The What, Where, How, Why and When of Gathering Actionable Feedback

September 10, 2014

The What, Where, How, Why and When of Gathering Actionable Feedback
by Matt Champagne

Note: The Kirkpatricks became aware of Matt’s work with the introduction of his book, The Survey Playbook. They found the advice to be effective as well as practical to apply, serving as good real-world advice for surveys that get the information you need.

One of the most frequent frustrations I hear from instructors is that the comments students provide on the evaluation forms are vague, irrelevant and too few in number. This lack of meaningful feedback prevents the instructor from learning what went well and from making necessary changes. Too often, this happens because of open-ended comment boxes on the evaluation form that look like this:

Write your comments in the box below:


This is the questionnaire equivalent of strangers passing on a path. One says, “How you doin’?” and the other responds, “Good.” Neither party expects anything substantive to be said. We should likewise expect almost no meaningful information to be exchanged when respondents are prompted in this manner. Here are five ways to improve your open-ended comment prompts in order to gather actionable feedback and dramatically increase the number of responses.

1. WHAT. Tell respondents what topics or criteria you want them to FOCUS on. Anchors such as “instructor delivery,” “communication” or “materials” will help them latch on and provide relevant and useful comments that facilitate meaningful change.

2. WHERE. Rather than a single, open-ended comment box at the end of the evaluation form, prompt respondents with multiple comment boxes, one immediately after each cluster of related quantitative questions. For example, explanatory comment boxes should appear after each series of questions about the “instructor,” “content” and “course technology.”

3. HOW.  Anyone who has read confusing or irrelevant reviews on Amazon or TripAdvisor understands that not everyone knows how to provide useful feedback. TEACH your respondents this skill by instructing them within the comment prompt. For example, “Provide specific examples rather than vague statements” or “Provide enough detail so your presenter can make meaningful change.”

4. WHY. Keep in mind that when asking for feedback, we are really asking someone to give up their most valuable possession (their time) in order to help us. Clearly state WHY their detailed feedback is important (to them, not you) and specifically how it will be used to make a difference.

5. WHEN. Whenever possible, supplement the usual end-of-event evaluation “autopsy” (waiting until the training is over to figure out what went wrong) with “midstream” formative evaluation. By asking for input and then providing timely responses to their feedback while the event is in session, respondents will observe the importance and impact of clear feedback and will be far more likely to provide plenty of detailed feedback on the final evaluation.

Putting it all together, here is one example that has yielded rich and plentiful comments:

Please explain your ratings above regarding COURSE DELIVERY. Provide at least one specific example of a behavior, characteristic, or teaching style of your instructor that helped you learn, and one specific example that was an obstacle to your learning. Both positive and negative comments will help your instructor deliver more value to you in the second half of this course.

Incorporating the what/where/how/why/when rules takes very little time and yields dramatically higher response rates and actionable feedback.

About the Author:
Dr. Matthew Champagne, author of The Survey Playbook, has influenced the practice of evaluation and assessment in higher education and learning organizations for nearly 20 years. As a professor, Senior Research Fellow, evaluator, consultant, and serial entrepreneur, Dr. Champagne created and implemented innovative evaluation technologies that are now standard practice in thousands of organizations across every industry. His current missions are to educate the world on: (1) how to fix surveys that annoy customers, reduce response rates, and misinform organizations, and (2) how to ask the right questions in the right way to gather timely and meaningful feedback to rapidly improve training and learning.Join the

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