We know from research and decades of experience that feedback can be a powerful driver of learning. When learners have access to timely, objective, specific, accurate, and actionable information about their current performance and necessary next steps, progress can increase rapidly.
Interestingly, recent research conducted at the Harvard Business School suggests that while feedback in general is useful, when feedback is framed as advice it can be even more powerful. The Harvard research team tested information framed as feedback versus advice in a variety of learning and business settings with varying groups of participants. They focused on the nature of information people tend to offer in both frames and how useful recipients found the information to improve learning and work performance.
Surprisingly, the researchers found that asking for advice tends to yield more critical and actionable information than asking for feedback. When asked to provide feedback, people tended to associate the process with evaluation and typically focused descriptions and judgment on the actions they observed and were less specific about what could be done to improve performance. On the other hand, when asked to provide advice, they found that people tended to focus more specifically on actions or changes that would most likely bring improvement. The researchers found that compared to study participants who were asked to provide feedback, those who were asked to provide advice offered 34% more areas for improvement and 56% more specific ways to improve.
Like most research, the findings include some nuance. Neither feedback nor advice is likely to change behavior or lead to significant improvement unless the recipient is open and ready to receive input.
Further, when asking for advice, we tend to hear less about what and how we are doing and more about how to improve. For novice learners who may lack confidence and a full understanding of key concepts, hearing what they are doing well can be an important confidence builder and motivator for continuing to learn and take risks. Being exposed primarily to criticism and information on how to improve can be demotivating and work against growth in confidence and willingness to persist in their efforts.
For educators, this research suggests several considerations. First, when working with novice learners we need to provide a balance of reinforcing information about what learners are doing well and what steps they can take to improve.
Second, in our work with more confident, motivated, and experienced learners we might shift the balance of information we provide to focus more heavily on actions and strategies for continued growth and improvement. However, these learners still need information on where they are progressing and doing well, even if it is not the primary emphasis.
Third, as we work to improve our own professional practice, we are likely to find it more beneficial to ask for advice when we are working to improve a specific skill or approach in which we are relatively confident and proficient. It may be more appropriate to ask for feedback when we are trying something new and where our confidence and competence is not yet strong.
What experiences have you had with asking for advice rather than feedback? Does your experience reflect the same differences between feedback and advice as the research conducted at Harvard?
Yoon, J., Blunden, H., Kristal, A., & Whillans, A. (2019). Framing feedback giving as advice giving yields more critical and actionable input. Harvard Business School Working Paper No. 20-021. Retrieved from https://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Publication%20Files/20-021_b907e614-e44a-4f21-bae8-e4a722babb25.pdf