Written by our Guest Facilitators, Dr Olga Kozar and Geraldine Timmins from Macquarie University
Giving and getting critical feedback can be an emotional experience. Even when students know that constructive feedback is about the ‘output’ (e.g. an assignment), receiving feedback can still make them feel anxious, confused or start to doubt themselves (Ilgen & Davis 2000).
Indeed, researchers have long noticed that some people have a ‘high sensitivity’ to feedback, and can take constructive feedback personally (see for example Smith & King, 2004). Boud & Molloy (2013) illustrate how feedback is sometimes misinterpreted by students: “I was told that my work was…. It confirms that I’m not good enough. I’ve always known it…”.
Some students specifically avoid seeking or receiving feedback because of the ‘emotional costs’ of receiving it, for example they anticipate they’ll feel embarrassed, threatened or inadequate (Newman & Schwager, 1993).
How do you usually react to the feedback that you receive? E.g. from journal reviewers, on your teaching or work performance?
Moving through discomfort
1. Acknowledge discomfort and model reappraisal
One way to help students move through discomfort is to talk to them about fixed mindsets, factors that may hinder responses to feedback and how high feedback sensitivity can prevent learning.
Past or current emotions may clog the ‘communication pipelines’, not allowing useful messages to get through. It’s a good idea to give concrete examples of how emotions can block our ability to hear feedback, share tips to overcome negative reactions to feedback, and have students come up with their own strategies for managing responses to feedback.
A common technique described in the literature is cognitive reappraisal (Troy, Wilhelm, Shallcross, & Mauss, 2010), which encourages a person to re-judge and re-evaluate a situation. For example, instead of “I was told that my work was…. It confirms that I’m not good enough”, students could view the situation in a different light, e.g. “If producing perfect academic assignments was easy, there would be no need to do a 3-year degree. I now have specific feedback that can guide me, and I’ll use it in future assignments”.
Also, it is important to focus the feedback on the work, not on ‘the person’, and use language like “the work was…” rather than “you are…”.
2. Self assessment
Boud & Molloy (2013) see self-assessment as one of the most effective ways to overcome ‘maladaptive responses’ to feedback.
They argue that getting students to engage with the rubric (or specific marking criteria) before they submit their assignment prepares them for receiving feedback.
3. Help students plan their next steps
It might be helpful to have coaching conversations with students like, “It’s OK if you’re toiling with a particular concept. Focus on your next step”. “Who can you talk to? What steps can you take?”
Such conversations can be a good opportunity to promote learning skills support, study groups, online resources, etc. Encouraging students to come up with practical steps will help empower them and move them from a ‘passive’ mindframe to an active role.
There will be students who may not fully understand or correctly interpret your feedback, but they won’t ask for clarification. There is an undeniable social hierarchy in the classroom: educators usually have more power and status than students. Many students don’t ask clarifying questions even when they haven’t fully understood feedback comments. It takes a lot of confidence to ask a person with a ‘higher status’ for more details, especially in front of other students. It’s important to expect this and plan accordingly.
1. Actively encourage students to ask for clarifications and more details.
E.g. “It’s a complex topic, and when I was doing my __ (bachelor/masters…), it took me some time to understand. Does anybody have any questions about it? You might have a similar question to another student and not know it until you speak up. I want everyone to feel like they can speak up”.
2. Pre-empt potential misunderstandings yourself
You can pre-empt a lot of misunderstanding by sharing some examples of possible ‘feedback misinterpretation’.
E.g. You could say: “It’s common to misinterpret comments about needing to engage more with literature as ‘the more studies I cite in my paper, the better’. It’s not about numbers. You need to demonstrate awareness of the key work in this area. Let’s talk about the specific ways you can achieve it. What do you usually do when you conduct a literature review?”….[Followed by a discussion and tips on how to make literature review more effective].
3. Ask for ‘actionables’
After you’ve given feedback, it might be good to ask students to come up with an ‘actionable’ plan of how they’ll address the feedback points. Not only will it shift them from being in the ‘passive’ position of a ‘feedback receiver’ to a more ‘active’ position, it will also allow you to gauge if there has been any misunderstandings.
E.g. “Now that we’ve discussed the ways you can improve for your next assignment, I’d like you to take a minute and write down the specific actionable steps of what you’ll do differently next time. Once you’ve finished, split into groups of 3, discuss your answers, and report back to the class”.
