feedback. Lack of understanding of purpose can lead to feedback that is confused, confusing and ultimately ineffective for both parties. Lack of understanding of the value of feedback can result in teachers failing to meet students’ developmental needs and in students failing to see the utility of feedback for their short term and long term development. Ultimately teaching staff want to see students apply feedback in subsequent work and students want to see applicability of feedback in the “content and timing of feedback provided.” The surest way to achieve this is to have a developed relationship between teachers and students.

Types of Feedback

Feedback in academic and clinical settings can be informal, in day-to-day encounters between teachers and students or it can be more formal as part of written or clinical assessment of learners’ performance (See Hesketh in Taking it Further). Feedback can also take a variety of forms and come from a number of sources. For example, feedback can be written, verbal or numerical and depending on context it can come from academics, clinical educators, health professionals and from patients (e.g. communication and attitude).

Whether formal or informal, feedback can have either a directive function or a facilitative function (See Archer inTaking it Further).

  • Directive feedback tells the learner what needs to be corrected. For example, a clinical educator might notice that a student has omitted a step in the procedure for e.g. male catheter insertion whilst practicing on simulated patient. Directive feedback would simply point out the mistake and tell the student how to remedy the mistake.
  • Facilitative feedback involves providing comments and suggestions to support recipients in self-correction. For example, a teacher might notice a student making a mistake whilst practicing e.g. male catheter insertion on a simulated patient. Facilitative feedback might consist of asking the student to review the steps in the procedure as opposed to telling the student what has been omitted.

Archer (see Taking it Further) suggests that facilitative feedback may work better for high achievers than for novice learners and that delayed feedback (wait until the task is completed) may be more appropriate for high acheivers engaged in complex tasks. These considerations do not provide the definitive answer on how to give feedback. However, they do indicate the need to consider how and when feedback is being given.

Giving Effective Feedback

The previous section made it clear that providing good feedback is, to some degree, dependent on context and the students’ ability. That is, the form and timing of the feedback depend on the achievement level of students, on what students are learning and on where students are learning. This makes it difficult to provide generic advice on providing good feedback. However, the following “rules” will broadly apply in a more formal feedback session.

To be effective, formal feedback should:

  • Be given as soon after an evaluation/assessment as possible;
  • Focus on the positive as well as areas for development;
  • Highlight specific examples of where behaviours might be changed or where learning needs to occur;
  • Suggest alternative behaviours or aspects for improvement (goal setting);
  • Check for understanding of the feedback provided;
  • Be given in an appropriate time and place;
  • Be given privately;

Feedback should not:

  • Be too general (telling a student that they did a great job on an essay may make the student feel good, but it does not help the student to understand their strengths);
  • Criticise without making either directive or facilitative recommendations for change (students must supported in improving through e.g. goal setting);
  • Be dishonestly kind (trying to spare a student’s feelings ultimately does them a disservice).

The following guidelines apply broadly to giving informal feedback (See Hesketh in Taking it Further):

  • Feedback should take place at the time of the even or very soon after so that the event is fresh in the mind of the student and educator;
  • Feedback should focus on specific actions and not generalisations e.g. “You did X really well” rather than “Good job.”
  • Avoid body language and facial expressions that might convey unintended messages to the recipient e.g. rolling of the eyes, shaking of the head;
  • Be careful when giving negative feedback in front of peers;
  • Limit your feedback to what the trainee needs to know in order to improve.

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