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Jenny Baker
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Max. Classroom Capacity: Needs Improvement: Teaching Feedback With Feedback

Loren J. Naidoo, California State University, Northridge

Just the other day I heard a story about a colleague of mine. A newly hired assistant professor, she had agreed to teach a class that she had never taught before in a new program. She e-mailed her syllabus to the director of the program, whom she had never met. During a break in a heavily attended college event she was approached by the program director who introduced himself, then quickly started to critique her syllabus both for its content and formatting, in an oblique way, without really engaging in a substantive discussion of his concerns. She left the interaction feeling confused, attacked, and upset that this awkward conversation had happened in front of a large group of colleagues in a public setting without any warning.

As I-O psychologists, we know from decades of research and practice that feedback is important, yet I’m sure we can all think of challenges that we have experienced either in receiving or delivering feedback. Effectively delivering and receiving feedback are both very important and difficult, and by extension, they are important skills to build in students of I-O psychology. There were two main questions I considered in preparing this column. First, what are some critical lessons learned, according to experts versed in the science and practice of feedback, that we should try to incorporate into our classrooms? Second, what can we do in the classroom to prepare our students to effectively deliver and receive feedback in their future professional lives?

To help answer these questions, several experts generously agreed to speak with me about feedback: Paul Levy, the chair of the psychology department and former chair of the I-O doctoral program at the University of Akron, who has published extensively on feedback and performance management; Rob Silzer, managing director of HR Assessment and Development, Inc. and doctoral faculty in the Baruch College, CUNY, I-O psychology doctoral program; and Brodie Riordan, senior manager of Partner Learning and Development at McKinsey & Company. What follows is a highly condensed version of my conversations with these three luminaries—they each had a lot more to say than I could fit in one column, sadly!

I started by asking them about key principles for effective feedback delivery. By the way, there is a whole lot of literature on performance feedback that I won’t try to reiterate here (a great starting point is Kluger and DeNisi’s classic 1996 Psychological Bulletin article). There was a lot of agreement among the experts, and several key themes emerged. First, according to Riordan, we should “make [feedback] specific and evidence based. Always give feedback on things you can see with your eyes, not based on opinions or assumptions. One of my favorite ways to structure feedback, which I learned from [Center for Creative Leadership] a decade ago is the situation–behavior–impact framework. When offering feedback—positive or negative—describe the situation, the specific behavior you observed, and the impact—why it matters. Using this framework is also helpful because it encourages people to pause and think about what they want to say ahead of time and why.” Similarly, Silzer noted that feedback based on evidence often carries more weight for the receiver: “Is the feedback data based? Do you have any credibility in giving this feedback? You should use behavioral data as much as you can. One of the things I often do in assessments or coaching is I will interview a dozen folks who work with the person and collect lots of behavioral data and feedback, which is very powerful information. It gives me great insight into the individual, but it also gives me a solid platform to stand on to help the person understand their own behavior. If half of these folks see the same behavior, then the individual will start to listen to the feedback.”

Second, feedback should be interactive and based on two-way communication, and its effectiveness is dependent on building positive social relationships. “I see it as a two-way communication process,” said Silzer. “If you are oblivious to the other person, then you wind up telling or directing or declaring, and those approaches are rarely effective.” Similarly, “the top-down authoritarian approach just usually doesn’t work as well as a more open approach that is based on active listening and a true dialogue,” noted Levy. “Credibility and trustworthiness are really important as we are talking about interpersonal dynamics.”

Third, feedback should be timely, but it’s important to pay attention to the context in which feedback is delivered. From Riordan: “Provide feedback as soon as possible after the event or behavior occurs. This not only shows that you care, it also ensures the situation is fresh in the other person’s mind. If you’re in a public setting (e.g., in a team meeting or a public cafeteria—yes, I have seen awkward feedback conversations in the office kitchen), wait until you can be in private!” Echoing that sentiment, Silzer believes that we should consider “Is this the right time, the right location, the right time of the week, the right setting—all sorts of context issues can have a huge bearing on whether the feedback is going to be effective and received well.”

Maybe none of the above was new to you—at worst, I hope it was a quick reminder of some best practices in performance feedback. But it does set the stage for the next questions, which are, as educators: (a) How do we model the practices of effective feedback in the classroom? Do we practice what we preach when it comes to grading students? and (b) How do we teach feedback skills to students? In other words, (a) refers to our own practices of delivering and receiving feedback as part of normal classroom activities (e.g., assigning grades and delivering other performance feedback), whereas (b) refers to teaching practices we can use to prepare I-O psychology students to effectively deliver and receive feedback at work. Levy and Silzer have both sought to answer these questions, and I’ll share some of the things I’ve tried in my classes as well.

One of the most common forms of performance feedback in the classroom is grades. Let’s each take a moment to consider to what extent we deliver grades that are behaviorally specific and evidence based, in a two-way communication process that is not top down or authoritative, and in a way that is sensitive to the social context of each receiver. I suspect that many of us fail to follow at least some of these principles in delivering performance feedback in the classroom, and there are probably good reasons for this. “I think [treating grades strictly as performance feedback] questions the way we ‘do’ higher education and the way in which we ‘qualify’ people for jobs or whatever the next step is,” said Levy. “Yes, the emphasis on grades is heavier than it should be, but grades are how the system evaluates success. I think there is merit here, but I do wish we could focus less on grades and more on detailed, diagnostic feedback. I think all good professors try to do that—I invite (beg!) students in my undergrad I-O class to come meet with me and go over their tests, but they seldom do. I usually find that if anyone comes to see me, it’s the student who expected an A and received a high B or even the A student who wanted an even higher A. I’m not sure how I can impart the kind of feedback I’d like to impart without doing it in class when I have a captive audience, but that’s not very feasible.” In fairness, having more than a handful of students makes it impractical for most instructors to deliver one-on-one feedback to every student. I’m not sure how many managers have 60+ direct reports at a given time, but I would guess that most of them wouldn’t be able to deliver effective feedback to all of their employees either.

