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.


  1. Jane Hart says

    What more is there to say about the uselessness/invalidity (now who’s not being subtle!? ) of feedback? You sum it up perfectly.

  2. Judith Christian-Carter says

    Great stuff Dick and more especially so for exposing so many of the myths which bedevil our world in L&D. Love it mate and keep up the good work.

  3. Dave Ferguson says

    I like the phrase “management of” learner feedback, and I’ve seen more than one example of judicious massaging of results, since the T&D masseur in question undoubtedly knew what the feeders-back really meant.

    My main quibble is that I don’t think that learners reporting about their feelings is assessment at all. Well, okay, maybe according to one dictionary definition. As you hint, here and there, it’s certainly not assessment of the learning.

    Does the opinion of the learner matter? Yes, I think it does — though as in your airplane example, it’s irrelevant to the question of whether you can fly safely.

    I think the learner’s opinion matters because if the training is poorly designed, if the instructor/facilitator is sufficiently a moron, or if the purported skills are sufficiently remote from what the learner needs or wants to do — all this in the learner’s opinion — then that person probably isn’t going to learn.

    Because, for example, he’ll quit.

    If your flying instructor berated you for freezing, mocked your efforts, derided you in front of other instructors or students, then I think I’d likely your assessment of him would be “moron” (or “moron in Cessna”) and you’d stop taking the lessons.

    I know you know this. If we were working together, coming up with terminal and enabling objectives for becoming a private pilot, I’m pretty sure “recover from stall and land safely” would show up somewhere. Which means achieving that objective trumps the usual smile-sheet criteria like nice binder, good slides, and great doughnuts.

  4. dickcarl says

    @Jane — Yes, the “subtle” gene seems to have skipped a generation. I’m often told that I need to spend more time beating ’round bushes.

    @Judith — Well, there are just so many myths in Learning and Development to pick from. And Sacred Cows to be gored. And Unicorns to be roasted. And Dreams bashed. Not to mention Windmills that must be tilted.

    @Dave — Oh, yes — feedback about the instructor is certainly valuable. My flight instructor was amazingly patient with me, and never once said the stuff I could see in his 24-year-old-eyes! And some landing issues I had finally were fixed when he chose to hand me off to another CFI (about my age) with an entirely different teaching style for a few lessons. Showed great maturity as an instructor and a real focus on me getting to my goals.

    And I’m still terrified of stalls. Eeeeek.

  5. mireille allam says

    I have 2 questions concerning the “learner feedback” and i want your help please.
    1-Do we directly take it from students?
    2-How do we test the abilities?