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Hospitalists Need to Rethink the Way They Evaluate Students


Delivering feedback is a fundamental skill in medicine. Feedback ensures trainees remain on track to meet expected goals and standards. At some point in our careers, all of us have been on the receiving end of feedback. Many of us have likely had the opportunity to provide feedback to students or junior residents during our training. Moving from the role of trainee to supervisor presents a unique set of challenges and responsibilities to the young hospitalist.

Christine Donahue, MD

Christine Donahue, MD

Despite an extensive amount published on feedback, translation from theory to practice remains challenging.1 When surveyed, medical students and residents commonly perceive they do not receive enough feedback.2 Conversely, attendees of faculty development courses frequently indicate their greatest need is learning how to give feedback more effectively.3 Why does this performance gap exist?

The Issues

Careful exploration of our current training model reveals several systemic barriers to effective feedback. For one, many faculty members who supervise trainees are not formally trained educators. As such, they may lack the proper skills set to deliver feedback.1 Additionally, lack of time is often cited in the pressure to complete both clinical and academic duties within a packed workday. If learners aren’t directly observed by their supervisors, the impact and quality of feedback substantially diminishes.4 Likewise, if feedback is not embedded in the local culture and expected by both educator and learner, it can be perceived as a burden rather than a valuable exercise.

Brian Kwan, MD

Brian Kwan, MD

Feedback can evoke deep, sometimes subconscious emotional responses in both supervisor and recipient. During verbal interactions with trainees, dialogue tends to assume positive or neutral tones regardless of content.5 To avoid bruising a young learner’s ego, a well-intentioned educator may talk around the actual problem, using indirect statements in an attempt to “soften the blow.” Fearing a negative evaluation, the student may support and reinforce the teacher’s avoidance, further obscuring the message being sent. This concept is known as “vanishing feedback” and is a common barrier to the delivery of effective feedback.4 Educators additionally may shy away from giving constructive feedback because they fear reprisal on teaching evaluations.

Mounting evidence shows physicians, as a whole, tend to overestimate their abilities, and many are not skilled at self-assessment.6 When physician-learners receive feedback incongruent with their own self-perceptions, it may trigger feelings of anger, sadness, guilt, or self-doubt, which may block the receipt of any useful information. The so-called “millennial generation effect,” describing current medical school graduates, may further compound this issue. Millennials are “raised with an emphasis on being special; a previous absence of a balanced focus on weakness may present a barrier to accepting the validity of negative feedback.”1,5 As such, certain learners may intentionally avoid feedback as a method of self-preservation.

A New Approach

Many of us were taught to use the “feedback sandwich,” in which two positive statements surround a single negative corrective comment. This model, however, has some notable weaknesses. Given the ratio of positive to negative statements, educators may concentrate too heavily on the positive, diluting any constructive criticism and leaving learners with a false impression. Alternatively, trainees may learn to ignore positive comments while waiting for the other shoe to drop. As such, any initial positivity may feel insincere and artificial.7

Instead, we advocate using the “reflective feedback conversation,” a model that begins with self-assessment and places the onus on learners to identify their strengths and weaknesses.7 For example, a trainee might remark, “I struggle with controlling my temper when I am stressed.” The educator might reinforce that comment by stating, “I noticed you raised your voice last week when talking with the nurse because she forgot to administer Lasix.” To conclude the conversation, the teacher and student discuss shared goal setting and mutually agree on future improvements. Notably, this model does not facilitate conversation about problems a learner fails to detect. Hence, the educator must be prepared to deliver feedback outside of the learner’s own assessment.

Here are our favorite tips and tricks for delivering effective feedback:

  1. Establish a positive learning climate. Educators must partner with learners to generate an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect.1,3,4,8 An example of how to ally with learners is to announce early on, “As a teacher, I really value feedback. As such, I plan on giving feedback throughout the rotation because I want you to be the best doctor you can possibly be.”
  2. Require reflection. Effective feedback hinges on learners’ ability to self-assess.2,5,7 One approach is starting each feedback session with a simple open-ended question, such as, “How do you think you are doing?” Alternatively, you could be more specific, such as, “How do you think you did in managing the patient’s electrolytes when he went into diabetic ketoacidosis?”
  3. Be prompt. Feedback should be timely.1,4,7,8 An important distinction between feedback and evaluation is that feedback is formative, enabling learners to make needed changes before the end of a course, whereas evaluation is summative and presents a distinct judgment.1,4 If feedback is withheld until the end of the rotation, learners will not have an opportunity to remediate behaviors.
  4. Take advantage of different formats. Try a brief, concrete suggestion on the fly. A statement that might occur on bedside rounds is, “Allow me to show you a better technique to measure the liver span.” Or use a teachable event, such as a medical error or a particularly challenging case. Pulling interns aside after they deliver sobering news is a great opportunity to provide feedback in a semiformal fashion. Finally, formal sit-down feedback should be scheduled halfway through each rotation to ensure learners are on track and to address any major issues, such as professionalism or an inadequate clinical performance.2
  5. Be specific. Focus on behaviors and examples rather than judgments.1,2,4,7,8 For example, we have all experienced the inattentive student. Instead of framing feedback as, “It seems like you don’t care about medicine because you weren’t paying attention on rounds,” one could say, “I noticed you were fidgeting and looking at your phone during Aaron’s presentation.” Feedback should be based on firsthand observations and should be descriptive, utilizing neutral language.
  6. Avoid information overload. Feedback is best consumed in small snacks rather than an all-you-can-eat buffet.1,7 Your goal should not be to completely overhaul a learner but rather to focus on a few observable, correctable behaviors.
  7. Be empathetic. To make negative feedback less threatening, take yourself off the pedestal. An example of this could be saying, “As a third-year medical student, I struggled to remember all the right questions to ask, so performing a thorough review of systems helped me to catch the things I would miss.”
  8. Confirm understanding. It is important to know the learner has heard the feedback and to conclude the session with an action plan.

Just as hospitals engage in continuous quality improvement, as professionals, we should all strive for continuous self-improvement. Giving and receiving feedback is critical to personal growth. It is our hope that by using these tips, all of us will improve, creating a new generation of providers who give effective and useful feedback.


  1. Anderson PA. Giving feedback on clinical skills: are we starving our young? J Grad Med Educ. 2012;4(2):154-158. doi:10.4300/JGME-D-11-000295.1.
  2. Branch WT, Paranjape A. Feedback and reflection: teaching methods for clinical settings. Acad Med. 2002;77(12 Pt 1):1185-1188.
  3. Hewson MG, Little ML. Giving feedback in medical education: verification of recommended techniques. J Gen Intern Med. 1998;13(2):111-116.
  4. Ende J. Feedback in clinical medical education. JAMA. 1983;250(6):777-781.
  5. Bing-You RG, Trowbridge RL. Why medical educators may be failing at feedback. JAMA. 2009;302(12):1330-1331.
  6. Davis DA, Mazmanian PE, Fordis M, Van Harrison R, Thorpe KE, Perrier L. Accuracy of physician self-assessment compared with observed measures of competence: a systematic review. JAMA. 2006;296(9):1094-1102.
  7. Cantillon P, Sargeant J. Giving feedback in clinical settings. BMJ. 2008;337:a1961.
  8. Ramani S, Krackov SK. Twelve tips for giving feedback effectively in the clinical environment. Med Teach. 2012;34(10):787-791.

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