Feedback Without the Fright

 Illustration by Kate  Moore

Illustration by Kate Moore

As we head into these darker days of the year, our thoughts begin to turn to the long, cold nights ahead. Maybe it fills you with dread to think of the cold and the dark of winter. Or maybe your mind wanders to the mischievous spirit of this time of year. One thing the darkness brings is opportunity for reflection.

Let’s reflect for a while on the topic of mistakes and failure. It’s a topic that sneaks along behind us, a hovering spectre waiting to jump out the moment we mess up. Then we are faced head on with our feelings about failure, our disappointment in ourselves, our embarrassment. These emotions crop up when we see our students or children fail too. Maybe we’re worried for their hearts and try to lessen the blow of their failure or maybe we feel upset with them for failing in this way after we tried so carefully to guide them away from this particular failure.

It’s good to grapple with the spectre of failure when it’s not alive and in your face. Reflect on what mistakes and failure mean to you. What is your reaction to them and why? Do you get angry, despondent, apathetic? Do you see mistakes as a sign of weakness, stupidity, or your undying devil-may-care attitude (how can you ever fail if you didn’t try in the first place)?

When we understand our own reactions to mistakes and failure, we are able to give better feedback to ourselves and our students. You can do this reflection with your students so they can become aware of their reactions, too. Here are four guidelines to giving great feedback that help students learn and grow.

Guiding Principles for Giving Feedback

  1. Talk Explicitly and Regularly About Feedback
    My 5-year-old takes any kind of corrective feedback very much to heart. When he becomes aware of being too loud or playing too rough, he gets quite upset because he’s worried he’s done something wrong or hurt someone. I think we all do this to some extent when we get feedback. We may reject the feedback or maybe our feelings are hurt. Largely, I think the reactions stem from the implication we were doing something wrong or careless, which wasn’t our intention. But when we really listen to the feedback, there’s usually something to be learned from it.
    Our students might have this kind of reaction when asked to alter their behavior or improve part of their work. To help them learn not to take feedback so hard, we can talk about it often. We can ask them questions like: What is the purpose of feedback? How do you respond to feedback? What do you think your teacher’s intent is when they give feedback? How can you discuss feedback if you don’t understand it or don’t agree with it?

  2. Be Timely
    Feedback should be timely. It’s difficult to learn from and incorporate feedback when it comes long after the mistake. To highlight this, let’s imagine a student was being so loud in class one day that other students couldn’t focus on their work. You wouldn’t wait until the end of semester grade report to let them know. You would tell that student right away that their voice-level was too loud so that they could adjust. The same is true of feedback on daily academic work. Try to identify misconceptions early before they become ingrained or notice patterns in how a student is working. Whether positive or negative, feedback that comes in the moment is more impactful.

  3. Make it Direct and Specific
    Grades give students feedback on whether they “did well” or “did poorly,” but often don’t provide very clear feedback about what that means. Phrases like “good job” or “this could be better,” are equally vague. When giving feedback, practice being very specific; I recommend being even more specific than you think is necessary. In my experience, even when I think I’m being very clear, my son can find a different interpretation of my words. This is true of my adult colleagues, too. Basically, communication is hard.
    Instead of “good job,” be specific about what you thought was good. “I like how hard you’ve been practicing these problems. Yesterday this was all new to you and today you are able to do it on your own.” Instead of “this could be better,” be specific about what you’d like to see. “I’d like to see you add more descriptive details to this story.”

  4. Positive Regard and Reflection
    When other people mess up or do something in a way we think was ill-advised, especially when that mistake impacts us, it’s easy to slip into blame or to assume the work was done poorly on purpose. When our students mess up, let’s treat them with positive regard and help them reflect on their own behavior or work. For example, instead of “why did you only complete half of the work?” try “What did you find difficult about it?” Giving a bad grade or showing them our disappointed face won’t help a student learn how to do better next time. If they are struggling with low proficiency or being behind, they probably already know they are “failing” or not meeting your expectations; they don’t need help with that. Instead, they need help finding a way forward and knowing how much you care.

Getting and giving feedback is scary; it makes us aware of our faults and blunders in a way that can be uncomfortable or even painful. But it’s also an important part of growing, learning, and negotiating relationships. We can help our students (and ourselves) by normalizing feedback and practicing giving it in a way that’s timely, specific, and is delivered with positive intent.

This week’s post was written by Chief Educator Michal Eynon-Lynch