How to Get Better Feedback

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Question: Who is the fastest learner in the world?

That is, if there was a magical machine that could accurately measure the learning speed of every person on the planet — every writer, musician, math student, chess player, artist, and athlete — who would come out on top?

My answer: a kid learning to skateboard.

You’ve seen it happen: you hand a kid a skateboard, they start messing around, and before you know it — without any coaches, instruction books, or classrooms — they are crazily, stupidly, mythically skilled.

The question is, why?

The answer is feedback.

Skateboarders learn incredibly quickly because they receive a rich, continuous, useful stream of high-quality feedback. Every action creates an immediate and crystal-clear consequence. Mistakes can be detected; patterns intuited, brain circuitry swiftly built.

(Picture the brain of a kid balanced on a skateboard: glowing with engagement; blueprinted with models, keenly attuned to the edge — their brain is a neon-lit Las Vegas of high-quality feedback signals. Now picture the brain of a corporate employee listening to a lecture in a training session. See what I mean?)

It’s useful to judge feedback like you would judge the quality of a GPS mapping app on your phone: the best ones are real-time, detailed, and crystal-clear. The problem is that most of the time — especially at work and in school — the feedback we get isn’t timely or clear. So we tend to wander, and get lost.

In other words, the feedback question is really a design question: in a world that can be vague and mushy, how do you tighten the loop, and deliver the right signal in a timely way?

Karen May, vice president for people development at Google, has invented a method she calls “speedback.” It works like this: partway through a training session she will tell everyone to pair off and sit knee to knee, and give them three minutes to answer one simple question: “What advice would you give me based on the experience you’ve had with me here?” Participants say that it’s some of the best feedback they’ve ever gotten.

Compressing space works well too. Since I wrote about the effectiveness of Brazli’s futbol de salao (football in the room) for teaching soccer skills, I’ve come across numerous examples of coaches shrinking space to increase reps and improve feedback, from hockey to swimming to baseball to factory assembly lines.

You can also compress information: many good teachers have developed the technique of interleaving their lectures with a short quizzes, given not for grades but to help students and teacher determine where their skill levels are at.

In every case, the same rule applies: the more timely, vivid, accurate feedback you get, the more skill you can build.  And if you have any examples of useful methods you use to boost feedback, I’d love to hear them.


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19 Responses to “How to Get Better Feedback”

  1. Erno says:

    Daniel,

    in my workshops everytime I introduce a new concept or technique, I ask the participants to stop what they are doing to write on their notebooks 1 action they could do to practice that new skill in their own context. It works great for them because it’s a mechanism to skip theory, but it’s also a great feedback for me, because oftentimes I can hear from them new applications for that topic I have never thought before.

  2. Paul says:

    Great post. I have a blog, hoopthink.com, that attempts to detail my efforts to run more learner-oriented basketball practices. The idea that I got was to use only drills that were competitive and involved learning skills while matched up with an opponent. I’ve set out to train the decision-making aspects of the game and the only way to receive the feedback needed for that is to involve the unpredictability that the opposing player provides. There have been pros and cons to this approach, one con being they haven’t been very well organized in games because they’re given a lot of freedom vs. explicit instruction. I have to say there’s been a learning curve for me figuring out the best way to cover everything they need to be on the same page come game-time. All in all, I’m getting tremendous feedback on how to best teach in this manner, and as a coach I’ve probably learned more in the last month than I ever have using the traditional approach.

  3. Rich Kent says:

    A former US Ski Team Coach, Adam Chadbourne carries a notebook and pencil with him to the ski slopes. He uses a “Quick Write Snap Shot” to help his Burke Mountain Academy athletes capture a moment in time. “Whenever there was a breakthrough moment––a great run, one super turn, or what have you––I would immediately hand the notebook and pencil to the athlete, have her put down in her own words what she had just been thinking about in that moment… what she was feeling, seeing, what she had done differently….” The page was then torn out of the coach’s notebook and returned to the athlete to be transcribed into their personal journals later that day. Chadbourne keeps copies of his athletes’ notes for follow-up conversations.