Finally, you might also ask students for permission to give feedback, e.g. “I’d like to give you some feedback on…. Are you ready to hear it now or would you prefer to talk about some other time?” Not only will you show respect to your students, but you’ll be cueing them that you are about to give feedback, which can in turn make feedback more effective.
Literature reports that some markers feel uncomfortable giving constructive feedback to minority students (see for example Croft & Schmader, 2012), and as a result ‘withhold it’ as they are worried about appearing as racist. This of course does a big disservice to these students as they do not receive information that they need to improve.
- Have you tried using any of the above-mentioned strategies in your teaching? What worked? What didn’t? Why?
- What other strategies do you use to manage a potentially strong emotional reactions to your feedback?
Join us for a hands-on workshop with our facilitators!
Tuesday 28 August 1.30 – 3.00pm
This interactive workshop on “effective feedback”, will guide participants through scenarios of verbal and written feedback, invite the group to collaborate on ‘sustainable’ and good practice examples, and create individual action plans.
Afternoon tea will be provided. Space is limited, registrations are essential for booking and catering purposes.
Go here for more info or to register.
Boud, D., & Molloy, E. (2013). Feedback in higher and professional education: understanding it and doing it well: Routledge.
Croft, A., & Schmader, T. (2012). The feedback withholding bias: Minority students do not receive critical feedback from evaluators concerned about appearing racist. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(5), 1139-1144.
Ilgen, D., & Davis, C. (2000). Bearing bad news: Reactions to negative performance feedback. Applied Psychology, 49(3), 550-565.
Newman, R. S., & Schwager, M. T. (1993). Students’ perceptions of the teacher and classmates in relation to reported help seeking in math class. The Elementary School Journal, 94(1), 3-17.
Troy, A. S., Wilhelm, F. H., Shallcross, A. J., & Mauss, I. B. (2010). Seeing the silver lining: cognitive reappraisal ability moderates the relationship between stress and depressive symptoms. Emotion, 10(6), 783.
My response to feedback, especially that of referees, is quite tense. I try not to take it personally, but it does take a toll on me. I believe I have exhausted my means, but my work is not recognized by peers.
I’ve used the technique based on that of Marnie Warrington-Hughes(as she was then!) to ask students to self-evaluate their work against the criteria and rubric, and also, where I can, to peer-review another student’s work as well (anonymously). In their next assessment piece, even if not directly related, they need to answer a few set questions (giving a brief example each time is important) asking: how well they think their work matched the criteria and/or where it was ‘off-target’; what they agreed with and disagreed with from the peer review, what they learnt (positive or negative) from reading another’s work, and then what, if anything, they changed in their process for the next assessment as a result of this. I’ve attached some marks to this – for completeness and answers being relevant, not for the detail) and it is amazing how that encourages them and also gets them engaged , often despite themselves.
We spend some time discussing the purpose – I find it helps to talk about ’employability skills for their future’ to answer the WIIFM question – and that is NOT about ‘picking holes’ but finding helpful things that they can use… and also sharing their good ideas/techniques with others. Once they realise that helping others doesn’t in fact diminish them or make others better at their expense, those who really take part tend to improve their self-awareness an reflective capacity as well as the quality of their submissions.
The value of peer and self-review is underappreciated by many of us unfortunately, even as we live and die by it (moderation of unit outlines, assessments, grades; peer review of grants and papers…). It can and I think should be used more widely for their growth as well as providing lots of useful data about the cohort and the content at no cost to us
Hi Laurine, thanks for sharing these ideas and examples. I think that scaffolding and making the goal of the peer assessment explicit to the students is so key to it being done effectively. One thing I have found with some students who are not used to peer feedback is that they feel it is an “easy way out” because the academic does not want to mark their work, and they feel that they are being short-changed by not getting “real” feedback from the academic. Connecting it directly to employability is a great way to help students recognise the value!
I have tried using the mentioned strategies in my teaching. However, I have found that just suggesting the students do any of these things tends not to work. I have to explicitly build it into the assessment process to make it compulsory. As an example, just suggesting the students do some planning had no effect. So I break an assignment into two parts: plan and do. The student get a small number of marks and lots of feedback for outlining what they plan to do. They then get more marks and less feedback for the actual doing part.
