Affirming your Colleagues with Meaningful Feedback
What can and should meaningful feedback look like in terms of collegiality and peer review?
One of the things I’ve been contemplating lately is the idea of “meaningful feedback.” What constitutes as meaningful feedback and who gets to decide whether the feedback given or received is meaningful? What is meaningful feedback supposed to look like from my perspective as both an instructional designer and an administrator? In higher education this got me thinking about how collegiality, collaborative teaching, and peer review work together.
Building the Foundation for Meaningful Feedback
However, one defines meaningful feedback, the fact still exists that in doing any sort of peer feedback, we’re each stepping into someone’s personal space to witness their teaching practices that may have taken months or years to develop and provide constructive feedback on a limited view into their classroom space. If I were on the receiving or giving side, I would feel daunted and anxious about what someone would and could say about me in that moment in time.
Joe Bandy writes this about collegiality as it relates to Peer Review of Teaching: “Under the best of circumstances, peer review can shape a dialogue about teaching that fosters a teaching community among educators and can lead to more growth-oriented forms of professional development. However, when it is implemented in less collaborative and more adversarial forms, or when it involves unavoidable consequences such as promotion or job security, anxieties and frustrations can be triggered for both reviewers and those being reviewed. Therefore, peer review must adhere to the highest standards of transparency, integrity, and care for the sake of those under review.”
I think then, to build a culture that supports the provision of meaningful feedback, one thing that can be done to move towards that is laying out clear and explicit guidelines on the purpose and format of peer review, paying particular attention to what constitutes as meaningful feedback.
Giving Meaningful Feedback
In Kelly Ferrell’s “Collegial feedback on teaching: A guide to peer review” they note that while providing balanced, constructive feedback that can be acted on to colleagues is not easy, there are still some general principles that can be applied to make the process more collegial and for the feedback to be more meaningful.
They are (in short form):
- Has the development of teaching as its primary focus.
- Is timely.
- Gives emphasis to the reviewee’s priorities and objectives.
- Always includes positive feedback and affirmation of aspects that are working well.
- Does not focus solely on communication style.
- Always includes suggestions for addressing areas that are not working well.
- Is reasonably detailed and descriptive.
Thinking about meaningful feedback reminds me of when I played piano competitively. I worked to prepare and memorize 10 different pieces over multiple months, all to perform in front of a small panel of judges and it all came down to if I could keep it together under pressure. I remember receiving my adjudication papers and my pin, but not reading the comments because I was so worried that there would be too much negative or overly critical feedback.
I think the same thing can happen in peer review. Often the feedback is provided in across multiple pages and it can feel daunting to read and if given too many criticisms, the feedback can overall be demotivating and discouraging.
One way I think administrators could help mitigate this is by providing a template that provides the various categories a course can be reviewed on, for example, having a section that focuses on content and another that focuses on engagement or class organization, and instructions that have reviewers within each section start by identify positive aspects, then identify some specific areas of improvement, probably less than five, (maybe even a smaller number) and then offer specific suggestions or ways to improve or address those specific areas that are conveyed in way where the decision to use the suggestions is up to the person who’s receiving the feedback.
There’s a paragraph on the first page of an older version of peer review where I work from 2014 that I particularly like:
“A course review is not a judgment; it is a recognition and an acknowledgement of work in progress. The purposes of peer course review are to highlight the positive qualities of an instructor’s design, and to offer suggestions for future improvement. It is intended to be a formative process that will affirm, guide, and encourage a colleague as he or she ventures into online instruction. As such, the tenor of a good peer review is always balanced, supportive, and developmental.” R. Reidy
While the Peer Review document has since been updated and version linked in the references section has deprecated, I still come back to the opening paragraph as a guide for what meaningful feedback can and should be. As an administrator who works with faculty on their courses, I think this paragraph encompasses the idea I had in mind of how to make feedback meaningful. We’re supposed to come alongside and partner with faculty to develop their courses. From that perspective, meaningful feedback will not only encompass the guidelines laid out by Kelly but will also be provided in a non-dictatorial way and always in moderation.
Bandy, J. (2015). Peer Review of Teaching. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved February, 2022 from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/peer-review-of-teaching/.
Farrell, K. University of Melbourne. Collegial feedback on teaching: A guide to peer review. p. 12. https://melbourne-cshe.unimelb.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/2297293/Peer_review_guide_web_optimized.pdf