Feedback vs. evaluation: Getting past the reluctance to deliver negative feedback

This post is republished from Into Practice, a biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

When Dr. Keith Baker, Associate Professor of Anaesthesia at Harvard Medical School and Director of the Anesthesia Residency Program at Massachusetts General Hospitalgives medical residents feedback, he emphasizes a “learning orientation” (where the goal is mastery), rather than a “performance orientation” (where the goal is validation of abilities).

The benefits: Framing feedback with a learning orientation creates a supportive learning environment where the instructor and student share the goal of improvement and believe that effort and strategy are the tools to achieve it. Feedback is diagnostic information used to know what and how to improve. “A learning orientation is critical for tolerating negative feedback and strongly influences how you give and receive feedback.”

The challenges: There is an obligatory “uncomfortableness” in giving and receiving negative feedback. “Think about it – how do you feel about giving or receiving negative feedback?”

Takeaways and best practices:

  • Distinguish evaluation from feedback (and make sure students understand the concepts). Evaluation is a judgment, often compared to others, which does not inherently improve performance. Feedback is information delivered with the sole aim of improving performance, irrespective of the current level of performance.
  • Feedback is more effective when delivered at the conclusion of a task when the learner can give it their full attention, rather than in the moment when their mind is occupied.
  • Learners can mitigate the “mum effect” – a bias to deliver only praise – by asking the instructor what they would have done differently, or by asking how they would do it differently if they had to do it again next week.

Bottom line: Thoughtful, appropriately timed feedback designed to help the learner improve is critical because learners cannot rely on self-assessment. Training students to consistently seek and utilize feedback will improve their performance, whether in the medical field or beyond.