“How was your service today?” “Would you like to rate us five stars?” “What do you think of our product?” “How’s my driving?”
Our days are full of requests for feedback, and with good reason – listening to others’ experiences helps test new ideas, gauge performance and pinpoint what can be improved. Your car dealership knows it, as does that Amazon seller you ordered from last week.
But when was the last time you saw, “How was today’s math lesson?” or “What did you think of that last assignment?”
Like the products and services you use, you have goals. In order, to help students learn. To become the best teacher you can be. To boost your school’s performance. Your students have goals, too, as does your administrators, your district and beyond. Asking for a little outside perspective, or offering it yourself, can help make sure everyone keeps working towards them.
Here’s the catch, though: not all feedback is useful feedback. And even the most useful feedback in the world is utterly useless if it isn’t taken well. That’s why it’s so important to give – and take – feedback like a pro.
Following the flow of feedback
You’re probably used to getting some kind of regular performance review as part of a formal evaluation. That feedback matters, to be sure – but there are other kinds that can help all stakeholders continuously improve.
Primarily, feedback flows from:
Teachers to students: Students are learning new things, testing out skills for the first time, and if they’re going to master the content they need a helping hand along the way to provide guidance and tell them how they’re doing.
Students to teachers: Because they’re with you every day, your students can provide insights that you might have missed, based on their individual experiences, struggles and successes in the classroom.
Teachers to administrators: What does a day look like in your classroom? How do new policies and administrative-level decisions impact that day? You’re the front line that directly conducts and observes learning “in the field.”
Administrators to teachers: Sometimes it’s a formal performance review that covers things like student performance on assessments or teacher observation. Sometimes it’s less formal reviews of curriculum maps or lesson plans.
Teachers to teachers: Game recognizes game. Other teachers can tap into their experience and knowledge to share new ideas and approaches to problems you struggle with, or align lessons across subjects and grade levels.
Hone your effective feedback skills
No matter which way the feedback flows, there are a few things you can do to make sure it’s useful, meaningful and productive – no matter who you’re talking to.
When giving feedback:
Focus on the behaviour, not the person
This is the difference between “You aren’t paying attention, so you clearly don’t care,” and “I noticed you on your phone while I was speaking and I’m worried you might be missing important information.” When you make feedback about observable evidence, without making assumptions or judgments about the reasons underneath, you make it easier to get to the bottom of the problem and find a path forward.
A “Good job!” is nice to hear… but it’s not particularly helpful. What about that work was good? The same goes for a “Try again.” What didn’t work, and what should happen differently on the next try? The most effective feedback focuses on growth, so make sure it includes some kind of tangible example or a clear next step, so the person on the other end knows what to do next – and why.
Make it reasonable
While too little detail can make your feedback confusing and vague, too much can be plain overwhelming. To keep your feedback from getting frustrating, cut it down to just a few main points (the rest will be forgotten anyway), keep it easy-to-understand rather than overly technical, and limit it to things the recipient can actually control or change.
Keep it fresh
Like today’s hottest headlines, effective feedback works best when it’s delivered without delay. Not only does timely feedback carry more impact, but it also gives the recipient a chance to act, monitor and adjust on their end before the year is over and it’s too late to make important improvements.
Leave the “should-ing” behind
Let’s say you have the best advice in the world. If you couch it in terms of “You should do X” you might find your suggestions go unheeded. Why? It makes an inherent suggestion that you know more – and know better – than the other person. It’s much more helpful to replace that phrase with something more approachable and collaborative, like “I wonder what would happen if you X?”
Accept that your feedback is yours
All you can do is speak from your own truth – and that colors the experience, observations, suggestions, comments and guidance we give to others. That’s perfectly okay, as long as we accept that no one knows everything, and approach others with curiosity and respect, knowing we may not know the full truth.
Effective feedback is rarely a one-and-done sort of thing. Students won’t master trigonometry after receiving one magic formula, just as you won’t master lesson planning without putting some thought and work into it. Feedback works the same – to make sure things are improving, you need to regularly check in on progress, reassess next steps, and repeat the cycle.
When getting feedback:
Ask, ask, ask
Don’t just accept feedback when it’s given. Actively seek it out. Nothing sends the message “I’m open and ready to be my best” than inviting comments and suggestions on a particular area you’re trying to improve. It requires a bit of courage – you are putting yourself out there, after all – but if you make it a habit and promise to reciprocate, it gets a lot easier (for everyone).
“Hold on, let me explain myself!” We understand the urge to say these words, we really do. But you’ll get far more out of your feedback if you resist it and pour your focus into hearing the other person out and understanding their perspective instead. Plus, you’ll show them that you’re paying attention (not thinking of how you’ll rebut their points), and really care about what’s on their mind – making it easier to give you feedback in the future.
There’s no single “right way” to do the dishes, bake a cake, or encourage classroom participation. And even the most experienced masters at all three have room to grow. Trying something a different way may teach you something worthwhile and help you become even better, so meet feedback with a receptiveness to new ideas and a willingness to try them.
We can’t act on every bit of feedback we receive in our lives. Sometimes we have time or resource constraints and sometimes it’s out of our control. Or maybe we simply don’t agree with it, even after giving it lots of thought. A key part of taking feedback is sorting through the noise, looking for trends and prioritizing what’s most valuable – and even seeking a second opinion if something really doesn’t sit right.
All of this matters because effective feedback impacts instruction. It makes collaboration easier, builds skills, and improves culture. It gives improvement direction and meaning and it brings people together. And the more we get, the better we’ll be.
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