Not Exactly Rocket Science

Quicker feedback for better performance

We’ve all experienced the agonising wait for feedback, whether it’s for exam grades, news from a job interview, or results from a grant application. These verdicts can have a massive influence in our lives but they can often take weeks or even months to arrive. And that’s a big problem, according to Keri Kettle and Gerald Häubl from the University of Alberta.

They have found evidence that we do better at tasks the sooner we expect news about our performance. If we think we’ll be evaluated quickly, the threat of a negative appraisal looms ever larger. And this greater sense of danger motivates us to work harder.

Kettle and Haubl asked 271 students to give a four-minute presentation as part of a university course. Their performance would be judged by their peers and it would count towards their final grade. The students were told about the date of their presentation and when they would hear about the results, with waiting times ranging from a few hours to 17 days later.

The duo found that students who anticipated the quickest feedback achieved the higher grades. On average, those who knew they would hear back later on in the day scored within the top 40% of the group. Those who thought they would hear back 17 days later received scores that skirted the bottom 40%. It seems that even the anticipation of quicker feedback can boost performance.

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To make sure that other events going on at the time weren’t affecting the scores, Kettle and Haubl also asked some students to give presentations on the same day as their previous group, but without any advance warning about their results date (they’re the “nonparticipants” in the graph). Without this knowledge, all the students scored equally well regardless of when they received their feedback.

However, neither set of recruits had any idea about the advantage of faster feedback. In fact, those who were prepared to find out their scores within the day grossly underestimated their scores, while those who settled in for a longer wait thought they would do much better than in reality. As Kettle and Haubl say, “People do best precisely when their predictions about their own performance are least optimistic!” The duo think that these poor predictions are a way of bracing ourselves for disappointment.

Kettle and Haubl’s work certainly supports their hypothesis, but there’s probably a bit more work to do here. For a start, the duo only did a single experiment; it would be good to see if the promise of swifter feedback improved performance under a variety of settings. Likewise, we often expect feedback to come at a certain point because of our experience, even if we aren’t given any specific dates. Do these predictions affect our performance too?

There are a lot of questions to answer, but for the moment, it seems that seemingly trivial details as the date of a person’s feedback could make a big difference to how well they perform at a task. Kettle and Haubl also point out that their results are directly relevant to people “who are responsible for mentoring and for evaluating the performance of others.” If such performance is associated with snappy feedback, then managers and mentors might think harder about providing comments and criticisms to their staff more promptly.

Reference:Kettle, K., & Haubl, G. (2010). Motivation by Anticipation: Expecting Rapid Feedback Enhances Performance Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797610363541 If this link isn’t working, read why here

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