How Feedback Helps or Kills Our Motivation

This year my wife and I each got a Fitbit for Christmas. We do a lot of hiking in the summer and skiing and snowshoeing in the winter so we are usually in pretty good shape. But as we drift into our late 60’s it seems important to be aware of staying in good shape – but how do you do that other than “tipping the scale”? Wearing a Fitbit and checking out our exercise, resting heart rate, calories burned, active minutes, and even how we’ve slept every night helps us know how we’ve exercised. But it does more.

My Fitbit gave me what I really wanted – it has given me the information I needed to recover from knee surgery to get ready for winter activities. It gives me the details about how hard I have exercised to get me in shape without killing my surgically repaired knee. Sweet ! But it does even more.

Back in the day when I was in my 30s and early 40s I was really into running. I was a high school cross-country coach and ran road races almost every week. For more than a decade I kept a running diary with my resting heart rate, how many miles I ran every day, what my time was in every road race, etc. I didn’t realize it then but the information, the specific data, kept me motivated to improve – and I did improve. My times got better on marathons and other races even though I was getting quite a bit older – I was more motivated. Eventually this motivation resulted in too many miles and bad knees. But I learned an important lesson. Motivation is closely tied to something called “informational feedback.”

My Fitbit has something called a “Dashboard” that keeps track of what I have done every day (steps, heart rate, high level activities, etc.) and compares my daily activities to my weekly, and even monthly, activities. It even sends me e-mails with “awards” when I surpass my goals. Maybe I am a little motivation-crazy but the feedback I get from my Dashboard motivates me to get up early and take our dog for a little longer walk every morning as well as the exercises my physical therapist gave me for my knee. And now I can go snowshoeing, and CC skiing, and recently alpine skiing. 🙂 How did the Fitbit get me motivated?

When I was a professor of Educational Psychology my research focused on motivation and learning in education. I found that Informational Feedback (feedback that gives you specific information that connects your effort to the learning outcome) improves student results AND motivation; when a student sees that their study time improves their test scores it improves their motivation and effort. A colleague and I create a computer Dashboard where students kept track of how and when they studied and their results on weekly tests. The improvements were dramatic for almost all students; honestly I was shocked at the power of specific informational feedback when delivered in a way that made it clear how studying impacted their grades. At the end of the semester a majority of the students raved about how informational feedback improved their learning. Approximately 50 students each semester volunteered to join my Peer Mentor program to teach other students how to learn using informational feedback and the Dashboard.

Each semester these volunteer peer mentors (they didn’t receive a penny, they only received the experience of teaching others) helped the new students in my class to see the connection to change how they studied. The lesson for me was obvious: when learners see how changes in their efforts lead to success they are more motivated to continue their efforts. Over time I also learned that the Peer Mentors could do something I couldn’t do; they helped their fellow students to accept that they could improve IF they were willing to change how they studied. If “the expert” (that would be Randy-the-teacher) told them to change, they often didn’t listen. But when their colleagues gave them Informational Feedback they did listen and were willing to change. A Peer Mentor is a powerful tool in change.

So what is Informational Feedback and how does it relate to improving your photography? I previously defined informational feedback in learning as feedback that gives you specific information that connects your effort to the learning outcome. In my class the Peer Mentors used the Dashboard to show students that studying for two hours a few days before the test was more helpful to their grade than cramming for 4 hours right before a test. The Peer Mentors tied specific behaviors (2 hours of studying) to specific outcomes (improvements in test grades.) But how do we do that to improve our photography?

Let me start with a feedback problem in photography. Many of you have probably been posting your photos to your Facebook page or the FB page of a group like the Teton Photography Group. Take a few minutes to go back and look at the comments that people made to your photos.

Don’t read-on, go back and read the comments.

I suspect that most of the comments are something like this: “Great shot”; “Awesome”; “Beautiful”; “Gorgeous”. Did any of the comments say something like this: “I like the leading lines”; “The placement of the horizon shows great balance”; “The color in the foreground leads me to look to the mountains and sky”; or “I find the tree branches in the upper right corner to be a bit distracting. I think cropping those out would be helpful.”

Do the “Awesome” comments help you to become a better photographer? Sure, they make you smile and feel good for a few seconds but after a few comments like these you don’t feel a whole lot better. These “Awesome” comments are what are called “Evaluative Feedback”; they simply say that they like, or dislike, your photo but they don’t say why. To improve your photography you need Informational Feedback that tells you what is good (or not so good) about your photo. I hope that if I have made a comment on one of your FB posts that I sent you some Informational Feedback – at least I try to make my comments informational whenever I have the time.

