A Different Way to Deliver Student Feedback

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How we deliver feedback to students, and how we position them in the feedback process, is often taken for granted. Particularly when the format of student work isn’t straightforward, giving feedback that satisfies both the instructor and the student can feel impossible.

When faced with challenges giving feedback on open-ended work, I am guilty of falling into the same trap as many instructors. When students don’t seem to receive or incorporate my feedback well, I’m tempted to shift the blame to them for not being able to handle critical comments.

That reaction may stem from the fact that as academics who went through years of formal education, we were hardened to accept a certain type of feedback. I was fortunate enough to be reared in an academic environment that valued the student experience, but even so, I can slip into this familiar pattern. Many instructors soon realize that this tough-love approach rarely works and can serve to further marginalize particular students who already feel alienated in their academic community. Saying that students need to toughen up and learn how to accept critical feedback neglects our responsibility as instructors to support learning.

I predominantly teach in STEM, but I’ve, in fact, learned lessons from the arts on the craft of giving feedback. When I was a graduate teaching assistant in an interdisciplinary design course, I had the opportunity to try the critical response process that choreographer Liz Lerman originated and is now used across fields of study to put the learner in control of feedback. Lisa McNair and Liesl Baum at the Institute for Creativity, Arts and Technology at Virginia Tech led the Create! course, and together we adapted Lerman’s method along with the students in a process of co-creation. I was uncertain of this approach’s applicability to the college setting, until the first time I saw the power shift hands from instructor to student while giving feedback. Lerman’s method is, of course, not the only way to achieve that, but I found aspects of the approach to be valuable in my own teaching — and enjoy that it subverts the typical power dynamic between instructor and pupil.

The method structures three roles: the artist, the responder and the facilitator. Substitute “artist” here with the terminology of your discipline. The responder could be the instructor, student peers or anyone who is giving feedback. Lerman includes the third role of facilitator to keep track of the steps as a neutral party. For practical reasons, I don’t use a facilitator when I implement her techniques, but if you wanted to use this method for a big event such as a class presentation, this third role further empowers students by placing the instructor and student on equal footing.

In what follows, I’ll present four steps Lerman outlines on her website and suggest how we can apply them to our feedback to college students.

  1. Statements of Meaning: Responders state what was meaningful, evocative, interesting, exciting and/or striking in the work they have just witnessed. This is the easiest step to wrap your head around. It fits with the common assumption that to soften the blow of critical feedback, you should provide positive feedback first. I have appreciated in my own teaching that this step is not just about providing positive feedback but also about focusing on what compels you. I’ve used this technique on what many people would consider dry engineering content. For instance, in reviewing a student’s hydroponics project, it stood out to me that they highlighted both the social and scientific need to advance the work.
  2. Artist as Questioner: The artist asks questions about the work. In answering, responders stay on topic with the question and may express opinions in direct response to the artist’s questions. The next step is where things first deviate from the status quo of giving feedback. This is a chance for the learner to ask the instructor for the specific feedback they are ready to receive in that moment. If there is an aspect of their work they don’t want to hear about, they don’t have to. Don’t worry that students may not get all the feedback you think they need — that comes later. The key here is to stay on the student-chosen topic when answering and not drift to other opinions you may want to share.
  3. Neutral Questions: Responders ask neutral questions about the work, and the artist responds. Questions are neutral when they do not have an opinion couched in them. This step is your typical question-and-answer session on steroids. Gone will be the days of the questions that are, in reality, long-winded comments laden with opinions about the work. The key here is to ask questions that do not contain a hidden statement. For instance, I would avoid saying to a student, “Why did you choose that method over the more well-known one?” Here I am not only asking a question, but telling them I think they should have selected better. Instead I might ask, “What motivated you to choose your method?”
  4. Opinion Time: Responders state opinions, given permission from the artist; the artist has the option to say no. The last step is the time to give all that feedback that’s been burning on the back of your tongue through the previous steps. But there’s a catch. To share your academic judgement, you need to ask permission. I do this informally when I advise students. I might ask, “Can I share with you my view on the conclusions you’ve made?” The problem I encounter is students don’t feel they can say no. This process breaks down unless students feel secure about your commitment to the method. Reassure students, or use a facilitator, so they know they can decline a piece of feedback. This also takes some getting used to on the side of the instructor. It’s hard to relinquish the position of authority over the subject matter and be open to the idea that a student has a say in their learning.

My takeaway from the experience of trying Lerman’s approach was to, at the very least, ask the student what particular feedback they want at that moment. For example, the student might be fully aware that their grammar is terrible at this time and want you to focus on the main ideas. It saves you the trouble and saves them the heartache.

When I ask students this question, “On what would you like to receive feedback?” many are taken aback; they’ve never been asked before. The assumption is that we, as instructors, don’t care whether they want it or not. It takes some time for students to get used to this approach. Yet over time, the need for tough love becomes moot, because students feel safe receiving feedback on works in progress, as they know it will be on their terms.

Of course, this approach can’t work all the time. Factors inherent to a lecture of 150 students necessitate approaches different than meeting with a graduate student one-on-one. And there is a time and place for simple, direct feedback. But for work in which students have invested a significant amount of creative energy, and not just reiterated facts, we owe it to them to be more thoughtful in our approach.

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