What is exemplary feedback?

The word “assessment” does not have a positive connotation. Feedback is the same way. Imagine that we’re colleagues walking down the hall together and I turn to you and say, “I’m glad to see you. Do you have a minute? I’ve been wanting to give you some feedback.”

How would that make you feel? Probably nervous.

Feedback is not, by definition, critical, but we feel it as a negative thing. It’s emotional. We often feel it’s about approval or disapproval.

Try this exercise. List what words you think best answer the following:

To be exemplary feedback it must be:


We tend to respond with words like “honest” or “tactful” or “useful”. Why? Because so often, feedback is not honest in order to spare feelings or protect relationships. We also use words like “tactful” and “useful” to define exemplary feedback because we’re so used to feedback that is not tactful or useful.

But what if your approach to feedback made these adjectives unnecessary? What if they were useful by design and definition? What if honesty and tact didn’t even apply because the first was a given and the second unnecessary? We need a new way, a better way to think about feedback, the same way we need a better way to think about assessment than getting a grade on a test.

Try these adjectives:

Exemplary feedback is:

  • Contextual. There is an upfront agreement on what “good work” looks like and everyone knows what the goals are.
  • Descriptive. If I’m clear about what I am trying to do, with as much detail as possible, then I am inviting feedback that describes where I am, and where I am not, achieving that vision. You can see how closely “contextual” and “descriptive” are related.
  • Timely. Go back to the idea of getting a grade on a test or a paper. Sometimes you got a grade on a paper that you didn’t even remember writing. The key to exemplary feedback is that I get it in time to use it.

to David Grant's anecdote with getting timely feedback

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