This lesson is in the early stages of development (Alpha version)

Theory of Feedback


Teaching: 45 min
Exercises: 45 min
  • What forms can feedback take?

  • What are the steps involved in giving, receiving and responding to feedback?

  • What does optimal feedback look like - and how might feedback become distorted?

  • Why is feedback important in creating and maintaining healthy communities?

  • Reflect on how giving, receiving and responding to feedback is important in healthy communities.

Definition of Feedback

One might imagine feedback operating via a simple, linear mechanism - where a particular stimulus creates feedback, which is then transmitted and results in some outcome.

Linear Feedback Cycle: Stimulus → feedback is transmitted –> feedback is received —> outcome

However, this simple linear flow does not convey some of the nuances of feedback - which we need to bear in mind when we are gathering feedback from others and trying to respond to it in a useful way. Let us take a look at some dictionary definitions that can expand our understanding.

The Oxford dictionary gives three definitions of feedback:

So feedback is important for improvement - it is how we learn about our effects in the world. Feedback also operates within a system or broader set of interactions, rather than as an isolated, disconnected activity. And finally feedback can become distorted - a theme we’ll come back to later in this module.

Types of feedback

Feedback can take many forms. Let us start by reflecting on the different ways that we may already have encountered feedback in our professional lives - either in the Carpentries or elsewhere (see challenge question).

Challenge Question

On your own, take 2 - 3 minutes to think of some different examples of when you give or receive feedback e.g. “I have a monthly meeting with my supervisor where she gives me feedback on my progress towards delivering my assigned goals for the month.” or “When I enjoy a link that someone else shares on Slack, I add a thumbs up emoji and sometimes leave a comment to say thank you.”

Using Padlet, submit one example per tile.

Next, in groups of three, take 10 minutes to review the suggestions that have been posted on the Padlet board and discuss how you might organise the feedback into different types. How many types did you come up with? Did you identify feedback that might be categorised into more than one type?

We can think of feedback as falling into three broad types, as shown in the following table:

Type of feedback Subconscious / implied Social / shared Formal / invited
General examples Laughter, withdrawal from engaging, crossed arms. Applause, emojis on Slack, retweets on Twitter Survey, peer review, appraisal
Carpentries examples Turning off video in a Zoom call, leaving a Slack channel. For some this is an accessibility option, but for others it is a way to withdraw or disengage Sticky notes, gratitude blog posts, post-workshop blog posts Post-workshop survey, Carpentries conversations on GitHub
Notes This feedback is generally not solicited but rather given as a reaction to something. It can be both positive and negative. Important to set expectations around how this feedback will be received e.g. can quickly become time-consuming and burn out recipients. This feedback can be structured or spontaneous but it is shared out in the open The mechanism for giving this type of feedback is typically created by the host organisation/convenor.
Ways feedback may be distorted The emotional content of the message may dominate over being able to describe the ask required e.g. withdrawing due to lack of credit does not articulate the need for the credit to be given. Because the feedback is shared out in the open and others may “upvote” or reinforce it in some way, it is important to ask whether there are other opinions that may not be being represented Because the mechanism for giving feedback is quite rigidly designed, more qualitative feedback may be missed.

Subconscious or implicit feedback is any message we are transmitting that may not be through a formally created channel - things like body language, tone of voice or behaviour changes such as withdrawal or anger.

Social feedback is any mechanism that we are doing out in the open in a group and as such is subject to social cues because we are each influenced by the way in which others are behaving.

Formal or invited feedback may occur in small groups such as focus groups or privately via feedback surveys, but the structure through which someone can provide feedback is pre-defined.

When we consider these types of feedback, we are reminded that feedback is around us all the time - it is there whenever we are communicating.

Role of feedback in the continuity of communities

One way that CSCCE defines community is “A place where members feel a sense of belonging and a desire to work together towards shared goals”.

Being able to give, receive, and respond to feedback is necessary for healthy communities and it is important for two main reasons. Firstly, it is how we get to shape our shared activities i.e. how we interact and align around what to do together. It is also important emotionally to create a sense of belonging. When we feel able to give feedback and that feedback is received and responded to, we feel like our opinions and feelings matter and that we belong in that community.

Key takeaways

Let us unpack these two roles for feedback (belonging and alignment) in more detail.

Here are some ways in which feedback can help us feel a sense of belonging:

Personal expression e.g. feeling seen, venting, desire to help Positive reinforcement, gratitude e.g. thanks to organisers, awards Connection to others e.g. discussion threads, task forces

And here are some ways in which feedback can help us to align around shared activities:

Suggesting improvements e.g. peer review, user testing Negotiating expectations e.g. performance reviews, commitment levels Shared ownership e.g. voting, petitions


  • it is crucial to be able to share feedback so that both the practical and the emotional components of being in a community are satisfied:

  • If you focus on belonging without providing a mechanism for alignment, there may be a lot of goodwill, but no structure to get things done.

  • If you focus on structure but not emotionally supporting one another, there may be a vision but less commitment to stick to it together.

Giving and receiving Feedback

Given the importance of feedback to healthy communities, in this next section we are going to explore:

i) the ideal feedback cycle - which we will then revisit later in light of how this works in the Carpentries.
ii) how feedback might be optimally presented iii) how feedback might be distorted - and how we can counteract that.

