The National Conversation

The Feedback Loop: A 360 Look at Evaluations

A 360 Look at Evaluations in Class and at Work by Heather DiLeo

The Feedback Loop: A 360 Look at Evaluations img

The literary magazine at my college (Vanderbilt) was headed by a Byronic student editor remarkable for his elegant mockery of the prevailing culture and refusal to appear in daylight. The magazine’s forbidding office door was always locked and bore a posted injunction against subjects unwelcome for submission—including, as I recall, death, near death, and dying.

I was overjoyed when a periodical as seemingly august eventually agreed to publish one of my poems. I wanted to share my literary effort with two readers in particular—the Mses. Kaiman and Hennessey, my favorite teachers from high school. I mailed the volume to each of them, undeterred by the fact that we’d never corresponded or discussed my ambition to write. Days, weeks, and, ultimately, months passed without any word from these two women, whose advice, I suddenly recognized, mattered to me very much.  

It goes without saying that the poem, an embarrassing imitation of Adrienne Rich, wasn’t good—an awkward truth to have to address tactfully.  And, of course, my former teachers must have been preoccupied with their current students and private lives. But I think there’s another reason they stayed silent. I was soliciting a kind of conversation we’d never engaged in and that it was too late to initiate.  Their lack of response shook me—not because I couldn’t engage them a year after graduation. I realized that—despite having spent years as their student, and leaving aside my grades, whose absolute value I doubted—I had no idea what my teachers thought of my work.

    After college, I considered a graduate program and gathered letters of recommendation from the professors I admired. They arrived as requested—sealed, in ordinary envelopes, signed across the seal. I saved them even though my plans changed, putting them away unopened. A couple of years ago, with the dream of that particular graduate program dead and buried, I violated the compact of their confidentiality, and tore open and read them. They contained a kind of assessment I never received in college—of strengths and weaknesses, of specific successes and failures, and of potential avenues for exploration. These letters allowed me to imagine projects, programs, jobs, and, more than that, how I could thrive within these contexts.

Unfortunately, because this potentially course-altering feedback wasn’t intended for me, it stayed hidden in the back of a desk drawer year after year. It was only by virtue of transgression that I learned what my “mentors” understood about my capacity. It seems clear to me now that in college, as in high school, I missed the opportunity to learn all that my teachers had to teach me—an experience that, unfortunately, most undergraduates share.

Much is made of the current generation’s attitudes regarding the value of education and the meaning of work. Millennials expect education to provide, among other things, individual engagement and mentorship and they seek out work that has personal meaning and societal impact. Some higher ed institutions are evolving to reflect these demands—for instance, by providing experiential and co-learning opportunities. However, when it comes to evaluating performance—perhaps the best opportunity to provide students with individualized guidance—the overwhelming majority of colleges and universities fail to meet students’ needs by offering them nothing more than a letter grade.  

“Standardized grades,” explains Isabel Roche Dean of the College and Provost, “amount to a ‘norming’ within a class where you’re implicitly comparing students.” Grades measure a student’s performance relative to others’ and the satisfactory completion of assignments. They don’t address a student’s individual capacities or help to direct her specific progress.

Bennington faculty member Karen Gover points to the ways in which grades can demotivate students. On the one hand, fear of “failure,” defined in terms of a lower grade, dissuades students from the exploration that leads to self-discovery and the experimentation that fuels innovation. On the other hand, a high grade tends to signal achievement—an end in itself—when, in fact, the mentorship most beneficial to a student entails a conversation about how she can make progress and continue to improve. “In both cases, it’s not anymore about learning the content or the material of the course, it’s just about this external thing that they’re going to get at the end. What you want is for students to get absorbed in the material and to be motivated for their own sake.”

The idea of internal motivation is where education’s aim and millennial students’ ambitions meet. Bennington is among the few colleges that provide students not just with letter grades but with comprehensive, individualized feedback in the form of a narrative evaluation in each course. Though they are written for different audiences, narrative evaluations are similar, in some ways, to the letters of recommendation from which I gained so much insight—by virtue of being qualitative, forward looking, and focused on the person.

