The Importance of Feedback: Both Fast and Slow

Feedback is one of the most important parts of a teacher’s job. Even if they don’t always act like it, students tend to be very interested in teachers’ reactions to their work. The emotional course of a young person’s entire day can be strongly affected by the sort of feedback–both positive and negative–that a teacher may provide. The power of effective feedback, of course, doesn’t only impact a student’s affective domain; cognitive development also depends on frequent and specific feedback from teachers. As Wiggins (2012) pointed out, feedback based on formative assessment is one of the most powerful factors affecting student learning.

For adult learners, of course, feedback is no less important, but it needs to be structured a little differently. Adults, especially professional educators, often have a well-earned sense of their own expertise, which they may have developed over the course of many years or even decades of classroom experience with young people. Even the most personable and trustworthy administrator, instructional coach, or trainer might offer a well-stated and specific suggestion to a teacher, only to be rebuffed as a non-expert who doesn’t know what he or she is talking about. In short, providing critical feedback to adults is complicated.

Mochari (2014) described how Abraham Lincoln was masterful at providing feedback to his generals during the Civil War. After Lincoln’s death, unsent letters were discovered in Lincoln’s desk that he had wisely decided not to send. Writing these letters must have helped Lincoln clarify his thinking, and perhaps even vent some of his frustrations and anxieties about trying to keep the young nation together in spite of a brutal war. Among Mochari’s takeaways was the importance of putting yourself into someone else’s shoes before criticizing him or her (Mochari, para. 11). I once worked for a superintendent who developed a well-deserved reputation for fits of rage, during which he would yell at employees so loudly that others could hear his every word through the wall. Hearing my colleagues, some of whom had been educators for decades, being cursed at and belittled didn’t just affect their morale and self-esteem; it had negative effects on everyone within earshot. While this is a rather extreme example, the fact remains that supervisors must tread lightly when providing feedback.

Of course, treading lightly isn’t always possible. Swartz (n.d.) outlined a system of writing feedback she used with her online language arts students. Among her insights was a commitment to provide feedback via electronic comments within 24 hours of a student writing submission. Prompt feedback is key to learning because the learner needs to hear both positive reassurances and suggestions for improvement while their work is still fresh in their minds. Most people have had the dubious experience of receiving feedback so long after finishing a job that many of the decisions and actions associated with the work have been forgotten.

As I consider the feedback mechanisms in my Demo Unit for this course, I believe there are several good ways that the instructor can provide prompt and specific feedback to learners. Wiki posts and threaded online discussions, for example, give instructors an opportunity to participate in a discussion in real-time, certainly within the 24-hour constraint that Swartz developed. Virtual online meetings and video conferences allow for feedback that is even quicker, in that they approximate the face-to-face conversations that occur constantly in a classroom environment.

Although feedback is most effective when it is prompt, it is sometimes important for teachers to take at least a little more time to carefully reflect on which suggestion(s) will have the most impact on learning. Several of my Demo Unit assignments have rubric-based feedback, associated with formal grading tasks, which are somewhat slower than online meetings and simultaneous discussions. The advantage to slower feedback is that great, breakthrough ideas often require more time and reflection before they can be formulated. If there is one lesson that we can learn from Abraham Lincoln, it is that the slower, more deliberate approach may not always be the most popular choice, but it is sometimes the most effective.

References

Mochari, I. (2014, February 11). Abraham Lincoln’s brilliant method for handling setbacks. Retrieved from http://www.inc.com/ilan-mochari/lincoln-lesson-setbacks.html

Swartz, J. (n.d.). Strategies for providing substantive feedback in language arts in the online environment. Retrieved from http://itlab2.coe.wayne.edu/it6230/casestudies/english/english.html

Wiggins, G. (2012). Seven keys to effective feedback. Educational Leadership, 70(1), 10-16. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept12/vol70/num01/Seven-Keys-to-Effective-Feedback.aspx

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