The ideal feedback cycle

How feedback can break down

We started initially by imagining the following simple flow for giving and receiving feedback:

Linear Feedback Cycle: Stimulus → feedback is transmitted –> feedback is received —> outcome

Taking each of the steps indicated by an arrow, let us explore the ways in which communication might fail.

Phase one (Stimulus → feedback is transmitted)

Phase two (feedback is transmitted —> feedback is received)

Phase three (feedback is received → outcome)

The ideal feedback cycle

We can reimagine our simple linear flow instead as a couple of feedback loops (shown below) that more actively involve the person giving feedback to i) emphasise the importance of their input and ii) to ensure the accuracy of our understanding such that appropriate action might be taken.

From the first loop above, Giver of feedback sends message —> receipt of message —> verify understanding

From the second loop, Take action on feedback → convey action to feedback giver → receive further feedback

Note, that the action taken may not be an immediate resolution of the feedback that has been reported. However, we can still convey the next steps in the process so that the feedback giver knows that their input matters.

What does optimally presented feedback look like

If we focus more closely now on the feedback itself, what characteristics would that feedback have if it was transmitted in a format that was easy to take action on?

Optimally presented feedback is specific, objective, timely and actionable

Specific - The feedback refers to a specific event, product or person - you know precisely what the feedback is referring to.

E.g. “At the workshop that took place last week at my university I could not hear one of the speakers.”

It is clear that the feedback is about a particular training event. Which helps us to look up related feedback about that event and possibly identify the instructors who led the workshop.

Objective - The feedback describes what happened and the impact that it had.

E.g. “I could not hear the speaker and so was unable to follow the lesson. This was extremely frustrating and I felt this was a waste of my time/money.”

This feedback clearly explains what happens - there was a problem with the sound - and also that it prevented the attendee from being able to follow the lesson. In this case the impact was quite severe in terms of their ability to take part.

Timely - The feedback is given as proximally to the event that occurred as is reasonably possible e.g. an exit survey should be shared at the end of a workshop, while the learner is able to recall all of the components of the event, rather than two weeks later when they may have forgotten many of the details.

E.g. in the example that we are working through, the optimal time to give feedback for this person would have been during the workshop itself - so that attempts could be made to address the technical issue immediately. By leaving the workshop early due to the technical issues, the person giving the feedback now has to identify who to contact and how, creating a barrier to them submitting feedback - and ultimately finding a resolution.


Sometimes we do not or can not provide a way to give feedback in a timely way and this may lead to distortion of the underlying message e.g. because the giver of the feedback is now more frustrated and/or the problem has gotten worse. Delayed feedback may also require a different action e.g. in the example we are working through the action during the workshop might have been to pause the lesson and resolve the technical issues with the sound, whereas addressing the feedback afterwards becomes about issuing a refund or finding a place for the participant on a future workshop, as well as trouble-shooting what might have happened with the technical issues

Actionable - e.g. there is a clear ask - which you may need to work with the giver of the feedback to determine. Note that sometimes there is no immediate resolution of an issue and the action may be to listen to the feedback and help a community member to feel heard.

In the example about the workshop, we could imagine that the ask might be: “I would like a refund / free place in another workshop so that I can learn the skills I originally signed up to learn about. I would also like to know what you are going to do to address the technical issues in the future so that others are not impacted in the same way.”

What distorts Feedback

In the introductory definitions of feedback we briefly mentioned distortion of the message being transmitted (REVISIT TABLE from the Types of Feedback section). Distortion means that the underlying message that was intended to be communicated has been lost or changed somehow such that it is harder to determine the intention of the communication and an appropriate response and resolution.

It is therefore important to consider if there are any factors influencing the transmission or receipt of the message when giving and receiving feedback. These can range from the limitations of the feedback mechanism (e.g. a survey may not provide a way to give more qualitative impressions) to social cues such as upvoting that can distort the perceived importance or prevalence of what is being described.

Challenge Question

Brainstorm some possible ways in which feedback about a Carpentries workshop might be shared - and the ways in which that feedback may become distorted as a result. Is there anything that can be done to ensure that less distortion occurs?

Discussion Scenarios

Example One

The organizers of an event delayed sending out a post-event survey until the week after the event. Only 20% of the attendees of the workshop completed the survey and for 60% of the questions about the course materials the option “not applicable/can not recall” was selected. In this example, the request to give formal feedback was not TIMELY and so attendees were less able to recall specific details that they may have been able to share right at the end of the workshop. How might you improve or avoid this scenario?

Example Two

A comment left on a social media post stated “All the materials I have ever read from this organization are so useful.” In this example, while the feedback sounds emphatically positive, it is not SPECIFIC about which materials the individual has seen, nor OBJECTIVE how they were useful. That makes it hard to take any action based on the feedback - such as learning which materials are being reshared or discovering new examples of how they have been applied. What useful action might you want to take based on positive feedback like this? How might you respond to such a post to obtain feedback that is more specific and objective?

Example 3

A prominent community member recently made a complaint on Slack which received many emojis in response. Adding many emojis to a post may make an opinion look more popular than it is and/or overlook quieter or more subtle feedback. This is known as the Matthew Effect (also called the rich get richer effect) How might the complaint be turned into something ACTIONABLE? Who should be kept informed of the actions taken?

Key Points

  • There is both an emotional role for feedback in communities - what feedback do I need to give or receive to feel like I BELONG?

  • There is also a role for feedback in helping us to practically ALIGN around a mission and the processes we will follow as we plan to achieve the mission together.

  • Optimally presented feedback is specific, objective, timely and actionable