I believe that the most important ingredient in improving our photography is to receive Informational Feedback, particularly from someone you trust. Any type of feedback (informational or evaluative) that might be seen as criticizing your photos could be upsetting. If someone said that your photo was “Horrible” you are likely to be upset – I’d be upset also. Or if someone you don’t know said “Too many distractions in the upper right corner of your photo”, you are more likely to be upset, although not as upset as hearing “Horrible.” But what if the person who told you they see the tree branches as distracting was a person you trust? What if that person was a peer that you saw as your partner; you both went on photo shoots and gave feedback to one another about your photos? I bet you’d feel more comfortable.

I know this can be very intimidating for some of you. It was very intimidating for me at the first Teton Photography Group Informal Critique that I attended a year ago. But I got over my fear fairly quickly once I heard the constructive feedback at the critique; the group gave specific supportive Informational Feedback to start and occasionally gave some specific encouragement on how to improve the photo. When you know that others are there to help you improve it makes it much easier to listen to the feedback. And if you know that the person giving you the feedback is also trying to improve, just like you, it makes the feedback even easier to accept.

My experience with amateur photographers the last year has shown me that I’m not alone in moving forward to improve my photographs. A year ago I didn’t want to share my photos with anyone – especially if I thought they were good photographers – because I thought I was a bad photographer. But I took the risk to share my photos with others and their Informational Feedback had a huge impact on my photos. I listened to their feedback and started to look at my other photos “with their eyes.” For example, at one critique someone pointed out that my photo was too busy around the edges and that I could improve the photo by being more focused on a theme in the photo. I went home and looked at lots of my photos that had the same distraction problem, and did some cropping to improve them.

And I found someone in the group to go and take photo shoots with on Saturday morning. Mario and I have gone on a number of photo shoots and we work together and talk photography. Working with Mario gets me motivated to get out and take photographs early in the morning and his feedback has given me confidence. We have become Peer Mentors that trust one another and are willing to give one another feedback.

I have learned a lot in the first year of my photo journey and, as I said in the first post to this blog, I want to share my journey with you. A year ago my goal was to share my journey to help you, now I want to add to that original goal by creating a Peer Mentor Photography Program (PMPP) that you can join. My next post will be a description of the Peer Mentor Photography Program that I plan to launch in March through the Teton Photography Group. This group will be designed primarily for amateur photographers who live within driving distance of Jackson, WY but it might be possible to do this on-line. I will be hosting the TPG Informal Critique on Monday March 14th and making a presentation on Peer Mentoring on Monday March 21st at the Art Association in Jackson WY.. If you might be interested in joining the Peer Mentor Photography Program (PMPP) send me an e-mail (risaacso@iusb.edu) and think about finding a photography buddy that might be able to take at least one photo shoot with you each month. If you can’t think of anyone, I will find a way to match-up people but it would probably be easier if you find a photo-partner you already know.

I hope to have the next blog post up in the next week or a little later. I will include a description of the goals and activities of the PMPP in the blog.   I am also planning on sending out e-mails to members of the Teton Photography Group that live within driving distance of Jackson WY. If you are interested, please contact me. If you know of a potential Peer Mentor for you, please get in touch with them, invite them to join the blog, and send me their e-mail address so I can get in touch with them.

Some Basic Goals of the Peer Mentor Photography Program

  1. Create a Community of Amateur Photographers that trusts the critique of one another as they work to improve their photography.
  2. Learn how to give Information Feedback to one another in a way that supports and encourages the improvement of effective photographic skills.
  3. Build Peer Mentor partnerships that work together on monthly photo shoots and also give Informational Feedback to one another 1-on-1 as partners.
  4. Meet monthly for PMPP critiques that focus on Informational Feedback but also include sharing what we have learned together as a group.
  5. Highlight topics such as composure and exposure and post-processing to focus on the how to improve our photographs over time.

These are Randy’s tentative goals as of January 2016. One of the many things I learned from my Peer Mentor Leadership Program at the university was that the program worked most effectively when I invited my peer mentors to be involved in the development of the program. I will work to do the same in OUR Peer Mentor Photography Program. I have to start some place to get you involved but I want your input on what is most likely to benefit you. Please give me some feedback in the comment section of this post. Don’t say “Awesome” or “Horrible” 🙂 Tell me, and the other readers, how a program like this might help you. What are you excited to do? What might be challenging and keep you hesitant to make a commitment? What might make you uncomfortable? What can Randy do to help you feel excited to get involved?

I’ll try to get my next post up in the next week with more details. You can begin to help me develop this program by sharing what you like, dislike, and what you’d suggest that I change. Make comments on this post or send me an e-mail at risaacso@iusb.edu.

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