The fear of giving feedback

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Post-its with students’ comments on class projects / Evaluation forms used to assess content and design effectiveness of posters. Each student drew a dot next to the effectiveness level (Top: very good, Bottom: poor) they thought each project had achieved on both dimensions – Work from Information Visualisation Class (Parsons School of Design Strategies)

As I approach the end of the semester and an intense year of teaching, I like to reflect on the highlights and learnings from each course. Interestingly, this year I noticed a common phenomenon across most of the courses I taught: students’ reluctancy to give (meaningful, constructive and critical) feedback or share what they really think about their peer’s work. When I was a student, I remember receiving feedback from professors and peers every class, and even staying after hours waiting to speak with the professors to get some critique. Of course, not all feedback made me happy, but I quickly learnt that that was the only way to move a project forward and evolve my work.

In other words, to learn design you can’t just sit and study; instead you have to do and show work, give and receive feedback, and then reflect on what comments to address and how to do it (this cycle repeats as many times as needed). The goal of design critiques is to analyse work from different perspectives, test design principles, determine level of understanding, and whether design decisions are supporting cognitive principles. Yes, we all have a style and preferences, but good design critiques aren’t based on personal opinions.

However, in design education, productive critiques have become rare. Most design critiques are passive rather than active conversations, where solely the professor provides input, and questions aren’t answered. This dynamics perpetuates the view that design is a subjective discipline only based on what each professor likes and doesn’t like. There is a tacit camaraderie between students that contributes to unproductive critiques: no one wants to be the one pointing out “flaws” in someone else’s work or share what they really think even when the work is clearly underdeveloped or has unquestionable problems.

Reframing feedback

Paradoxically, among students, thinking differently is seen as a “risk”. Fear of giving feedback is just one manifestation of this phenomenon that reflects students’ tendency to play “safe” rather than exploring and experimenting even if this may lead to better understanding and higher quality results. Perhaps these behaviours are related to the fear of failure and need to “get it right” the first time that have become quite common.

One way to help students feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts is to minimise the negative connotation involved in giving feedback. Often, when someone points out something that needs further work or improvement, we take these comments personally and as something bad. To start reframing feedback, we should describe design critiques as an opportunity to show how much everyone has learnt in a class or how familiar they are with key concepts and principles. To support this view, it is essential that the focus of any comments during a design critique is on the work and not on the person behind the work. Careful use of language is also important, for example, say: “This part of the poster is great, however the use of colour could be clearer”, rather than “Your poster looks great, but you aren’t using colour correctly in the poster”.

Another goal of design critiques is to provide direction and alternatives to students so they can make improvements. Reflection is key to determine what comments are more relevant and beneficial for a project, and to show that they can make decisions independently. However, younger students tend to think that they should address every comment provided during a critique.

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Students comments on work in progress (Design for Understanding, Princeton University). Whiteboard walls are great to encourage students to share their thoughts. This session started with one student’s comments: “Write a comment!” next to a taped marker. [Middle photo]

Alternative Techniques to give feedback

In order to help students gain confidence and feel more comfortable giving and receiving feedback, I have been trying a range of different structured ways:

  • I like/I wish/What if: A student or team presents work, and class provides comments and suggestions first describing what they like, then what they wish would have been done differently, and finally providing suggestions to move forward. This framework borrows from Stanford d.School.
  • Post-its: While a student or team presents work, the class writes down comments and suggestions on post-its. Then, post-its are parked on a whiteboard or wall under each person or team’s name. This technique helps students provide feedback without being identified.
  • Silent critique: Students analyse and assess work individually and anonymously by completing an assessment form. While this technique ensures students that their thoughts would be anonymous, unless you give a form to each student, some students may get influenced by what the previous students have said or marked.
  • Analytical frameworks: As a team or individually, students analyse someone else’s work for a few minutes using a framework, such as the 6-Thinking hats (De Bono) or custom templates design for a specific project. Then comments are shared with the class. This technique helps objectivize feedback by answering specific questions rather than solely giving personal opinions.

These are techniques and methods suggested by some of my students that they would feel comfortable using to give feedback:

  • giving anonymous comments using post-its
  • don’t criticizing unless you could offer an alternative
  • playing back your understanding to what someone just said to first check if you got the concepts right and then share your thoughts
  • acting out alternatives and suggestions
  • giving comments as a panel (four students)
  • having time to discuss in small teams first and then provide comments
  • physically trying an idea/prototype and then talking about the experience

Regardless of what technique you used, feedback should be about helping the other person or team learn and improve their work. This means that comments should be followed by an alternative or suggestion, and not a mere description of something you like. Avoid one word comments such as “nice” or “cool”, unless you then unpack why you think something is nice or cool, and that related to any design principles or concepts.

Experimentation, making mistakes, starting all over again, critically thinking about your own work and about what the other person has done are essential tasks to develop a resilient mind (not only design related) and critical eye to distinguish effective from ineffective work. This also helps understand why something works or does not work.

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