Learner Feedback? You Can't STAND Learner Feedback!

A Few Good Trainers
A Few Good Trainers
There have been lots of tweets and blogs and squawks about the collection, management and integration of feedback from learners floating across the Interwebs lately.  And, as I often do, I’ve turned to Jack Nicholson to get some sage advice on the subject — to share out with the tiny skulls of mush that come to my blog for the latest thinking on this thorny subject. In the world of “assessment” — there are two broad divisions.  Measurement of whether the learner can actually do something:
  • Learner can name the state capitals
  • Learner can explain why sexual harassment will land him in jail
  • Learner can assemble the nuclear warhead

…and the second, how the learner felt about the experience:

  • Learner thinks she will be a better manager
  • Learner felt trainer integrated his input into the final conclusions
  • Learner experienced a feeling of value and appreciation for his presence

Let’s Look At Feelings

Today I’m focusing on the second.  Feedback from learners about the experience they had, their feelings on the session, what they think they took away, how the process worked, and whether or not lunch was tasty. There’s a lot of focus, lately, on making sure that the learner leaves our hands giving us top marks on the experience.  They’re supposed to check the smiley face on the right margin, or give us 10 out of 10, or we just haven’t met the mark.  And I’m here to say that you’re headed off a cliff if you buy into that crap.  (I’m rarely accused of being subtle.  Ask Dave Ferguson.) Yeah, I’m interested in what my audience has to say about my teaching.  I read those little sheets with just as much excitement as all of you do.  But all of the difficult lessons I’ve learned in my life (and I bet yours, too) came in situations were I wouldn’t have tacked a smiley face on the end if you’d asked me.  So I’m sometimes a little worried about making changes to what I do based on keeping people happy. Have you ever:

  1. Gotten divorced?
  2. Stuck your tongue on a frozen pipe?
  3. Dated a rock musician?
  4. Driven drunk?
  5. Burned yourself on a hot stove?
  6. Voted Republican? (That’s for you, Dave!)

I bet you would have been pretty unhappy at the conclusion of the learning, but I’d also bet that it was very valuable and kept you out of lots of trouble in the future. My own little experience with this was Private Pilot training many years ago.  After learning some basic skills, my Flight Instructor (with thousands of flight hours experience) said it was time for something called “Stall Training”.  He made me take the plane up to 5,000 feet, then point it up in the air — higher, and higher, and higher — until the little engine couldn’t lift the weight anymore. At that point, the Cessna ceased being an airplane and immediately turned into a 2,000 pound chunk of metal with two big pieces of meat in it. Those of you who fly will support me when I say it’s probably the most gut-wrenching experience (well, next to a spin) that a student pilot goes through.

The Freaking Plane Is Falling Out Of The Sky, Out Of Control!

Now, of course, he’d told me exactly what to do.  Even demonstrated what to do. But the degree of pucker took over, I froze and screamed like a twelve-year-old girl.  He calmly said “my airplane” and soon we were flying straight and level. He said once I’d calmed down and the adrenaline had burned off, we’d try it again. I told him I’d step out the door and walk back, rather than do that. It took him a good 15 minutes to even get me to take the controls. We did it again.  And again. And again.  Over the course of several lessons, and several weeks, I finally got so that I could recover from the stall.  It wasn’t pretty, and he usually laughed at my efforts, but I could do it well enough that I wouldn’t die if I encountered a stall. If offered a chance to give feedback, I would have said:

  • He didn’t take my feelings into consideration
  • My input was not valued by the instructor
  • The design of the course didn’t suit my learning style
  • The course content should be changed
  • Stalls hardly ever happen, if you fly correctly (true)

So be careful what you do with feedback.  Don’t want any of your learners falling on my head while I’m sleeping in my hammock.

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