Social Learning Blog

Provide Feedback to Learners But Be Vague About It

Well here’s an interesting dilemma. I read two intriguing articles in the July issue of Wired magazine: One was called “Harnessing the Power of Feedback Loops” by Thomas Goetz. The other was a blog post entitled “In Praise of Vagueness” by Jonah Lehrer. My initial reaction was “Hurray! I have content for my next two blog posts!”

But then I started writing, and all of my grand ideas folded in on each other until I realized, heart sinking, that I indeed only have one blog post, and that I view these two articles as companion pieces to each other.

The gist of feedback loops is that, as one is provided with information about one’s behavior, it can be used to modify behavior in order to more closely approach a desired outcome. In Goetz’s article, he gives a compelling example (if all the comments to the article are any indication).

Radar traffic sign. Photo courtesy of

It seems that posting radar sensors, which provide drivers with their speed in comparison with the posted speed limits, results in a significant decrease in speeding, even when no tickets are issued. The article goes on to discuss some interesting ways that technology is using feedback loops and sensors to improve the way we live and work. See Rypple for some interesting technology that formalizes feedback loops in a business environment.

I wanted to apply these concepts to learning, or organizational management, but here’s the problem: my mind keeps going back to Lehrer’s article on vagueness. His article posits that sometimes humans are better motivated if they are not given completely accurate information. He cites the (totally relatable!) example of losing weight, which I will encapsulate slightly differently than he does.

Let’s say you wish to lose 20 pounds. You work hard for a week, and you get on the scale, excited to see how your efforts have paid off. And you find that your state-of-the-art scale, which provides your weight down to the hundredth of a pound, is glaringly, heartlessly informing you that you have only lost 0.65 – two thirds – of a pound. If you’re me, you lose all motivation and go to the McDonald’s drive-through for dinner, thus sabotaging your weight loss efforts.

On the other hand, let’s say that instead of weighing yourself, you are using the fit of your clothing as a measure of your weight loss. Without the “cold, hard facts” you are more motivated to stay on your diet as you notice that, this morning, you were able to button the top button of your shirt, or that you didn’t pass out after zipping your jeans.

Lehrer mentions two scientists, Himanshu Mishra of the University of Utah and Baba Shiv of Stanford University, who studied this phenomenon and concluded:

“Is the eternal quest for precise information always worthwhile? Our research suggests that, at times, vagueness has its merits. Not knowing precisely how they are progressing lets people generate positive expectancies that allow them to perform better. The fuzzy boundaries afforded by vague information allow people to distort that information in a favorable manner.”

The point I keep coming back to is that, perhaps, feedback in the learning or organizational management sphere is also governed by these forces. Feedback that is too accurate, too pointed, might be demoralizing rather than motivating. Maybe a little vague, positive feedback will go down a bit easier and, in the end, keep your team on track to achieve its objectives.

Goetz addresses this issue in his article, too. He discusses a company called Vitality, founded by David Rose. The company produces a GlowCap for medication; it pulses and plays music to gently remind patients to take their medication. Writes Goetz:

“Here Rose grapples with an essential challenge of feedback loops: Make them too passive and you’ll lose your audience as the data blurs into the background of everyday life. Make them too intrusive and the data turns into noise, which is easily ignored. Borrowing a concept from cognitive psychology called pre-attentive processing, Rose aims for a sweet spot between these extremes, where the information is delivered unobtrusively but noticeably.”

While one shouldn’t manage one’s staff “pre-cognitively,” nor lie to them, nor keep them in the dark, managers should shoot for the “sweet spot,” between motivating their team, while correcting action to keep their project on course.

And alas, I must find a new topic for my next blog.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Claire joined Dashe & Thomson in 2011 after working as a training and documentation consultant for five years. She has developed and delivered training both nationally and internationally, for a range of industries and systems, from large-scale ERP implementations to specialized, in-house software applications.
  • Ellen Bremen

    As a prof, when I first started reading this post, my knee-jerk reaction was, “Noooo! Without explicit and specific feedback, my students just remain confused!” But then I thought of an example when I was incorrect: I used to read drafts of student speech outlines line-by-line, making very exacting content comments within. This took hours and with 75+ students in a term, well, let’s just say that I spent a lot of late nights with MS Word’s track changes feature.

    A former division chair who teaches English and has tons more pre-review of papers than I do said that she NEVER touches a student’s work line-by-line like I was doing. Instead, she makes more general marginal comments (no more than 3-5) that lead the student to reach his/her own conclusions about what needs to change in the writing. I turned that advice into a series of peer review memos that my students complete for each other before I even see the work.

    I can’t say that I’m entirely on her method, but I’m also not following my stringent editing as much, either. Her idea had validity: My specificity was not necessarily helping students find their own voice with their writing or find their own mistakes. I’m still finding my balance, but thank you for this insightful piece! Ellen Bremen, M.A. @chattyprof

  • Claire

    Thanks so much for your comment, Ellen! I must admit, as a detail-oriented person occasionally tasked with editing training materials, I’ve often struggled with the level of comment to give to the content developer. It’s sometimes a touchy business when one is not in a position of authority as you are in your role as a professor, although you probably encounter students that require some nuance when being critiqued.

    In theory (and this probably applies less directly to an academic setting), I like the idea of that old managerial principle of “Compliment – Critique – Compliment,” i.e. “soften” the criticism with positive feedback. But it has to be less “studied” than that, because I now find that when this strategy is used on me I’m quite conscious of it and less prone to believing the compliments.

    My colleague is a pretty gifted manager with regard to feedback – She has a way of always remaining positive while still offering the guidance that keeps her team focused and on track. If only I could bottle that…

    Thanks for contributing your insight – I hadn’t thought about this topic from the standpoint of an educational setting, so thanks for opening my eyes!