Performance Reviews Or Continuous Feedback: The Right Approach To Learner Evaluation And Engagement


The “old way’ of teaching was: Trainer provided instruction. Learner absorbed and followed along. Learner proved his/her command of the subject (by writing an end-of-course exam). Trainer evaluated and certified the learner (pass/fail). Based on this model, the end objective was to evaluate… as opposed to facilitating the journey of learning.

Performance Reviews Or Continuous Feedback: How Can You Best Evaluate Your Employees?

That is no longer how the world of training and learning works today. Technology has shrunk the learning cycle so much, that what used to take 6 or 8 months to teach, can now be compressed in a matter of weeks, if not a few days! Clearly, this calls for a review of how learners are evaluated.

Realities And Disconnects

Imagine a distance learner who signs up for an 8-month course in Human Resource Management. She regularly logs on to the company’s online training portal, and after reviewing the lessons she submits her assignments. At the end of the 8th month, she writes an exam…and, later, when it comes to her performance review, she’s surprised to see the following:

  • Lacks the ability to understand lesson requirements
  • Isn’t concise in her responses
  • Isn’t applying Case Studies relevant to the company’s situations correctly

a) So, why does it take 8 months to provide the learner with such feedback?

b) Wouldn’t she have been better served if some of this feedback was provided in week 2 or 3 of the course?

c) Couldn’t she have improved on her performance had she known that “brevity” is what the instructor is looking for?

There appears to be a huge disconnect between learning priorities, as set by the course administrators and instructors, and ground realities—and the learner only finds out late in the review cycle— when they receive their end-of-course Performance Reviews!

While end-of-course Performance Reviews (PRs) have been the bulwark of the training system for many decades, the new realities of a dynamic teaching/learning environment have made them somewhat redundant over the past 5 years or so. Enter the new kid on the performance review block: continuous feedback!

Performance Measurement – An Ongoing “Thing”

Our new training world is characterized by one thing: continuous change. Just as the 24-hour news cycle makes yesterday’s news “stale”, so too can learning priorities and techniques change almost as rapidly. Technological advances sometimes bring new light to a subject, and unless instructors and learners are “on the same page”, huge gaps between learning objectives and learning outcomes might develop.

There is a need therefore for instructors, Instructional Designers, course administrators, and learners to “connect”, almost continuously, within the framework of these changing realities.

A Review of Review Systems

Performance Reviews Continuous Feedback
Conducted once – at the end of a course Held frequently during the course
Usually based on template questionnaires Often held in conversational mode – though significant milestones are documented
Largely based on record keeping and recollection of prior (years’) performance Based on most current “happenings”, including tests and assignments the learner might be engaged in right now
Based on formality and procedure Conducted as an honest discourse between the learner and the instructor
Is a source of huge stress, for both the instructor and the learner, as prior action and performance is rehashed Can serve as a point of stress-relief when learner and instructor meet to discuss current challenges and opportunities
Is often backward-looking, making “future” corrective action outdated or insignificant Acts as a huge performance enhancer, since recent and ongoing performance, is reviewed, with appropriate corrective action discussed
Focuses on processes set by course administrators Focuses on results required by instructors to assure the learner’s success

Without the help of ongoing feedback, learners are likely to move so far down an incorrect path of learning, that it might be extremely difficult (if not impossible) for them to retrace their steps back to the path of success.

Hallmarks Of A Good Continuous Feedback System

If we desire successful learning outcomes, we need to provide learners with continuous feedback on their performance, and not wait for milestone (end-of-course; end-of-chapter, mid-point) Performance Reviews. Here are some characteristics that a good continuous feedback system should include:

1. Based On A System – Not A Process

Continuous feedback must be based on a well-thought-out system. Instead of lengthy Q&As or review templates, the continuous system must consider: what performance traits are important; how they will be evaluated; when learners will be engaged in terms of feedback.

2. Comprehensive As Opposed To Milestone-Based

A good continuous feedback system doesn’t take a snap-shot look at a learner’s performance (e.g.: a mid-term test; or a Case Study report). Instead, learners are engaged at every stage of the course, including tests, assessments, quizzes, assignments, interactions, and projects.

3. Action-Oriented Versus Decision-Prone

The continuous assessment and feedback system must stress corrective action (provide more numerical examples; link headline news stories to your Case Studies), and not just provide performance decisions (fail, pass, meets requirements). This lets the learner know exactly what he/she needs to do to succeed.

4.  Appropriately Paced

While “continuous” does mean “frequently”, it doesn’t mean “all the time”. Pace your feedback in a way that doesn’t overload learners with too much information. When designing the continuous feedback system (see first bullet above), carefully evaluate how much feedback is appropriate. If the lesson plans are overly complex, perhaps more frequent feedback may be called for earlier in the course, then gradually tapering off.

5. Allow For 2-Way Feedback

A good feedback system is where both the learner and the instructor interact frequently. The feedback system should allow learners to also continuously provide inputs to instructor feedback. If the system is 1-way (the instructor provides continuous feedback only), important learner’s concerns might be overlooked or completely ignored.

It is said that most learners assimilate more new ideas and concepts through interacting with instructors and fellow-learners, than through rigorously reviewing course materials. That’s because, while course content provides the basic materials that the learner needs to be exposed to, it is the other interactions that actually help with learning.

Continuous feedback between instructors and learners provides an important venue for such interactions. If these interactions are left at a later date (e.g.: as for the end of course performance reviews), there will be little corrective value in them. Chances are that course objectives will likely not be met.

Instructional Design for ELearning program