However, we can (and probably should) try to create as many opportunities as possible to have constructive one-on-one conversations with students about their grades. According to Levy, “My experience with faculty is that we tend to discuss grades in a reasonable way. Most of my conversations with other faculty and with students suggest that conversations about grades are usually forward looking in terms of opportunities (e.g., you can still improve your grade a lot) with some firm ideas about how to improve. I remember a conversation with a student who asked me, point blank, ‘How would you study for your tests?’ I thought that was a great question and I told her. She did what I suggested and then came back to me at the end to tell me that it worked—this was a very good day!! But what works for one won’t for all. I do find that the current undergrads (the Gen Z folks) get more comfortable asking questions with me as the semester progresses. Back to those relationships again; if I can build that and they trust me (and even enjoy chatting with me—this isn’t always easy), I can give useful feedback and they may even seek it out.”

Although we may fail as instructors in modeling best practices in performance feedback when it comes to grading, there are ample opportunities to teach feedback in a more direct way. For example, Silzer focuses on teaching feedback skills in his highly innovative coaching and assessments doctoral courses: “In both of these courses, learning how to give feedback is a core part of being a good assessor or being a good coach. We do go over feedback skills, but most importantly we let them practice those skills, and we give them feedback on the practice.” Silzer guides his students through the process of collecting data on three “client” individuals, integrating the data, and delivering the feedback to each individual: “They collect data on three different people--on a peer and on two undergraduates. The data in the individual assessments course include a role-play exercise, in-basket exercise, cognitive testing, personality testing, and interest testing; so it is a full assessment battery. I teach them how to interpret all of that data and integrate it. Then they have to sit down with their ‘client’ individual and provide an integrated feedback session. They also get a feedback reaction from their client to their feedback. This usually also involves building a development plan for the individual.” For Silzer, this is a resource-intensive process: “I will sit down with each graduate student individually for several hours, on each client case. They have to present their integration sheet and analysis on the individual and describe their assessment conclusions. I give them feedback and critiques about how they interpreted the data, how they integrated the data, and how well they captured and understood the individual, and so on. So, I am demonstrating to them how to give feedback to others.”

I think there’s a lot of value in this kind of intensive training for I-O psychology doctoral students. However, I also think that we can teach feedback skills in a less intensive way in many I-O psychology classes, be they at the undergraduate, MS, or PhD level. As an example, in my undergraduate leadership skills class, I present some of the key best practices in feedback delivery, and then I ask students to engage in several role-play exercises in groups of three. One student, assigned to the role of manager, is given simplified performance evaluation notes and is asked to deliver this feedback to a subordinate. The second student, the subordinate, is instructed to be resistant to this feedback. The third student observes and takes detailed notes on the relevant behaviors of both the manager and the subordinate. Once the interaction is over, the student observer shares his or her detailed, behavioral feedback on how the feedback conversation went. Then, students rotate roles and repeat the exercise with new sets of performance evaluation notes. In one set of performance notes the key issue is the poor personal hygiene of an employee at a fast food restaurant. This seems to be a memorable challenge for many undergraduate students because of the delightful awkwardness of trying to deliver this kind of performance feedback, even in a role play, and the practical relevance of the scenario. Several different students with experience working in food services have since described to me, in gory detail, examples where they had to cope with just such a situation. At least, I think role play leads students to appreciate that delivering performance feedback requires preparation, forethought, and sensitivity.

I use a slightly more intensive exercise in terminal-master’s-level classes. I created a team decision-making simulation exercise in which half the class was assigned to participate in the exercise, and the other half were each assigned to observe and take notes on one participant during the exercise. Later, the roles were switched so every student is both a participant and an observer. The simulation involved teams formed of members with different and often conflicting roles, information, and motivations who must come together to make strategic decisions in a high-pressure environment—ramping up the pressure is key to making it very difficult for students to stay on their best behavior, which increases the realism of the simulation and provides more data for the observers. Following the simulation, each observer wrote a detailed behavioral report on the participant’s performance in the simulation on multiple dimensions and then presented this feedback to the participant in a feedback session, while a third student observed this interaction. That third student then shared his/her feedback on the delivery and reception of the feedback during the feedback session.

In sum, feedback is important. Grades, including how we deliver them, are often not terribly consistent with what we know about effective feedback, but I hope that I’ve shared some ways that we can help build critical feedback skills in our students.

As always, dear readers, please email me with your questions, comments, and (timely, specific, data-based, considerate, and contextually appropriate) feedback: Loren.Naidoo@csun.edu.

Many thanks to Drs. Levy, Silzer, and Riordan for their generosity in contributing to this column!

Reference

Kluger, A. N., & DeNisi, A. (1996). The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory. Psychological Bulletin, 119, 254−284.

 

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