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Giving feedback on the process

In this text we focus on approaches to giving effective feedback to PhD students to support the development of their skills and competences.
PhD student in conversation
© University of Groningen

Feedback can be given on the product, (an article, the research proposal, an analysis, a chapter, a presentation, etc.) or on the behavior, the process towards the product, (the approach, the strategy, the choices, the working style, the dilemmas, the stress, etc.). While it is easy for most supervisors to focus on the product, it is by providing feedback on the process that they can best contribute to the learning and growth of the PhD student.

In all cases feedback involves a conversation in which the feedback giver gives words to that which he has seen, heard or read and tells what it evokes in him. An effective feedback conversation always includes discussion of areas for improvement or development, called feedforward.

As a supervisor you might be inclined to give feedback focusing on what needs to be corrected, on what can be called “negative” or “constructive” feedback. Yet, it is very important that you keep an eye open for what is going well in the process and how the learning is progressing. Use any opportunity to give this positive message to them. This will not only encourage them and enhance their self-confidence, but it will motivate them to continue doing what works well, and deliver good results.

How to give effective feedback to your PhD student

If you want the feedback to be effective, and result in increased learning, motivation and growth of your PhD student, it is important to follow a few principles:

  1. Timing. The longer you wait to give feedback, the less effective it is, both in terms of the improvement of the behavior and in terms of your willingness to provide that feedback.
  2. The Object of the feedback should always be the behavior or the process, not the person.
  3. For feedback to be effective, it needs to be well-understood and received as such. It is therefore important that you check with the student. A good way is to explore the options and strategies for future improvement with the student. Asking questions and prompting reflection is always a good idea at the end of a feedback session.
  4. Good feedback is always feedforward! Do not miss the opportunity to explore the options and strategies for future improvement with the student.
  5. Give plenty of positive feedback. Note what is going well and say it explicitly.

Give feedback the FED way!

A good way to remember how to give effective feedback is the acronym FED.

F – Facts – describe situation and observable behaviour you would like to give feedback on. Make sure you make this as concrete and specific as possible and, most importantly, that the receiver recognizes the Facts.

E – Effects – explain what effect this behaviour had. This could be the effect on you as a reader, on other colleagues, on the project, the material, the well-being of the PhD, etc.

D – Desired behaviour / situation – explore with the PhD how the future situation or behavior can be achieved. You can make a suggestion or invite the PhD to come up with their strategy. In case of positive feedback or compliment, you can emphasize what elements of the performance the PhD should continue displaying.

© University of Groningen
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