Use Thoughtful Group Feedback Structures & Processes
The idea for this Pattern comes mainly from my experience as a Fellow at the Institute for Rational Living. In my two-year Fellowship in Rational-Emotive Therapy (a variant of cognitive, emotive, & behavioral therapy developed by Albert Ellis), I saw about 6-8 individual clients a week as well as running a weekly group therapy session. I participated in a two hour group supervision session with a more experienced senior therapist each week and received very useful feedback. In addition, I participated in several “Pattern Workshops” at various SIGCHI conferences where a similar though slightly different structure of feedback was used. I also have had experiences teaching, tutoring, and providing feedback on scientific papers and grant proposals. These all overwhelmingly positive experiences on the whole. Like most of us, however, I’ve also been subject to a variety of diatribes, harangues, and reviews which were useless as learning experiences.
Author, reviewer and revision dates:
Created by John C. Thomas March 6-8, 2018
Hamburger feedback. Writer’s Workshop.
Life is complicated! The human brain is finite. We all make mistakes. Mistakes provide excellent opportunities to learn. Sometimes, we can learn all on our own, but in complex situations, even when we know we have failed, we often cannot tell why or how to improve. More experienced people can provide feedback to help us learn more effectively and efficiently. However, there are many different ways to point out errors and suggest improvements. Some of these ways provide much better learning experiences than others. Therefore, in providing feedback, choose a feedback structure and process designed to maximize the opportunity for learning and minimize negative emotions that can interfere with learning.
When it comes to complex behavior in nearly every human domain (e.g., playing tennis or golf, writing a grant proposal or scientific paper, writing a short story, acting in a play, or providing therapy, cooking an omelet, drawing a portrait) there are many ways to go wrong. Generally speaking, people who are just learning a field know when they fail but often they cannot tell what they did wrong or how to improve. To the expert, the error is sometimes obvious. Since the expert teacher has seen the same mistakes made by over and over, it is easy to become impatient. The teacher may forget that even though they have pointed out this same error a thousand times in their career, it may only be the first time it has been pointed out to this particular learner. Even if it’s the tenth or twentieth time, it’s human nature for the learner to “revert” to a bad habit.
Furthermore, as Tversky and Kahnemann pointed out, coaches and teachers may find themselves “drifting” over time toward more and more emphasis on negative criticism rather than praise for a job well done. The reason posited by Tversky and Kahnemann is “regression to the mean.” Basically, performance in anything varies somewhat randomly over time. This random variation can be fairly large even as performance on the whole is improving. If a coach or teacher says something positive after an unusually good performance, chances are that the next performance will be somewhat worse. On the other hand, if a coach or teacher says something negative after a particularly bad performance, regression to the mean says that the next performance will usually be somewhat better. Over time, coaches and teachers tend to be punished for praising good performance and rewarded for criticizing bad performances. (I expanded on this idea to our self-criticism in “Why do I Self-Down? Because I’m an Idiot?”). Both praise and criticism can provide informative feedback. However, they are quite different in terms of the emotional impact that they make. Except for the very least self-motivated students, criticism will tend to provide too much stress for optimal learning. The newer or less intuitive the thing being learned is, the lower is the optimal level of stress.
In addition to the emotional impact, there is another problem with criticism. It often tends to fixate the attention of the person on the wrong things making further errors even more likely. If a golf coach, for example, says, “I’ve told you a hundred times! Don’t life your head up while you putt! You keep missing left because you keep lifting your head up, lifting your head up, lifting your head up!” Well! Even apart from making the student more nervous (which will make it harder to learn), by focusing on the student’s error, the coach has put it firmly in their student’s thought pattern: “Putt coming up. Don’t LIFT UP YOUR HEAD.”
Even without the social and emotive element, providing feedback that is really useful can be difficult. In the case of putting, for instance, you may miss a putt left for many reasons: you might have misread the slope; you might have misread the grain; you might have been aiming the putter blade left; you may have hit the ball of the center of the putting blade; you might have hit the grass behind the ball; you might have swung the putter on a curved path (and, indeed, one cause of that could be lifting up your head too early); there are imperceptible imperfections in the green; you might not have noticed the extremely brisk wind. Even a marvelously skilled instructor is going to have difficulty knowing which of these many reasons is in fact the case.
Complex skills require long training. Generally speaking, people will get much further in any field of human endeavor if they have formal or informal training and teaching in that field. The more complex the field, the more training is required. The better the coaching, training, teaching, or mentoring the student has along the way, the better will be their ultimate level of skill, other things being equal. Teaching is often done in classroom settings with only one teacher and many students. If the teacher does criticize a student, it is generally done in front of the whole class. The teacher seldom has the resources to find out why a student made an error. Feedback in the form of public ridicule can be worse than no feedback at all.
While formal teaching and training form one set of contexts for which it is useful to provide structured group feedback, there are many others. For instance, ten people submit a paper to a conference but only one gets in; ten people with a realistic chance try to win a gold medal in ice skating but only one does; ten people vie for one job with a job interview. None of these are primarily meant to be teaching experiences, but there is no reason that they cannot be. In fact, it is not just contests that provide opportunities for structured feedback from others; any time people face a challenge and meet it, is an opportunity for learning.
