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Defining feedback

Read this article about what the word feedback means.
A photo of three people - two women and one man sitting a table, looking at a laptop while having a conversation.
© University of Southern Queensland

To successfully give and receive feedback, it is important to understand what the word means.

Let’s look at different ways that feedback is defined in literature.

Ende (1) provided one of the earliest definitions of feedback, with feedback defined as a process that involves an informed and objective review of performance, with the intention of improving the skills or behaviour of the receiver. This definition of feedback encourages the inclusion of a description of what is observed rather than feedback being just a judgment or opinion from the feedback giver.

Brookhart (2) defined feedback as information given by another person about aspects of a person’s, a team’s or an organisation’s behaviour, actions, or performance. In this definition of feedback, the other person can be a supervisor, a team leader, a peer, a colleague or a significant life experience such as a loss of job or lack of a promotion. In this definition feedback is related to consequences of performance, events, or occurrences.

Costa and Garmston (3 p20) took a slightly different view, and defined feedback as a process in which a system regulates itself by providing information on its own output.

Thomas and Arnold (4) suggested that feedback is more individually focused and can be defined as information provided to an individual that informs them of how they performed, and why their performance is considered to be acceptable, inadequate, or otherwise.

Drawing from these four definitions, consider using the below working definition of the word feedback:

Information that provides an additional perspective on a situation, a topic, an event, an attitude, performance or behaviour given by someone else, yourself or a significant event or circumstance.

Feedback can be formal or informal information that is communicated to another person (or group of people), with a view that the information can be used to adjust and improve current or future actions and behaviours. It can occur when an individual or a group reacts to an action or behaviour. For example, employee performance feedback is an employee’s reaction to feedback from their supervisor where the exchange of information [the feedback] involves both performance expected, and performance demonstrated. Customer feedback is customers reaction to an organisation or a company’s products, services, or policies.

In other words, feedback is just factual data or information that assists someone to become more aware of the impact of their skills, behaviours, attitudes, and performance. It is an essential part of an effective learning and development process and, when done well, can be an important catalyst for improvement. It enables feedback recipients to see issues from fresh perspectives (5).

In summary, feedback provides a clear sense of where an individual, team, or organisation is at, and what they have to do to improve. It does this by assisting them to understand what is expected, and how to meet those expectations.

Before asking for, or offering feedback, ask yourself why you are doing it. Remember that the purpose of feedback is to improve a situation or performance. Without purpose, feedback is just conversation.

1. Ende J. Feedback in clinical medical education. JAMA [internet]. 1983 Aug 12 [cited 2022 Sept 1];250(6):777-781. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.250.6.777
2. Brookhart SM. How to give effective feedback to your students. 2nd edition. Alexandria VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development; 2017. 160 p.
3. Costa AC, Garmston RJ. A feedback perspective. In: Wallace I, Kirkman L, editors. Best of the best: feedback. Carmarthen UK: Crown House Publishing; 2017. p. 23-27.
4. Thomas JD, Arnold RM. Giving feedback. J Palliative Medicine [internet]. 2011 Feb 12 [cited 2022 Sept 1];14(2):233-239. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1089/jpm.2010.0093
5. Campbell J, Van Nieuwerburgh C. The leadership guide to coaching in schools. Thousand Oaks CA: Corwin: 2018. 144 p.
© University of Southern Queensland
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A Beginner’s Guide to Giving and Receiving Feedback

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