    Snap Shots provide Chadbourne’s ski racers with opportunities for deeper thinking and work on visualization. Having studied neuroscience in college, the coach explained that “with time, our memory of events will often change dramatically, even within 10-15 minutes. More time equals opportunity for more change.”
    He goes on to say, “The benefit I see is that this immediate writing in its most raw form is the most true representation of what has occurred. Even [a few minutes later] one’s recollection may change. I even ask the student-athlete to pull his or her note out and re-read it before the next run even if we discussed [the note] five minutes earlier.”

    A favorite activity among the Burkies, Snap Shots add to the ways these athletes think and learn about their competitive performances and training. Those ways can include video review, athlete-to-coach discussions, athlete-to-athlete discussions, journal writing, and group journal writing sessions followed-up with discussions. Naturally, the final component of the activity is the athlete’s continual reflection on experience.

  4. djcoyle says:

    Hey Erno, That is tremendous for a bunch of reasons — especially because it helps you become a better coach. Seems like a lot of good things happen when you press “pause” during a workout or a learning session — partly because it’s so easy to get on autopilot (both as a learner and a coach) that stopping always gives some new perspective.

  5. djcoyle says:

    Hey Paul, Sounds like you’re on a fascinating road — reminds me a bit of Wooden’s principles of practice. Love to hear more as you go down it. Best, Dan

  6. djcoyle says:

    Hey Rich,
    Okay, the Snapshot method is completely great. It should be stolen immediately by everyone and anyone — it would work equally well in music, art, you name it.

    Is it any coincidence that one of Burke’s skiers, 17-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin, just won two World Cup races in a row?

  7. jamie says:

    Excellent example and article!

    I am a program director of a soccer club, coaching players between the age of 6 and 12 and I see this at work day in and day out.

    The only thing I would say as a prequel to this is the importance of the coach developing that rapport with the player where they can make them comfortable trying and failing, so that that their feedback does not fall back on deaf ears.

    I think this comes back to praising effort and focus as opposed to the result as a coach. This helps your players get comfortable with the process of trying, failing, learning then improving. I’m not sure if their is a roadmap to developing coach-player rapport but it is one of the differences between a good and a great coach.

  8. Andy says:

    A simple but useful one I discovered was running and biking with a GPS I’ve been a bad runner for years and managed to move up to average just by using the feed back from GPS to tell instantly if changes in my stride made me faster or slower. The same was true with biking.

  9. Rich Kent says:

    You’re right, Dan. No coincidence… Burke Mountain Academy’s Adam Chadbourne was Mikaela’s alpine ski coach and he used the Snapshot writing activity with her and other racers at the BMA. While trying out writing activities at BMA and researching for my book, “Writing on the Bus: Using Athletic Team Notebooks and Journals to Advance Learning and Performance in Sports,” I interviewed Adam. Here’s what he said about her: “Mikaela Shiffrin writes and journals extensively on her own. Since our initial sessions I didn’t do much with her formally but couldn’t help notice that she was super focused when journaling and always brought a notebook to video sessions.” Those athletes moving to the next level find ways to fine-tune themselves physically and mentally … writing, like the Snapshot activity or journaling, can play a vital role in that development.

  10. Ross says:

    I coach high school aged rowers and I am forever trying to find ways in which I can provide instant feedback to the athletes just as the skateboarders receive. I find it the hardest element to build into training sessions due to the repetitive nature of the sport – the aim is to perfect one stroke and then repeat it 200 times! I will definitely try the journal writing and I have a couple of drills that provide instant feedback whilst rowing. Does anyone have any suggestions for providing feeback for “hard skills” such as rowing?

  11. SteveW says:

    If the outcome is to improve and improve at a rate that we are satisfied with I suspect we are questioning how do we “CHANGE” and secondly “Change” more effectively.

    Change for me has three major components: AWARENESS, IMAGINATION and WILL

    so in my opinion and experience writing a journal is crucial in building our awareness

    but i also believe that answering great questions holds us more “Accountable to changing effectively”

  12. Daniel says:

    One way that fine artists use to get more feedback more quickly is to do small sketches.

    This allows them to experiment without much effort–or rather with a low cost of failure–and it lets them figure out quickly whether a composition works or doesn’t.

