From Teacher Grading to Manager Feedback

How creating an supportive work environment for adult learners makes for better school

From Teacher Grading to Manager Feedback
Photos by Nguyen Dang Hoang Nhu and Mimi Thian on Unsplash.

In higher education, there’s a lot of enthusiasm around project-based learning (PBL). The idea is to give students real-world problems to have them acquire their skills and knowledge through them. As an instructor, I naturally gravitated to this idea and felt like I’ve always tried to recreate realistic scenarios for the students to experience.

However, I’ve always found PBL advice and training quite lacking for any instructors looking to implement it in their classrooms. I could never put my finger on why until I started reading articles by Wes Kao that are geared at managers. Take the first point from this one about performance reviews:

‌ 1. Strategy vs self-expression: Only say what will encourage behavior change.

If you want the person to stay motivated, this is not the time to give an exhaustive brain dump of everything they need to improve on. There are better times for that.

For now, pare it back to the most critical feedback. What one thing can they work on that will make the biggest improvement? How can you frame why improving in this area will ultimately benefit them?

The last question from that quote bites particularly hard when I think back to my time as a student. How terrible I’d felt for all the graded essays from instructors only telling me what’s wrong and not what I can do to make it better.

It’s because of articles like this, I started adding explicitly labeled “Actionable Advice” sections under all the feedback I write for students.

Kao gave me even more perspective on this in her article about Super Specific Feedback:

When you hear “feedback,” you probably think of macro, behavioural feedback. This is the kind of feedback you’d include in a performance review. For example, “I noticed you missed the deadlines you set for these project milestones. I’d like to work with you on time management to make sure you’re not over-committed and prioritizing well.”

This is useful, but 90% of advice about feedback is about this.

Instead, I want to focus on a subcategory of feedback that’s less discussed: I call it Super Specific Feedback (SSF).

Regular feedback tends to be general, abstract, and mainly about behaviour.

Super Specific Feedback is extremely concrete feedback primarily on work output, such as writing, product flows, marketing assets, and design. The goal is to strengthen the work product to get it closer to ship ready, and to help the feedback recipient improve their craft and judgment over time.

These have inspired me specifically because I use project-based learning (PBL) approaches in my classroom. The dynamics in PBL shift the instructor’s away from knowledge sharing to a more of a project manager working with the group towards a shared desired outcome—just like at work.

Things may not always go as planned and it means that being harsh with feedback or too strict with grades would make the environment toxic. I would argue this is the beauty of this approach. It inherently simulates realistic scenarios where no single party is able to fix a situation that’s not going well. Instead we have to work together, instructor and students, to learn the best strategy for this particular situation. The instructor’s focus needs to be diverted away from trying to fit the projects into a clean letter grade and focus instead on what was done in the project.

Of course there are some key differences. For one, the instructor has to course correct in ways that will be more accommodating than a manager would be at work. Second, the instructor still has an important role in doing the preparation and scaffolding necessary to make sure the experience is primarily educational.

The project is ultimately still a tool for learning, not getting work done. However if the project is well scoped, the feedback and assessment should look more like a healthy work environment. Failures shouldn’t be permanently marked on a transcript, and students should feel secure taking risks to go beyond their comfort zone. This is why, in addition to Wes Kao’s better approaches to feedback, I was excited to discover Specification Grading in an article by Josh Brake.

The specs for each assignment are a long list of statements that describe what a successful assignment looks like. They’re designed to be aligned with learning goals and to explicitly communicate what achieving those learning goals looks like in practice.

One of the most interesting things about specifications grading is that it’s inherently Pass/Fail. Rather than abstracting student performance into a number, we provide them with a checklist of items and create cutoffs for when the work is satisfactory and when it’s not. Here’s an example from the article:

For example, to earn a C, they must complete at least 6 of the labs to the level of proficiency specs. Of those 6, at least 2 must meet excellence specs. In addition to meeting the requirements for a C in the labs bundle, they also need to meet the project requirements. For a C in the projects bundle, they also need to complete 4 out of the 5 project deliverables to the level of proficiency specs and 2 of those must meet excellence specs.

I’m excited to try this grading as it seems to provide flexibility for how students can tackle a project, while making it clear where improvement is needed. Most importantly, it avoids the punitive nature of a 75% (B-) feeling worse than a 77% (B) for no reason. This is particularly true in PBL where two projects might have gone two different paths, and putting them on a scale can make it seem that there was a better path, rather than highlighting that it was certain specs that were not met.

Though I focused on project-based learning, Wes Kao’s management advice and Specifications Grading are likely to be beneficial in any kind of adult learning environment. The core message is that feedback should be given to help the student grow, and grading should be about identifying areas for learning.

The beauty of doing this well is how students will model your more supportive behaviour to their peers, and eventually their colleagues and direct reports. We should never forget how much of learning happens implicitly, and simply demonstrating constructive feedback becomes a lesson in and of itself.