Are You Good At Giving Feedback? An Exercise in Clapping

Good feedback makes teaching and learning more effective

Posted Feb 25, 2010

My brother teaches middle school social studies, a job that requires him to give lots and lots of feedback.  Some of it is called grading.  A big part of his job is to teach kids to do a careful analysis, then present good, clear arguments that are well bolstered with facts.  One of the hardest parts of his job is helping students to understand how to master this craft when every essay they write has slightly different demands and requirements. 

Parents often spend a lot of time doing the same thing, although the behaviors we are looking for aren’t always as clear cut as the rubric for grading a persuasive essay.  In her work on parenting style, Baumrind found that all parents had fairly clear ideas about how they want their children to behave, although they differ in how they help their children get there.  Even if parents can’t always articulate them clearly, they can always tell that when their expectations have been violated.  It’s when they get annoyed.

At work, supervisors do the same thing, judging employees' performance based on how well it matches up to their internal sense of how the job should be done.

All of us – teachers, parents, and supervisors – are constantly passing judgments and providing feedback so that those we’re working with will perform better over time.   

My brother shared this exercise with me.  I think it does a good job of demonstrating what kind of feedback is most helpful and it's one I often do in class.  But it requires a little imagination. 

The Clapping Contest: An Exercise for the Imagination

Imagine you are taking part in a clapping contest.  I know it’s an odd thing to do, but just imagine it.  Three judges are chosen to rate the quality of clapping on a 1-5 scale, with 5 being the very best score and 1 being the worst.  You are competing in this contest and you really want to do well.  You have one practice trial where you get feedback and then you do it for real.

Scenario One:  You enter the room and stand in front of the judges, ready for your practice trial.  You clap wildly – frantically and enthusiastically for the required 30 seconds.  Then you stop.  The judges confer.  Judge 1 gives you a 3.  Judge 2 gives you a 2.  Judge 3 gives you a 3.  You leave the room with 3 minutes to prepare for your performance. 

Scenario Two:  You enter the room and stand in front of the judges.  You clap wildly for 30 seconds.  Then you stop.  The judges confer.  “I don’t really like the fact that you started your applause at such a quick pace.  There was no texture to your performance”, stated the first judge.  “And the beats were much too close together”, said the second.  Judge 3 just shook her head.  “Too quiet.  Much too quiet.”  You earn two 3s and a 2.  You leave the room to prepare. 

Scenario Three:  You enter the room and clap wildly for 30 seconds.  The judges confer.  “What I think really makes an excellent performance”, explained the first judge, “is a performance that builds.  I like it to began slowly and then get louder and louder, almost like a crashing wave.  What you did was great for the end part, but it would have much more impact if you created some contrast between the beginning and the end.”  The second judge nodded.  “You can also increase the crescendo by starting with slower, quieter clapping, but then getting faster and louder towards the real triumphant ending. Your clapping at the end was quite good”  “You’re looking for a sharper sounds as well”, said the third judge.  “You keep clapping with the middle of your hands, but you really want that sharp sound to give it some definition.  I absolutely hate that hollow palm on palm sound”.  You earn two 3s and a 2 and go to prepare for your final performance.

Think:  In which scenario do you think your final performance will really shine?

In Scenario 1, you’ve gotten feedback – your marks – but you have no idea what they’re based on.  You know you need to change something.  But what?  They’ve given you no clue, so you’re equally likely to change for the worse as change for the better.

In Scenario 2, you’ve been told what not to do, but you don’t know what your goal is.  So you can avoid the behavior you know they didn’t like (being quiet, starting too loudly and not having enough texture, and clapping too fast).  But what are they looking for?  There are many, many ways of clapping that avoid those things but still aren’t right.  Note too, that in my example, I had the judges give negative feedback. But it works the same way if they only praised you. If they tell you what you did right, but gave you mediocre marks, you know you need to change.  But you don’t know what or how.

Scenario 3 is the most useful.  They tell you what your goal is – eliminating a whole range of possible behaviors.  They tell you which aspects of your behavior will help you towards optimal performance.  They tell you what they don’t like as well.  And they even give you some ideas for behaviors or techniques you may not have thought about. 

Give the feedback you’d need to do your best. 

All of us have had teachers, bosses, or parents who gave us feedback that look like Scenario I, Scenario 2, or Scenario 3.  If we’re in a position to give feedback to others, we need to help them to do their best by both telling them clearly what we’re looking for, praising what they’re doing well, telling them what’s wrong, and suggesting new ways to accomplish their goals.

Sometimes that's hard to articulate what we're looking for  - especially at the beginning.  But we almost always have a gut feeling for what's closer to what we're looking for or what's farther away or even downright wrong or annoying.  And talking to our students or the people we're supervising and explaining what we're looking for, having them ask us questions or try new things out almost always makes things clearer.

Giving good feedback is important.  If we’re the clapping coaches - or the clapping judges - and we’re not giving good feedback, we’re not teaching, we’re asking our students (or kids or employees) to read our minds.

And that's just not fair.

© 2010 Nancy Darling. All Rights Reserved

For a recent post on how rubrics can be used to provide feedback, see When Kids Miss the Point: Rubrics