Can You Hear Me? Martyrs at the Altar of Student Feedback

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I learned that I was supposed to want feedback from my teachers long before I actually wanted it. Like lots of academically successful kids, I had a fragile, “fixed mindset” and so was inclined to interpret anything scented with criticism as a demolition of my very being. I knew, though, that I should want feedback, so as a high school and college student I learned to stuff down my defensive reactivity and nod calmly while the torpedoes landed.

Of course, I learned early on to make changes to my work in response to feedback — enough to show I was paying attention — but the critiques, for better and worse, didn’t really land. I came to adulthood then, and developed into a teacher, on uneasy terms with feedback and having only occasionally been constructively impacted by it. This should be a little shocking given the teacher’s supposedly central role in shaping student learning through skillful critical feedback, but I doubt it will seem strange to most higher ed instructors. How many of us who complete the long road to the professoriate are motivated by praise, and in spite of the occasional critiques?

Why, then, does so much pedagogical discussion about critical feedback assume that students (more or less) want it and that professors (more or less) know how to give it? Discussions I’ve seen about feedback (apart from those of education scholars) are almost always practical in nature, bypassing altogether basic questions about why, when, and if it matters. With this in mind, the online classroom, where all or most feedback is indirect, has become an excellent laboratory for me to explore the issue. In fact, my most recent hypotheses about student feedback arose from my stunning discovery that few of the individualized comments I’d so painstakingly written had ever even been opened. I’ve long known, of course, about the gap between the given and received sides of the feedback loop, but the online set up — I can so easily see when they’ve ignored it — makes some of the lessons more indelible.

Some hypotheses I’ve been toying with:

-Most students don’t really want critical feedback and so the inclination will be to avoid it altogether or interpret it in unintended ways. It may, for example, be understood as merely cosmetic and so barely worthy of attention, or as utterly damning and so too overwhelming to face.

-Even the few who are genuinely open to substantive critical feedback, those who will actually read it, are likely to miss the point. Our weakest areas are magnets for constructive critique, but our lack of expertise in these areas is precisely what makes misunderstandings more likely. If we had an idea of what we were doing wrong, we probably wouldn’t have done it that way in the first place.

-Even as some kinds of individual feedback are probably less valuable than we think — for example, that which relates to specific intellectual competencies, content knowledge, or mechanical tasks — others may be more important. For example, personal notes to students acknowledging their overall intelligence, worth, and belonging in the class can be especially powerful, as can general expressions of concern about their well being when their assignments aren’t done well.

-Offering detailed individual feedback to students is deeply tied to many professors’ sense of themselves as competent and dedicated teachers. It’s common, then, for professors to announce with exhaustion and exasperation how much grading they have, or how much time they spend on each paper. It becomes a badge of both courage and martyrdom, but how helpful this blood, sweat and tears actually is to students sometimes seems to be beside the point.

These tentative conclusions have led me to make several shifts of emphasis in both my online and face-to-face classes:

  • First, I try to more deliberately establish rapport, and a sense of mutual responsibility about grades so that students are more inclined to reach out when real questions arise and to do so effectively. If legitimate concerns come up — and I work with them to distinguish “I don’t like my grade” from “I don’t know why I got this grade” — I need to be confident they’ll reach out to me instead of miring down in resentment and confusion.
  • Second, I rely on increasingly detailed instructions and rubrics (which I’ve despised for decades) to mutually reinforce clear standards and expectations. Since the strengths and weaknesses of student work tend to be more epidemic than idiopathic, providing detailed, but generalizable guidelines makes sense. When students have more specific concerns or complaints, the rubric also serves as shared language between us. For example, when they have questions about a grade, I ask them to take some responsibility for helping me better interpret their work by connecting it directly to the rubric. I’ve come to think that developing such skills of self-evaluation — feedback is no longer merely something I inflict upon them — may be one of the most helpful things I do. It can help transform feedback from a rationalization of a grade I’ve given them to an opportunity for self-reflection about a grade they have earned.
  • Third, I try to keep my own ego and guilt out of it. Inspired by the sign in the janitor’s closet, I aim to work smarter, not harder, and so avoid tapping out “individual” comments that merely repeat what’s in both the instructions and rubric. Above all, as best I can, I fight the temptation to become a feedback martyr, sweating and bleeding over lengthy, individualized comments for no good reason. I will probably never be fully satisfied with what I can give my students, especially these distant souls whom I will never even meet, but I will no longer paper over my anxiety about that under reams of supposedly altruistic feedback.

4 thoughts on “Can You Hear Me? Martyrs at the Altar of Student Feedback”

  1. One of the few professors’ comments that stays with me to this day 52 years after the fact, was this: “Well-written, but topic’s a bit frothy!” I was in a Master’s program in English and the topic of my paper was “Chaucer’s Women.” My argument was that Chaucer offered a piss-poor choice of roles for women: the bawdy Wife of Bath or a nun or prioress or Patient Penelope. The comment on this A- paper set me firmly on my path to feminism in every aspect of my life. So I owe thanks to Carter Revard for giving me that personal insight and incentive.

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    1. I love it! I also have examples of comments that have mattered, especially from grad school. They were, like the one you describe, especially well targeted and thoughtful. When I was an MA student, I recall being motivated by one of my favorite professor’s simple “No.” I think it worked largely because of the relationship we’d established. It occurs to me that the relatively intimate context of traditional graduate seminars may be a very different game where feedback is concerned and definitely one worthy of further exploration.

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  2. This gave me so much to think about and made me wish we could have coffee to discuss! I’ll just go with one observation as I read….I have found myself developing increasingly clear and complete rubrics for grading also. I find that it is important for me to operationalize what I am looking for in a well written piece. If I can’t operationalize what is not good, better, and best, then how is it the students are supposed to know? Developing a good rubric helps you “teach to the test” better. At the same time, I wrestle with whether giving such a rubric is too much support for the student. 🙂 The importance of development of rapport with the students cannot be overstated. It creates a context of motivation that I think is incredibly important. (Behavior analysis coming in there….)

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    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Stephanie. I’ve learned a lot from colleagues who use rubrics with greater skill than I do. Hearing from people like you also helps me appreciate how really provisional and specific recommendations about feedback must necessarily be. Though I’ve come to accept the use of rubrics in some contexts, for example, I’m also finding my critique of them to be even clearer, and so I have an even stronger sense of when I don’t think they’ll work well. That’s a long way of saying that I appreciate and share the ambivalence you express here!

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