“I encourage my advisees to immerse themselves, during the first year, in the exploration and feedback model narrative evaluations provide, and experience it without that [grade] measure they’re used to having imposed. It really frees them up to think about the work they’re doing and not a letter that’s being assigned to the work,” says Roche.

Narrative evaluations aren’t just better for students but help faculty and advisors in their role as mentors. Nick Brooke serves in both capacities. “I can tell from past evaluations how an advisee is doing. When you hear what, say, twelve different faculty members have said, you get a strong sense of what might be going on with that student. Anywhere along the way I have access to those evaluations so any conversation with a student can be with that material in mind. It’s much more textured material than ‘B-’.”

Bennington graduates are able to judge the longterm impact individual engagement and narrative evaluation have on their life’s work. Crystal Barrick ’11, Assistant Director of Communications at the College Board, received a consequential evaluation at the end of her first term in an education reform class. “It was totally new territory for me. The topic was big, the two faculty members teaching it were giants, and though I connected with them a few times throughout the term for some light advising (and got a lot of feedback on written work), I wasn’t quite sure how to make sense of the experience—or my place in it.” 

The feedback Barrick received did more than record her successful completion of course requirements. “It contained volumes. It gave me a clearer sense of what I accomplished, how I had contributed to the class community, how my particular proclivities and interests had served (and might continue to serve) this kind of work. I suddenly knew my place in it, and I had a sense of my potential in it. That was the kick I needed to keep going. And now that work is my life!” 

There’s evidence to support the idea that individual engagement between faculty and student, such as the narrative evaluation provides, significantly impacts graduates’ lives. The Gallup-Purdue Index, “Great Jobs, Great Lives,” surveyed 30,000 graduates to determine the relationship between one’s college experience and consequent sense of well-being and career satisfaction. The research demonstrates that certain formative experiences in college help prepare graduates for fulfilling jobs and lives and influence how they perceive the value of their education—though relatively few graduates report having had these experiences. The report shows that “relationships most affect graduates’ perception” that their education supports the outcomes under discussion. It finds that students are nearly twice as likely to perceive their education as worth the cost when professors “cared about me as a person” or when “I had a mentor who encouraged me to pursue my goals and dreams.”

If individualized engagement and assessment are, not just intuitively but demonstrably, better for student outcomes, why don’t more schools pursue them? The brutal truth is that narrative evaluations, and mentorship generally, require extraordinary engagement on the part of faculty, something few schools are currently willing to support. It’s not merely a matter of faculty making an extra effort during grading. Faculty can’t write meaningful evaluations of students without getting to know them individually—for instance, in smaller classes and in conversations outside of the classroom made possible by manageable teaching loads.

The Purdue Index acknowledges that individual engagement “may mean finding innovative ways to make professors more accessible” and “shifting the institution's culture to give faculty members more incentive to hone their teaching practices or make a talent for engaging students and supporting learning outcomes a more important part of hiring criteria.” Simply put, engaging with students individually is expensive. “The dark answer to this is in economics. It’s much easier to deal economically with large classes with grades. There’s even an economy behind having graduate students who will grade those classes,” says Brooke.

On the bright side, employers across the country are pursuing answers to some of the questions educational innovators have already answered—about how to motivate, develop the full potential of, and retain those they employ. These questions relate to the workforce as a whole but have been made urgent by Millennials, who are bringing their regard for meaningful work and personal fulfillment to the marketplace. Employers can learn from educators and could drive educational paradigms that are better for students. Dean of Field Work Term Holly McCormack is a bridge between the conversations happening on the education and employer sides: “It’s somewhat challenging for employers. We’re seeing dynamics where it’s not necessarily salary or promotion that keeps employees invested. They’re much more invested when the organization shows opportunities for mentorship, development and ongoing feedback.”

There is a growing conviction among hiring organizations that “grading” employees by means of annual reviews doesn’t serve either the enterprise or the individual well. Annual reviews, which typically assign a relative, numeric score to one’s performance can demotivate employees in much the same way as academic grades can students. They have been characterized by some experts as potentially “devastating to organizations”—linked with high levels of attrition, low productivity, and significant problems with collaboration.

