The misconception of kindness

I’m taking a few weeks off to regroup this summer and thought I’d replay a post from a couple of years ago. This post originally appeared on the 8 Blog in April 2018. Enjoy!

I get mixed reviews on Rate My Professors. For every student who rates me well, there’s another student or two who has rated me poorly. I try to not get too worked up over the ratings. For the most part, they’re sort of like Yelp reviews. People only really post a review on Yelp when their experiences are amazingly good or amazingly bad. The vast majority of people who had a completely ordinary and solid dining event will never review their experience at all. And I think most people would tolerate a solid experience over a negative one. But I digress.

Returning to my Rate My Professor reviews, to me, one comment stands out among the ratings.  One student posted:

“His feedback is very blunt and to the point, so be prepared for that.”

I don’t know what motivated this student to write this or to give me a poor rating, but I’ve thought a lot about that comment over the last two years. For the most part, I think the student’s assessment of my feedback is on the mark. I also wonder whether that’s the reason that some of my undergraduate students don’t find me particularly empathetic. At least that’s what some of my student evaluations say.  And I find it troubling.  Here’s why.

Over the years on this blog, I written many posts dedicated to providing quality feedback to support students’ growth. Across all of the posts, however, there’s never been a real dedicated focus on how students’ receive feedback. I’m a big subscriber to Grant Wiggins’ Seven Key Elements to Effective Feedback.  To foster student learning and development, Wiggins writes, teacher feedback must reflect seven essential elements:

  • Effective instructor feedback is goal-referenced.
  • Effective instructor feedback is tangible and transparent.
  • Effective instructor feedback is actionable.
  • Effective instructor feedback is timely.
  • Effective instructor feedback is ongoing.
  • Effective instructor feedback is consistent
  • Effective instructor feedback progresses towards a goal

And I provide that feedback. My worry, however, is that some students are not used to getting this type of in-depth feedback and don’t know how to respond to it emotionally. When students are accustomed to getting a few check marks on their papers and a “Great job!” written at the end, they see the professor who provides detailed feedback for growth as being the outlier. They rate the professor as being blunt and to the point and not having much empathy. To some degree, my students see me as being unkind with my feedback.

Being the hyper-reflective teacher that I am, I’ve thought a lot about this and I think there is a prevailing misconception of kindness, one that trades long-term impacts for the short-term ones. Let me explain.

Take the student who gets the “Great job!” on their paper but receives little other substantive comments from her professor. The student is receiving feedback that probably feels good. It reinforces her perceptions of the amount of work that she’s dedicated and her perceptions of her ability. She probably sees the professor as being kind and supportive.

But this is only a short-term emotion with short-term impacts. If the student’s work is not really high quality, the student will eventually reach some place in her educational journey where her development or progress will be stunted. She’ll reach a point where she sees that she may lack the skills to succeed at the expected level. She’ll recognize that her education hadn’t prepared her for that next step.

But I tend to focus on long-term impacts. While I’m (mostly) okay with students calling me direct or blunt or lacking empathy, I hope they’ll realize at some point down the road that the detailed feedback I gave wasn’t trying to hurt their feelings but was intended to help prepare them for whatever comes next. That’s long-term kindness.

I heard someone say recently that “Frustration isn’t part of learning.  It IS learning.” And maybe that’s the motto I need to share with more of my students. I know that the direct (and blunt) feedback I give to students can be frustrating at times. But it’s hardly unkind

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