Effective feedback is crucial to the learning process. Without it, learners aren’t able to celebrate their progress or identify their areas for improvement.

But how do you make sure your feedback is heard? And even more importantly, how do you ensure that it motivates learners to act and change their behavior?

Researchers from the University of Surrey in the UK looked at 195 studies on educational feedback to find out how best to deliver feedback to learners – and how to make sure it’s understood and acted on.

The research
The primary and most alarming finding of the analysis: Learners typically don’t engage with critical feedback.

It’s difficult to get learners to change their behavior in the first place, much less if they don’t hear your message or see any need to change. And the research shows that, more often than not, when it comes to feedback, learners aren’t listening.

For the most part, the problem isn’t defensiveness, according to the study. Here are the three key reasons that learners don’t take feedback to heart:

Lack of clarity. The researchers found that many times learners receive feedback through a written assessment – particularly online. And often this feedback isn’t completely clear or fully understood by the learner. Rather than try to puzzle it out, learners simply ignore the feedback.

Lack of improvement plan. Even if learners understand the feedback, they often don’t know what to do about it. Just because you know what you need to improve on don’t mean you know how to improve it.

Lack of motivation. Learners aren’t given a compelling reason to act on the feedback. Typtically that’s not because the learner isn’t interested in improvement; more often it’s a problem with the way the feedback is delivered.

Recommendations
Based on the research, here are a few key recommendations to ensure your feedback gets through to learners.

Close the communication loop. It’s not enough to provide feedback; coaches and managers need to get direct feedback from the learner to be sure it was understood. Many organizations use e-learning or an online talent development system where training, assessment and performance feedback is entered and documented. And while these tools are valuable, when it comes to critical feedback, a face-to-face meeting or one-to-one communication via email can make all the difference. The key: Ask learners to tell you, in their own words, what the feedback said.

Frame feedback in a positive way. The study found that some learners disengage with feedback when they feel it is delivered overly critically or negatively. So consider framing your feedback in a positive light. Instead of discussing the negative consequences for not improving, focus on the positives of improved performance.

Establish relevance. Give learners compelling reasons why they should act on the feedback. Fore example, you might say something like, “Over the years, I’ve found that the people who are open to feedback and willing to make changes in what they do are the ones most likely to advance in their careers.”

Outline a game plan. The researchers found that many learners, while willing to change and improve, didn’t know how to take that next step toward skill development. So once you help your learners understand your feedback and how it benefits them, show them how to improve. Work together to design an improvement plan where learners can identify exactly what they need to do to develop their skills. Designate time and opportunities for them to practice new skills and receive additional feedback. Help them to see the way forward and your learners will be much more likely to choose the path to improvement.

Source: Winstone, N.E., et al. (2016). Supporting learners’ agentic engagement with feedback: A systematic review and a taxonomy of recipience processes. Educational Psychologist. doi: 10.1080/00461520.2016.1207538for earner

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