Friday, March 25, 2011

I've been thinking about feedback.

Most people think that the longer we do something, the better we get at it. That statement in and of itself is not actually true, or at least, it's incomplete.
We really get better at things that we practice, AND receive accurate feedback on.


I've been typing most of my life. I have not, however, been improving my typing speed.
Why not?

Because I haven’t been trying to. I haven't been practicing typing, and I haven't been getting feedback or instruction (or not that I've paid attention to, at least).

One of the reasons (of the many many reasons) we need teachers so badly is because they can provide us feedback. We are unaware of whether or not we’re doing well, until someone tells us. Once we know what's right and what's wrong, improvement starts.

What sort of feedback makes us better? Accurate, specific, Immediate.

- Accurate -
It’s pretty obvious why feedback has to be accurate in order to be effective. If I’m teaching you to drive, and I tell you to drive more to the left when you’re actually fine, there’s going to be problems.

- Specific –

I think we've all had a paper returned with a C+ (or worse) scrawled at the bottom.

You, horrified: "What did I do wrong?!"

Teacher: "Oh, it just wasn't very good"

Not overly informative.

If you knew why your paper was bad, you wouldn’t need feedback. Activities like shooting a target, scoring points on a game, those give their own feedback which is fairly specific (shoot higher and to the right, don’t let Mario fall down cliffs). In complicated activities, we need to know exactly where we messed up, and why. Getting that kind of feedback teaches us to recognize what's good and what's bad. It's like playing that one game where everyone calls out "hot" or "cold". And eventually, you can learn what makes a good paper good, and what makes a bad paper bad.

- Immediate –

Say your teacher breaks down and agrees to put more specific comments on your paper next time. Only next time, your paper is given back to you a month and a half after you wrote it. At that point, it's hard to even remember what you wrote, much less how you planned, worked out your argument, used grammar correctly, etc. Chances are you won't remember enough for the feedback to be helpful.

Also, the longer you do something a certain way, the more ingrained the habit becomes. It’s much harder and more time consuming to unlearn bad habits than to prevent them.

Ok, so, if I get feedback, and I practice constantly, I'll get better?



While practice with corrective, immediate, accurate, specific feedback is great, there are limits to how good you can get at something.

Example: Chewing. I have been chewing foodstuffs for the past 20 years or so. I do so several times every day, for varying periods of time. I receive feedback via the sensations in my mouth and esophagus (i.e. Am I choking to death on giant chunks of steak?). Said feedback is accurate, specific, and immediate. Why don’t I become a better chewer?

Because you can only get so good at chewing. In one way, you might say that am an expert chewer. A master masticator. I have reached my chewing prime. I am a level 100 chewer and I have maxed out my EXP.

Once you learn to turn food into pulp and swallow, no amount of practice will help you do it better

(excepting rare cases of brain damage where you actually have to relearn to do stuff like chew, etc.). There are physical limits that determine the speed and efficiency of your chewing. Practice after this point doesn’t do much.

In other things, there is still improvement which is physically possible, but you run up against the law of diminishing returns.

Let's say you're out of shape, and run a 10 minute mile. Start running steadily, and you'll see your record drop to 9 minutes/mile, then 8, and 7. But to get close to a 5 minute mile, you're going to have to do a LOT more training, and for hours upon hours of training every day, you'll only see a few seconds worth of improvement on your time. To get an under 5 minute mile, you have to dedicate yourself to training. And for some people, your body type may prevent you from beating that record. If you have really short legs, you can run all you want, but you'll never beat Russian champion Svetlana Masterkova's record of 4:12.56 minutes.

Take home message: There are a few biological/genetic/physical limits of how good you can be at one activity. But you almost NEVER reach those!! With the right practice and work, you can often more than double and triple your current achievements in many fields. It just takes a lot of work.

Practice then! And don't just accept constructive criticism and feedback, search for it! Hunt it out from the people who really know what they're talking about.

This was even more scattered than my last post, and probably less interesting. Worst of all, it wasn't comprehensive. I didn't even start to talk about visual/auditory/tactile feedback or how the word feedback originated.

Still, take my musings for what they're worth, and hopefully YOUR feedback will help me improve.

Love you guys,

1 comment:

  1. how sad! :( no corrective, immediate, accurate, specific to get back to work,so your not going to get any now, too bad. luv, mumsy xoxo p.s. awesome entry.