Hi Tom, great suggestion. I think ensuring that marks are attached is a good strategy to encourage (require?) students to do a draft / outline assessment.
I always provide a rubric assessment to assignment. Under each marking criterion, I list the expectations of different aspects of the task. They receive a grade for each marking criterion and an overall grade for the assignment as a weighted average of all marking criteria. I found it very effective to show their strength and weakness and make the verbal comments easier to be understood by students.
I still believe the best way to manage mis-understanding and emotions is to talk to each other face to face. I always provide students sufficient consultation time to talk to me or the tutor to discuss their assignment feedback.
Hua Deng, I mostly teach online which makes mis-understandings much more likely. This can take a toll on the instructor, as well as the student. The only students I usually see in person are those who are about to fail. From an administrative point of view I can point to all the feedback and offers of help they were given, week after week, logged in the learning management system, but this does not remove the feeling I have let that student down.
To manage reactions to my feedback I mostly pick from a set of prepared relatively bland boilerplate comments. Also I will try to find something positive to say about the work, before something negative. I try to word the negative in a positive way, saying how the student can improve the work, rather than just saying what is wrong with it. Also I minimize the number and length of comments provided. As a student myself, I hated getting assignments back covered with comments in red ink. In particular I will not go through written work correcting every grammatical error.
A long experience of summative assessment inclines you to think of feedback as a judgement of one’s ability, as if that is a fixed thing. So there is a need for cognitive reappraisal to begin seeing feedback as useful formative information. I recall going through this as a PhD student – learning that red pen all over a draft paper is just part of the collaborative writing process and it doesn’t mean my version was bad, just that the new version can be better. Also being told to expect bad reviews and to have to resubmit several times, or applying for lots of jobs and responding to the feedback of how the interview panel reacts. It is important to find out if the students have experience of receiving feedback as useful formative information and if not to help them with the reframing.
I think there is a sweet spot – people who always “win” don’t get used to hearing negative feedback and responding to it, and people who hear too much negative feedback without a core of self-belief and basic success can receive negative feedback as yet another blow. I can think of a few instances in my life where negative feedback fired me up with greater resolve, and others where I’ve “given up”. It’s easier to strike the balance of success and something to strive for if you know the students personally, if not a bland approach might help to “play it safe”.
Hi Kim, thanks for sharing these reflections on your experiences receiving– and giving!– feedback. Finding that balance can be so difficult, and I’ve noticed that a lot of how people approach feedback can come back to the culture that is established around it. I noticed this in particular when we interviewed Tony Curran from the School of Art around how they build up positive and supportive cultures of peer critique – http://anuonline.weblogs.anu.edu.au/2018/06/06/day-3-reliability-and-validity/. I notice in some other disciplines or schools where this is not as common that the students often struggle to accept feedback (particularly from their peers). Hopefully we can advocate more effectively to find that balance!
One strategy I have used to manage student reactions to feedback is to explicitly phrase the aspects to improve in terms of future assessment. So for example I use phrases like ‘the next step is’, or ‘for future essays you can focus on…’ etc. This also aims to try and bring students’ attention to the underlying skill that they need to develop (e.g. structure, appropriate use of secondary literature etc) rather than reflecting on only that piece of assessment per se. I have also modified my feedback style in response to student feedback! Unlike Tom, I loved getting essays back covered in corrections when I was a student as I felt that the teacher really engaged with my work! However, some students commented that they find this overwhelming. So I have tried to focus on giving only one or two key areas to improve and then making myself available for one-on-one consultations for those students who would like additional feedback.
I must admit I had not really considered the students’ emotional response to feedback before, although I should have done, because I can recognise these reactions in myself and my friends. I used to get defensive when I received feedback, but have learned over time to look for the helpful and constructive comments, and view feedback as an opportunity to improve my work. But it has taken me years to get to this point.
The only one of the mentioned strategies I use frequently is to encourage questions, but I have not done that specifically in the context of feedback. The most common way I give feedback is in written form as comments on submitted assessment. I try to prevent too strong a negative and defensive response to my comments by always starting with positive comments. I try to be specific about what was good and why, before turning to suggestions of how to improve the essay next time.
I think I am exactly the same Ellen! Whenever I receive a peer review of something I have written I tend to go straight to being very defensive about my comments and feeling very intensely about it. I’ve had to develop some strategies to help me manage my emotions in this context, so now I tend to read the feedback immediately but wait one week before I respond so that my emotional response has some time to dissipate!