    In addition to the above, the limitations of the small size also discourage a focus on the details which at a beginning stage are of lower importance.

    I have tested this out and find it of great use–and not just in art. In business, Noah Kagan often recommends getting to $1 as quickly as possible. Not a billion. Not a million. Not even a thousand.

    Just one freakin’ dollar.

    But what that does is get entrepreneurs, or those who want to be them, to focus on whether anyone actually wants what they’re selling and, if not, or if they want something else, to figure that out really quick.

  13. Jason says:

    Google “classroom response system.” There is some really innovative software being used in “lecture hall” environments so that instructors can periodically poll the audience and receive immediate feedback. In a classroom setting some of the technology out there will do the same thing but the responses given by students are much richer than those given using the old fashioned “yes” or “no” handheld clicker systems. Further, a student’s answers can be tracked in real time so that specific areas of strength and opportunities for growth can be identified for learning extension or remediation. My wife is a teacher. In the late 90′s she and a colleague convinced the school system to allow them to combine their classrooms and teach math as a team and they secured a grant to pilot this type of system in that classroom. One of them would teach, incorporating math problems for the students to work in real time during the lesson. As the student responses were returned to the teacher’s computer terminal, the teacher who was not “lecturing” at that time would review the student’s responses then circulate through the room to assist those who needed remediation. The result: kids stayed engaged because of the accountability, weaker students were immediately given additional help, and they had the highest state proficiency scores in their district two years in a row (my wife left the teaching profession after that second year to start our family). Immediate feedback = better learning.

  14. mcgie76 says:

    Is it also possible, though, that there is an element of negative reinforcement involved? For example, a kid with a skateboard looking to slide down a rail from a jump has to be thinking “If I get this wrong, it is going to hurt a LOT!”. So their attention is intensely focused on getting things right from the beginning, and if they fall, they have a deliberate intention to not fall the second time? The same could be said for, say, soccer – “If I don’t accelerate away from this defender, they might tackle me and injure my legs”. Perhaps there’s an element of “loss” involved in that kind of intentionality that “free-learners” exhibit?

  15. Brad Robinson says:

    The best basketball teaching tool I have seen is Mike Dunlap’s Shell Drill on Steroids app availalbe via IPHONE. Mike is now the Charlotte Bobcat coach and formerly the St John’s assistant coach. He is a student of Pete Newell, Rick Majerus and John Wooden. Mike shrinks the court and slows the game (by taking dribble away) so even the youngest players can learn the game. No matter what age group you are coaching, this app allows one to gradually introduce concepts of eyes on rim, cutting to rim, and screening to learn man to man offense. I have personally used the game with 2nd-4th graders up to advanced players. Brad Robinson

  16. My Amazing Talent says:

    Every Talent needs some promotion too!
    You got talent? yes! than share it! You can share any talent like rapping, Singing, poetry, paintings etc. on this blog!http://myamazingtalent.blogspot.in

  17. D Brown, LCSW says:

    Now I am no expert on this Talent Code thing. But I did learn to skateboard as a kid in the 60′s. When we learned by the trial-error-suture method. I took it up again in my late thirties, when I enjoyed the hell out of longboarding down some pretty big hills.

    So I will add my 2 cents: 1 cent) The feedback loop for this activity is uncluttered by coaches, parents and other mettling adults. So, young people are able to avoid the kooky expectations and parental pressures that come along with, lets say, children’s gymnastics. It’s bananas how there all these adults now creating these “skatingboarding clinics”. I say, let the kids do their own thing and stay out of their business when comes to this activity; 2 cents)Young people do not have to reach some abitrary bench mark to be able to engage in skating and become an expert skater. But if you don’t have the GPA, it’s a no-go for interscholastic sports. It’s no wonder that I see so many Black youth in my community taking-up skating, and praticing ollies and railslides.

  18. t-bone says:

    It’s usually called futsal, by the way.

  19. VJ Stanley says:

    No coaches, no parents. The first ever Pop Warner scrimmage/practice. Team was averaging 9-16 plays in a 20 minute half. We gave one minute of instruction, removed coaches and parents, and they ran 21 plays. testimonials follow at frozenshorts.comhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wCtcxnanUdc&feature=plcp

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