- Our brains are not infinite but finite. We all make mistakes.
- Learning from others who have relevant experience can shorten learning time.
- Humans are social creatures. We feel good when we get praise from others and feel worse when we get criticism.
- Even a good teacher cannot see all the circumstances of a complex situation as well as a student’s peers might.
- Because teachers are way beyond the learning phase of elementary skills, a students peers, who are closer to the learning phase, can sometimes offer better feedback.
- We tend to believe informative feedback about our behavior more as more people give that same feedback.
- Due to regression to the mean, over time, some instructors and teachers come to rely much more on punishment than praise.
* Instructors often see and correct the same wrong behavior thousands of times. They may tend to be impatient, forgetting that it isn’t this student who has made all those errors.
- Each person only knows a small proportion of another person’s situation and individuality. Feedback from a group of peers may all convey the same information but someone may say exactly the “right thing” for this person in this situation.
Whenever a group is attempting to solve problems and address issues of any kind and wishes to improve its abilities over time, then it pays to provide feedback to those attempting to learn from peers as well as superiors in thoughtfully structured ways. The method should provide the optimal information but also the right emotional tone to optimize experience as well as learning outcomes.
- At the Institute for Rational-Emotive Therapy, all the Fellows, including me, tape-recorded all our sessions (with the client’s knowledge). Each week, a small group of us (3 or 4) met with a Supervisor (a much more experienced therapist). We would typically play a segment of one of our sessions that we had found particularly troublesome in some way. After that, the Supervisor would fist ask the therapist who had played the tape what they were trying to accomplish and what they felt they had done very well at. Then, the Supervisor would ask that therapist what they saw that they could have improved upon and how.
The Supervisor then asked the peers for additional feedback, beginning each time with some additional positive thing. This was followed by suggestions for improvement. It would not be helpful, for instance, to say, “Be more empathic.” If someone did say that, the Supervisor might say something like, “Can you offer some specific suggestions; e.g., what has worked for you in becoming more empathic?”
At last, the Supervisor would give additional feedback and again beginning with additional positive aspects of the interaction and ending with additional suggestions for improvements or a summary of what everyone else had said. Although this sounds very formal, it typically felt quite natural. As psychologists, we all knew why this feedback was being provided in this manner and appreciated it.
2. At Patterns Workshops, those who write a proposed Pattern present it to the group for feedback. These feedback sessions are structured in a very particular way which seems to work quite well. In broad outline, the writer supplies a written version of their Pattern. The are then asked to briefly summarize the pattern and read aloud a small part of it. Then they are asked to sit outside the rest of the group who are in a circle. Now, they are to be silent and listen (to be a “fly on the wall”). The rest of the presentation of the Pattern and the feedback will be hosted by someone else. The author is not to talking except for a brief clarification question. Everyone in the group is invited to give feedback on both Structure/Content. They are always asked for positive comments first and then suggestions for improvement. If someone has essentially the same comment as someone else, they can simply say, “Ditto.” When all the relevant feedback has been collected or time runs out, the author is thanked, invited back into the circle, and someone tells an irrelevant story or joke.
From my personal experience, not being allowed to talk during feedback and hearing the same thing from ten people is a truly amazing experience. By not being allowed to prepare your rebuttal — because there is no rebuttal — you instead listen to what is being said and are able to process what is said at a much deeper level. You think about what it means to your Pattern. What is outlined above are what I consider to be the main features that are most relevant to this Pattern. However, if you are interested in a succinct yet detailed suggested structure, see Jim Coplien’s Pattern for Patterns Workshops linked below.
3. Readers will see similarities among the first two examples. In other contexts and in other cultures, different types of feedback sessions will be seen as effective. Ideally, the structure will have been developed through experience so as to maximize group learning, as opposed say, to feeding the ego of the most experienced member of the group. Another example of a structure process is in Code Reviews.
4. Toastmasters is an organization designed to teach people how to give better presentations and provide peer feedback. Here is a link to a nice feedback guide by one of their members.
5. After Action Reviews. The US military conducts After Action Reviews (AARs) as a standard part of learning from training exercises and field experience. Some of the same suggestions appear again: the spirit of the investigation is key; preparation is key; the purpose is not to point fingers but to learn how to do better.
Once a group experiences useful feedback delivered in a clear and constructive fashion, it maximizes the chances that learning will take place, and that the process itself is a positive one. Over time, a group may become even more effective over time as mutual trust is gained and people begin to gain proficiency in the process.
People learn from feedback more effectively if feedback includes positive statements; is specific and actionable; if they have a chance to suggest their own improvements first.
Make love not war. In all seriousness, feedback can feel more like the exercise of power — a kind of intellectual bullying — than it does like a learning experience. Poor feedback or even accurate feedback ineptly delivered feels like a sales person trying to guilt trip you into buying something. You feel manipulated and slightly dirty. It’s also a lot like a neighbor playing their rock music at full blast. It mostly feels obnoxious and not suited to your current situation or needs.
Thomas, J. (1978). Why do I self-down? Because I’m an idiot? In Rational Living.