Monday, May 4, 2015

Feedback would happen all the time if ... we encouraged peer feedback in learning programmes

Rachel Burnham writes: This blog is written as part of the #FeedbackCarnival curated by Helen Amery @WildFigSolns, a series of blog posts all written on the theme of ‘Feedback would happen all the time if…’.  As I have left it to the very last day of the carnival to write something, I am very aware of just how good the posts have been and that ‘feedback’ has been discussed from pretty much every angle and point of view.  It has been exalted, debated, dissed and dissected.  

But still I want to contribute.  So, I thought I would share some of my experiences of building the giving & receiving of peer feedback into learning programmes. 
This is an approach that I use in a number of the learning programmes that I facilitate, particularly when developing the skills of L&D professionals and people new to training.  It is built into face to face sessions, but also interactive webinars and activities taking place using discussion forums on a VLE (Virtual Learning Environment – in this case Moodle based).  I think it can be an incredibly powerful learning tool – I notice huge differences in people’s confidence and in people’s ability to reflect & learn by observing others from using it.  It is an aspect of the programmes that participants frequently comment on as being valuable.   And it is something that can be taken away and used in many other contexts.

I have been influenced in my thinking around this by PhilRace’s Ripples Model of Learning.  I don’t know if you are familiar with this approach to learning which was developed within the context of higher and further education and (very simply) views learning in terms of a series of activities that are happening simultaneously & concurrently & affecting each other rather like the ripples in a pond.   The first factors or ripples are all about the learners experiences, but he goes on to suggest that further deepening of the learning takes place when you teach a topic – I know that this is something that I have experienced - that deepening of understanding that comes from facilitating learning of others, which is why ‘teach-back’ can be such a useful learning method.    

But Phil Race also suggests that assessing others learning also provides opportunities for further learning and again this fits with my own experience.  When assessing work, I get see a topic or skill from many different points of view; to see it expressed in many different ways, to see it applied in many different contexts, to see it misunderstood, poorly explained, explained more clearly than I can ever hope to and turned on its head & upside down.  Sometimes I think I have only really got to grips with some skills/topics once I have seen them really worked through by a group of ‘learners’.  

So, why not involve get ‘learners’ involved in assessing and providing feedback to their peers?  

I have used this approach when working on practical skills such as coaching, delivering learning sessions and also on design of learning and found it to be very effective.  For example, I make use of peer feedback process in a programme developing coaching skills.  Over the course of a session each participant gets to be a coach, to be coached and to observe & provide feedback on a number of peers coaching.  This process of ‘observing to be able to provide quality feedback’ really focuses the observation process and helps participants to notice & value what is working and also what could have been done differently.  Each experience of observing a peer brings out different aspects that have been done well and helps the observers to identify for themselves what effective practice includes.

Here are some pointers from my experience to get the most from a peer feedback approach:

I find it works best to encourage some kind of discussion about what feedback is & why it is important, prior to encouraging peer feedback.  I find this is useful so that we get chance to explore our different perceptions of feedback, to encourage the valuing of positive feedback and to acknowledge some negative experiences that we may have had when being ‘given’ feedback.   This enables us to build a shared understanding of what feedback can be like.   I usually do this immediately prior to the activity in which the participants will be giving peer feedback.   This means that this introduction to ‘giving & receiving feedback’ leads into an immersion into giving & receiving feedback for real.  

I have used a variety of different activities to stimulate this discussion.  My current favourite approach is a card based activity, developed by a colleague, which invites participants to explore a series of statements about feedback and pick out the one or two that particularly resonate with them.  All the statements are helpful pieces of advice when giving or receiving feedback.  A lot of the value from this activity is getting participants to draw upon their own experience of what works & doesn’t work in the giving & receiving of feedback.  In exploring what feedback is, I tend to avoid using a particular model of providing feedback, preferring a more organic approach.

Role Model
If you are going to encourage peer feedback, then as a facilitator you need to model this yourself, both in the way you provide feedback and also in the way you receive feedback.

Recently, I was facilitating an introductory session around developing coaching skills and carried out a demonstration coaching session with one of the participants which was observed by the rest of the group.   I confess that this was not one of my better days - it wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t great either.  Amongst other things, I became aware as the session progressed that I was asking multi-headed questions and of course, as soon as I became aware of that, it felt like I did nothing but ask multiple questions.   When debriefing this, I invited the observers to share what they had seen – fortunately there were ‘good’ bits to notice and then I went on to invite them to share with me what I could do even better – and I was delighted that they were able to pinpoint a number of things I could ‘sharpen up on’ including the multiple questions. At least I got good value out of that particular demonstration by receiving feedback graciously!

Support the peer feedback process
I find it helps to facilitate the peer feedback process.   In one of the programmes I work on, the same group get many opportunities to provide each other with feedback and they grow in confidence & skills in doing this.  The first time I find I often need to manage the process quite carefully providing a structure and almost ‘chairing’ the process, inviting individuals in turn to contribute feedback & at times managing the balance of critical & appreciative feedback or asking questions to get beyond generalities.   Whereas, in subsequent sessions, this too is handed over to participants to take turns at leading themselves. 
It is good to build in time to reflect on the experience of providing feedback – though at times it can get a bit ‘hall of mirrors’, when providing feedback on providing feedback.

Start with self-reflection
When encouraging peer feedback, I have found it makes sense to start with encouraging the individual who has been ‘doing’ to self-reflect on that experience.  So, when encouraging feedback on a coaching session, I usually start with encouraging the ‘coach’ to self-reflect or give themselves some feedback, before moving on to invite the coachee to provide feedback and then other peers who have been observing. 
I find this makes the feedback more personal to the individual, more responsive to their needs and their view of their performance.  What follows this it perhaps a bit more ‘messy’ than feedback delivered using a particular model, but it seems to make it more of a conversation and less of something which you are subjected to.

Appreciative feedback
I think we often underplay the huge value in feedback that helps us to notice, value and understand what we are doing well already.   Sometimes when encouraging peer feedback, I focus on encouraging purely appreciative feedback that picks out & highlights what is working well and why we think that.  I find this often gives enough food for thought to help us to further improve the way we are working, without the need to provide critical feedback.   For this to work, it does need to be more than a general ‘that was lovely’ and to be specific & detailed.

Design the criteria
One thing I haven’t done yet, but have in the pipeline, is to invite participants not only to provide peer feedback but also to design the criteria upon which it is based.   This would further extend the learning opportunity for participants by challenging them to crystallise their thinking about whatever the aspect of performance the learning is focused on and to put in their own words what ‘good looks like’.

I think encouraging peer feedback is a very useful & effective approach and fits in well with building an organisational learning environment that encourages continuous learning, both through self-reflection and social learning.

Given the theme of this post, I would of course particularly welcome your feedback.

Rachel Burnham


Burnham L & D Consultancy helps L&D professionals become even more effective.  I am particularly interested in blended learning, the uses of social media for learning, evaluation and anything that improves the impact of learning on performance.

Follow me on Twitter @BurnhamLandD

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