I recently had an instructor ask whether the feedback he was about to provide to a student was too harsh. He said the student’s writing was a mess and that there was no way that the student would make it through their program without writing help. Thus, he proposed to tell them the following on their assignment: “Please contact the academic success center. They are experts at working with new graduate students to better organize assignment responses. Working with them will make your academic experience much better.”
My reaction was, “Too strong? It’s much too weak!” He did not convey the seriousness of the problem, and so the student would not understand the importance of doing what he suggested. There is a chasm between “you will not succeed without their help” and “working with them will make your academic experience much better”; the student would be unlikely to cross this chasm to follow his advice.
I see this problem over and over. Faculty often tell me that they use the “feedback sandwich” with students, which is to start with a compliment, then provide the real feedback, then end with another compliment. The problem is that this sandwich smothers what the student needs to hear. It reinforces compliments, not the real feedback; this does not help the student. Not surprisingly, these faculty also complain of students not following their feedback.
The worry that honest feedback will demotivate or hurt a student represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of feedback. As the late Grant Wiggins (2008) noted, feedback at its base is just a report of what someone sees. A coach might tell a baseball player, “In 50 pitches you missed the ball 32 times.” Similarly, a teacher might tell a student after a class presentation, “You spent about a third of the time reading from the paper and not looking at your audience. I also counted 41 ums.”
Notice how these examples simply report observations, and that is really all an instructor does with feedback. Note that feedback is not a grade, nor is it in service of a grade. A grade ranks a student’s performance against a scale. Feedback is information about that performance that a student can use to improve. Many faculty focus on grading, but they should instead focus on feedback because the teaching comes through feedback, not the grade.
Translating the example I led with into more helpful feedback, the instructor could have said, “I noticed quite a few writing errors in your work. See my margin comments for examples. Your writing is holding you back, and you won’t succeed in your program without fixing it. Please visit the academic success center and have them focus on these issues.”
These are not the genuinely discouraging comments we used to hear from instructors who started their classes by saying, “Look left, now right. One of the two people you looked at will fail this class.” Those instructors should more honestly have said, “One of the two people you looked at will fail this class because I’m a lousy instructor.” Is this setting up students for success?
Students are not discouraged when told of deficiencies in their work. They get discouraged when told of deficiencies in their work without also being given a path to fixing them. You are not discouraged when your golf instructor tells you, “You are lifting your shoulder during your swing. We are going to work on that today.” This is why feedback needs to include a path to improvement.
Good feedback can be broken down into two components:
Don’t dilute your message by confusing feedback with a pep talk. The student does not need a pep talk; they need information about the problem and how to solve it. Students want teachers who show a genuine interest in their success, and the combination of a clear account of their shortcomings and a clear description of how to address them will give students the support they need to succeed.
Wiggins, G. (2008). Good feedback. Authentic Education.