Like a few other people here, I would say I am not someone who is very good at receiving feedback – both positive and negative. I get quite self concious and find it difficult to objectively listen and learn from what is being said.
I find it much easier to receive written feedback as I have time to process it, without becoming defensive or self concious. I think this also works best for students.
I try and start all feedback with a positive comment, before suggesting ways the work could be improved. I do try and focus my language on the “work” rather than the “student” too.
I like the ideas of asking students to assess themselves, and I think I will try and use this more in the future.
Hi Julia, Sounds like you’ve got a good feedback policy. It is worrying how many people forget to mention the positives isn’t it? How can we cope with criticism if we are only told what we are doing wrong?
When teaching English to adult migrant and refugee students, I knew of a number of students who had thrived in my class but began to lose interest in writing when their new teacher/s would only point out what was wrong with their writing without any acknowledgement of the positive aspects of their work! That feedback was powerful but for all the wrong reasons. It was the opposite of constructive because, though it identified some areas for improvement, it did not explain how to improve nor any encouragement on what the students were getting right.
One Chinese wisdom goes like “you should be happy when others point out your weakness (because they help you to improve)”. Then one of my most favorite professors said:”It cannot be true. Otherwise, the person is either a saint or a nut.”
I love the idea of acknowledging discomfort and reappraisal. I think this is a similar strategy I got from the Counselling center. When I experience something negative, I allow myself half an hour to be angry/s(m)ad and write down the reasons why I cannot accept. Do something else and return to the case two days later. Some reasons become just ridiculous. Some may still be hurting but much better. Then I can figure out what to do next more reasonably.
The ideas to ask the students to self-assess before submission, and to ask permissions before giving feedback are new to me.
That’s why I love these training sessions: they help me not only in teaching but also in my own study and research.
My approach to reappraisal is similar to Kim’s; constructive feedback is always an informative learning opportunity. The only time I have become defensive to feedback was when the feedback was personal, rather than about the content. For instance, an undergraduate level assignment required students to critically review one of the course readings. I happened to choose a reading on reincarnation, and, as the article was poorly written and argued, submitted a very critical critique. The only comments throughout were the Lecturer’s surprise that I of all people would be against reincarnation. This, for the record, is racism 101; a student having brown skin and a non-European name does not automatically mean that a) they are Hindu, or that b) they believe in all of its tenets. However, it is a good reminder to remain professional and judge the work rather than personal beliefs or preferences (especially pertinent when a student’s argument challenges your life’s work).
I find that my students tend to respond positively to teaching positive reappraisal philosophies, encouraging clarifications, and pre-empting misunderstandings. In particular, informing students of my own past and present challenges and experiences both builds rapport with them and shows that I too am a mere mortal, thus helping to lessen the perceived power imbalance.
Everytime I get a negative review from a submitted paper I remind myself of an exceptionally successful academic in my school who once admitted when presenting to a group of HDRs that even he had reviews so bad he needed to put in the bottom draw for a week before he could look at them again. To know that it happens to everyone is something I find very comforting, so I try and create a supportive environment throughout my course where we are all fallible and that’s just part of the journey. I hope by reinforcing this throughout a semester, that if and when students do get feedback that is not as good as they hoped for they a) remind themselves that it happens to everyone and b) that I have broken through some of those power dynamics enough that they feel comfortable to come and talk to me. I liked the idea mentioned above of getting students to identify actionables , I think this is something I would like to introduce into my course as I something think the cause and effect of feedback to better essays is not always immediate and maybe this is something that could reinforce that link.
I try to always encourage by specifically telling what was good in the beginning, and in the end, again have an actionable, positive comment about, for example, how to extend a good starting point in the next assignment. In the middle, when telling about things with room for improvement, I always talk about the answer and not about the student (the assignment is vs. you are).
Hi Hanna, I also like to use the “compliment sandwich” approach, but I’m also going to take on board your suggestion around only referring to the assignment, rather than the person. I only wish peer reviewers of my own work would take this on board!
I am interested in learning more about and trialling students co-constructing rubrics and the benefit of developing professional judgement. I would like to see the resultant effect on the development of content and learning around the assessment task. However, I still do not see this working well, particularly for International students, without the use of examples to support both the concept and translation of rubric criterion.