Providing feedback is one of the most widely accepted and applied psychological interventions. Feedback is generally defined as actions taken by an external agent to provide information regarding some aspects of one’s task performance. This may vary from a golf coach verbally correcting the swing of one of his/her trainees to a formal assessment in the classroom to evaluate and communicate students’ progress toward learning goals. Given their widespread applications in work settings, sports, and education, feedback interventions have received research attention from a broad number of disciplines. Historically, their conceptual roots date back more than one hundred years to Thorndike’s “law of effect,” wherein positive feedback was equated with reinforcement and negative feedback with punishment. By reinforcing correct behavior and punishing incorrect behavior, individuals’ learning and performance should be susceptible to change and improvement. While research in the feedback domain clearly is multidisciplinary, it has had a particularly strong tradition within the field of organizational psychology and management, which has provided a strong foundation for conceptual and empirical work focusing on the effects of feedback on (job) performance. After the wonder years of feedback in the first half of the 20th century, an important impetus to feedback research was given by a meta-analysis of feedback interventions. Contrary to commonsense beliefs, this review of the feedback literature revealed that feedback interventions in general have modest effects on performance and, more importantly, they do not produce unequivocal positive effects on motivation and performance. Challenging the “feedback is good” consensus in this domain has proven to be a good strategy to instill new energy and direction for research into feedback effects, looking to solve the feedback intervention conundrum. While no “solution” has been achieved, since the 1990s a number of important advances have been made so that we now have a better understanding of how feedback should best be delivered, how and why individuals seek feedback themselves, how people react to different feedback messages, and how an environment can be designed that supports feedback interactions.
The contributions of different disciplines to our understanding of feedback interventions are important to take into account: Different perspectives originating in Industrial/Organizational (I/O) psychology, as discussed in Kluger and DeNisi 1996; educational research, as seen in Hattie and Timperly 2007; behavioristic research, as explained in Balcazar, et al. 1985; and medical education, as documented in van de Ridder, et al. 2008, have had their own take on how feedback is best conceptualized, how it should be studied, and what we can conclude from these studies. While the general picture is remarkably consistent across disciplines and interventions—even in those as surprising as energy resource applications, as discussed in Karlin, et al. 2015—a good appreciation of nuances in each domain is needed to attain an in-depth understanding of feedback characteristics in different settings. A good starting point is therefore to go back to highly influential reviews or basic empirical papers in each of the disciplines to acquire a good understanding on each of the disciplinary perspectives. While these reviews have mostly focused on the effect of feedback interventions, it is also important to consider the breadth of feedback-related trends that have emerged in recent years. To this end, relatively recent and easily readable books have been included to point the reader to recent evolutions in feedback research and practice, such as can be found in London 2003 and Gregory and Levy 2015.
Balcazar, Fabricio, Bill L. Hopkins, and Yolanda Suarez. “A Critical, Objective Review of Performance Feedback.” Journal of Organizational Behavior Management 7.3–4 (1985): 65–89.
Provides an overview of feedback interventions from the best behavioristic tradition with a specific emphasis on behavioristic applications in the workplace. The authors arrive at similar conclusions as those of other reviews, but they identify a number of factors that may improve or debilitate feedback interventions.
Butler, Deborah L., and Philip H. Winne. “Feedback and Self-Regulated Learning: A Theoretical Synthesis.” Review of Educational Research 65.3 (1995): 245–281.
Provides a cognitive account of how feedback has its effect on self-regulation in learners, with an emphasis on student learning. Although a bit older, this review goes beyond a mere summary of previous findings and guides readers in developing a fine-grained understanding of the actual cognitive processes taking place.
Gregory, Jane B., and Paul E. Levy. Using Feedback in Organizational Consulting. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2015.
Given the myriad of “how to” lists available, it is sometimes difficult to discern which recommendations are based on sound evidence and which ones are not substantiated. This book brings together well-established findings and how they can be applied in the work place.
Hattie, John, and Helen Timperly. “The Power of Feedback.” Review of Educational Research 77.1 (2007): 81–112.
This is the piece to turn to if you want a good background on feedback in an educational setting. Hattie draws insights from his authoritative meta-analyses in education and includes work from diverse disciplines but emphasizes the applications in educational settings and the specifics of giving feedback to pupils and students.
Karlin, Beth, Joanne F. Zinger, and Rebecca Ford. “The Effects of Feedback on Energy Conservation: A Meta-analysis.” Psychological Bulletin 141.6 (2015): 1205–1227.
A good example of how powerful feedback interventions may be. This meta-analysis focuses on how feedback may be used as a strategy for promoting energy conservation. Bringing together studies from the 1980s until the present, the authors find that feedback has small positive effects with high variation in effects.
Kluger, Avraham N., and Angelo S. DeNisi. “The Effects of Feedback Interventions on Performance: A Historical Review, a Meta-analysis, and a Preliminary Feedback Intervention Theory.” Psychological Bulletin 119.2 (1996): 254–284.
Without any doubt, this is the place to start for anyone who is interested in studying feedback. This masterpiece provides a historical, multidisciplinary overview of feedback interventions, a new preliminary feedback intervention theory, and a meta-analytic test of this theory involving almost all experimental feedback research.
London, Manuel. Job Feedback: Giving, Seeking, and Using Feedback for Performance Improvement. 2d ed. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2003.
This book is one of the key references to go to when looking for information on feedback. It provides an excellent introduction to feedback theories and their applications in the work environment, both from an academic and from a practitioner perspective.
van de Ridder, J. M. Monica, Karel M. Stokking, William C. McGaghie, and O. T. J. Ten Cate. “What Is Feedback in Clinical Education?” Medical Education 42.2 (2008): 189–197.
Feedback interventions have proven to be a theme of particular interest to medical education, leading to a sizeable stream of interesting insights that may generalize to other settings and, thus, should not be overlooked. This publication provides an introduction to the specifics of feedback interventions in medical education.
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