Nov 22, 2016

Feedback and its Place in Academics

R Jayaraman

When I was thinking about topics on which to blog one stood out like a sore thumb, or as a Pandora’s Box. Depends on which way you are looking at it. But look at it, one must. It will not go away, it will not lose its bite, and it will not lose its relevance, its ability to make the world a better place.

Continuing on the “depends” idea (one has been told that depends is a defensive word, but on the other hand, of what use is an economist with only one hand?) let us see the various facets of this phenomenon which has been praised by Bill Gates as an activity, without which, American teachers are missing a great opportunity to improve themselves. Fair enough, after all, one has to listen to Gates as he opened the gates for wealth to thousands of Microsofters, of whom many have gone on to become Hardcurrencers!

Feedback is a process, the intention of which is to provide opportunities. I think this is culture-specific. If we turn to Indian stories, there is no mention of how Lord Rama gave feedback to the great sage Vishwamitra under whose tutelage he learnt the three R’s and many other things. How did the great archer Arjuna give feedback to Dronacharya from whom he learnt the art and science of aiming and hitting the object. How we wish that both Valmiki and Vyasa had spared some thought to the future management education which seems to be critically dependent on this activity.

How did the young Adi Shankara give feedback to his illustrious guru Govindapaadaa? Adi Shankara completed his education in his early teens and in the remaining part of his 32 years of life he used his education to achieve things which can only be imagined.

However one theme runs pretty strongly in these puranic stories – filial obedience. For example, the most famous is that of Ekalavya. With some exceptions, like that of Karna, who was cursed by Parasurama for obtaining tutelage by lying under oath. It reminds one of modern courtroom goings-on.

This background is not suitable for modern views on feedback. The current times misuse the concepts of egalitarianism. Adi Shankara’s views on the “contextual validity” of research propositions will surely negate the concept of student feedback to teachers. But then, these are days of “customer is king”, despite a lonely voice from the likes of Nayar from HCL who holds employees as kings before the pretender to the throne, the customer.

To carry on with the subject of feedback, it is an outcome of the PDCA view of life, instilled into the operations management curriculum, and hammered into practice by TQM and BE (Business Excellence as exemplified by the Malcolm Baldrige and the EFQM, and many other similar performance excellence models of recent times, i.e. after 1987). The feedback was applied through the mechanisms of customer satisfaction measurement, employee satisfaction measurement and so on. The leadership feedback methods were then introduced, perhaps with the idea of bringing “leaders” at par with other employees. 360 degree feedback, peer feedback all became popular. All these developments took place in industry where the relevance and context was competing with others to obtain business. Feedback will lead to continuous improvement, which in turn, will lead to higher market share, premium prices and hefty profits. These are the positive outcomes which were emphasised, providing the “context” as referred to by Adi Shankara, to make feedback acceptable to both the feedbackers and the feedback-receivers.

Now when we transplant this method to the teaching industry we need to define the context. Is it that professors are competing with each other, vying to get to teach as many students as possible? Or is to enable deans to keep a hold on the teachers by making it a part of the evaluation mechanism? Or is it to enable the customers, the students (this is a misguided application of a terminology, an outcome of the capitalistic view of all life as “business as usual”) to get the suppliers (the teachers) up to standards?

With a multiplicity of objectives, each constituent giving feedback uses the instrument as suitable to the objectives as defined by the constituent and not necessarily as a way of improving the overall atmosphere prevailing in an academic institution. So what needs to be done to improve the method of giving feedback?

As usual there will be as many views on this subject as there are practitioners. However the best practices could be : provide training in giving and receiving feedback ; hold open sessions between the feedbackers and feedback receivers, in a transparent way, to exchange views of what went right, did not go OK and what can be done; feedback receivers to discuss the overall situation with the programme heads in institutions; compulsory video recording of all teachers of their sessions (or at least some of the sessions, randomly chosen without prior intimation) and specific sessions devoted to discussions by faculty using the summarised issues identified by the Programme Heads. I think this process will succeed in what Bill Gates wanted – to create the best teachers.

All power to the feedback process, may it thrive and succeed.

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