How timing of feedback impacts how well you perform

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How soon your performance will be rated may influence how well you do, according to a new study published in the journal Psychological Science. In the study, researchers Keri L. Kettle and Gerald Häubl from the University of Alberta set out to determine whether the timing of feedback—how soon you learn of your grade, or get your supervisor’s input on a report you’ve prepared—influences performance. Because earlier feedback means a more proximate possibility of disappointment, the researchers hypothesized that students told they would be learning their grade sooner would be more likely to perform well, compared with those who wouldn’t find out their grade until later.

Of 501 students taking a particular course, 271 agreed to participate in the study. All students were assigned a four minute oral presentation, which they had to deliver in front of about 10 classmates. Their performance was ranked on a scale of 1-10 by classmates, and the average of those scores made up their grade for the assignment. Prior to giving their oral presentation, study participants were asked to predict how well they would do, and were also told how soon they would learn their grade. (For this, participants were randomly assigned to five groups that would learn their scores at different intervals—ranging from the same day as the presentation to 17 days later.)

The researchers found that study participants who’d been told they would be given their scores earlier performed far better than those told they’d receive their scores later. What’s more, despite the fact that, on average, students who anticipated finding out how they’d done earlier significantly outperformed classmates who were given their scores later, they were more likely to predict low marks for themselves. In contrast, those who were told they wouldn’t learn their scores until later were more likely to predict very high marks—which they seldom actually went on to earn. As a control, the researchers also assessed the scores of the 230 students who had declined to participate in the study. While students with the earliest feedback scored in the 60th percentile on average, and those with the latest feedback scored in the 40th percentile on average, those not included in the study (and whose feedback time hadn’t been manipulated) consistently scored in the 50th percentile.

The findings suggest that “mere anticipation of more rapid feedback improves performance,” the authors conclude, and that, interestingly, proximity of feedback influences predicted performance and actual performance differently. As the authors sum up: “People do best precisely when their predictions about their own performance are least optimistic.” The influence of feedback anticipation on performance has implications beyond the classroom as well, the researchers argue—in the way that managers respond to employee work, for example, or maybe even how Mom and Dad size up how clean that room is. The findings, Kettle and Häubl conclude, “have important practical implications for all individuals who are responsible for mentoring and for evaluating the performance of others.”