In leadership development roles at Nickelodeon, HBO, and Fox, among others, Tracy Katsky-Boomer ’91 has been responsible for providing feedback that moves creative work forward. “In a lot of the creative professions, so much of it is revision. It’s not what you start with, it’s how it changes and how you find what you’re doing within what you’re doing. The first draft is one tiny piece of the bigger process. Once you start to hone what you’re doing, that’s when you need to hear something from the outside world and assess what you’re doing from a critical standpoint.”

Coaxing the best from writers, Katsky-Boomer says, involves an ongoing dialogue rather than a final grade. It involves “talking to the person about what’s really working, what’s working less well, and what’s not working at all and doing it in such a way that they don’t feel like it’s useless to go on but are inspired to go on. You’re not pushing them to change the nature of what they want to do but you are pushing them to do their best work.”

Ongoing, individual conversation may be crucial to the creative enterprise but how valuable is it to other kinds of work? Sara Steines, Executive Director at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin—a mission driven organization of 5,000, is focused on building a culture of excellence within her team. Steines balances the tangible, measurable elements of job performance that are necessary to measuring organizational progress with “more of a personal or individualized approach to identifying why someone is here and what makes them tick.” In addition to helping her team members develop skills, Steines supports their self-discovery through regular discussions.

“It’s not a one-time-a-year engagement,” says Steines who, in addition to having an open-door policy, meets monthly with team members and uses the annual review as a chance to review the aggregate. “It’s a dialogue that we create. One of the most important things I’ve found is that I’m not here primarily to sit in judgment of my team. I hire capable, passionate, smart, very dedicated people who want to do the work that they’ve been hired to do. My job is to coach them and to help them do that even more effectively.” 

A workplace evaluation that isn’t merely focused on extrinsic measures, Steines says, yields more authentic and meaningful results. “When I’ve worked for organizations where there’s a ramp up to essentially being graded, there’s an unnecessary amount of pressure being put on that moment that really can’t accurately reflect the nuances of progress or change over a long period of time. Nor is it particularly helpful in terms of facilitating the growth of an individual.”

Steines’ approach reflects the paradigm shift in employers’ attitudes regarding performance assessment—from employee grading to individual assessment. Millennials may be largely responsible for this shift in perspective, since, as McCormack puts it: “What they are asking for, and what employers will likely need to do to retain millennials, is much more of a narrative, evaluative, developmental kind of feedback loop—not ‘I’m going tell you how it is and how to do it differently’ but ‘I’ll have a collaborative conversation with you.’”

The fact that companies such as Microsoft and Accenture have recently abandoned annual performance reviews in favor of regular and ongoing conversations confirms that the movement toward individualized evaluation is about recruitment and retention and, ultimately, the bottom line. Microsoft’s director of global performance programs recently told the Wall Street Journal that not rating employees “mitigates threat, distraction, and internal competition.” GE’s vice president of executive development and learning, Jack Ryan, said his company’s changes along these lines have led to “much richer discussions, where you’re really focused on outcomes and not focused on labels.” Accenture CEO Pierre Nanterme gives a sense of scale. “Imagine, for a company of 330,000 people, changing the performance management process—it’s huge,” Nanterme said. “We’re going to get rid of probably 90 percent of what we did in the past.”

Working millennials expect to learn from their managers as they do from their professors, if they’re fortunate enough to have had narrative evaluation that is about their individual capacity and potential impact. An annual performance assessment or grade is no substitute for ongoing mentorship in the academic setting or the workplace. It shouldn’t be upon leaving an institution that one gains the most insight in the form of an external recommendation. Schools such as Bennington have in place the kind of evaluative feedback loop between faculty and student that graduates say is twice as valuable as the alternative and that employers are beginning to implement with employees. “Bennington tries to ask what does it mean—not just to supply employees, but to provide the highest level of progressive education and have that inform the workplace at large,” McCormack explains. “So when I get the call from employers asking me: ‘How do we get more students like this?’—that’s the moment I look forward to because not only can I send them talented people but we can begin to talk about how to continue to nurture and develop their talents in service to the organization and the individual.”