Giving feedback to adult learners – an overview

Whether we realise it or not, we are constantly giving feedback to those around us. At times it is verbal and at times, non-verbal, as with a smile, frown or with our body language. In an educational setting, providing feedback means giving learners an explanation of what they are doing correctly and incorrectly. As children, we are used to being told what to do, what is right or wrong and thus are not as sensitive to feedback as when we become adults. This is why feedback to adults must be given with the right words, gestures and in the right tone. Moreover, the focus of the feedback should be based primarily on what the students are doing right. It is most productive to a student’s learning when they are provided with an explanation and example as to what is accurate and inaccurate about their work, so that they can take the suggestions on board and improve.

Whatever the style of feedback most educators agree that it must be delivered in a timely manner. When feedback is given immediately after showing proof of learning, the student responds positively and remembers the experience about what is being learned in a confident manner. If we wait too long to give feedback, the moment is lost and the student might not connect the feedback with the required action.

Here are some of the best practices for feedback used by educators:

Keep it short and sweet
To be effective feedback needs to be limited to the most important issues. We need to prioritise ideas, consider the feedback’s potential value to the receiver and how they would respond to the feedback. Too much feedback provided at a single time can be overwhelming to the recipient.

Focus on the behaviour, not the person
Another essential part of giving feedback is to concentrate on the behaviour, not the person. One strategy is to open by stating the behaviour in question, then describing how you feel about it, and ending with what you want. For example: I haven’t seen you in class lately, I’m worried you might be missing important information. Can we meet up to discuss this?

Balance the content
The aforementioned “sandwich approach” is always a winner. Using this approach you can begin by providing comments on specific strengths. This reinforces and identifies the things the recipient should keep doing. Then identify specific areas of improvement and ways to make changes. Conclude with a positive comment. This model helps to boost confidence while keeping the weak areas in perspective.

Example: “Your presentation was great. You made good eye contact, and were well prepared. You were a little hard to hear at the back of the room, but with some practice you can overcome this. Keep up the good work!” Instead of: “You didn’t speak loudly enough. However, the presentation went well.”

Be specific
Avoid general comments that may be of limited use to the receiver. Try to include examples to illustrate your statement. As well, offering alternatives rather than just giving advice allows the receiver to decide what to do with your feedback.

Be realistic
Feedback should focus on what can be changed. It is useless and frustrating for recipients to get comments on something over which they have no control.

Do it at the right time
Seek an appropriate time to communicate your feedback. As mentioned earlier, being prompt is key, since feedback loses its impact if delayed too long. Delayed feedback can also cause feelings of guilt and resentment in the recipient if the opportunity for improvement has passed. Also, if your feedback is mostly negative, take time to prepare what you will say or write.

Offer continuing support
Feedback should be a continuous process, not a one-time event. After offering feedback, make a conscious effort to follow up. Let recipients know you are available if they have questions, and, if appropriate, ask for another opportunity to provide more feedback in the future.

Dempsey, J.V. and G.C. Sales (Eds.). (1993) Interactive Instruction and Feedback. Educational Technology Publication. NJ: Englewood Cliffs
London, M. (1997) Job Feedback: Giving, Seeking, and Using Feedback for Performance Improvement. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
McGill, I. and L. Beaty (1995) Action Learning. 2nd Ed. London: Kogan Page Ltd.
Receiving and giving effective feedback. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.