More Feedback

I know that I just talked about feedback in last week’s post, but here we are again talking about feedback. Blame it on Adam Grant, the organizational psychologist from the University of Pennsylvania. I posted about Grant this summer while reading his book, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. Since then, I’ve been listening to his podcasts and following him on Twitter and Instagram. Grant always shares an interesting, novel perspective on teaching, learning, relationships, work…. and so much more.

Here’s what Adam Grant posted a few days ago:

“The people who are nice to you aren’t always being kind to you. Saying what you want to hear is nice. People sugarcoat feedback to make you feel good today. Sharing what you need to hear is kind. People speak honestly to help you do better tomorrow. Candor is an act of care.”

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you should recognize that Adam Grant’s perspective resonates with me. In a post a few years ago, I shared how on Rate My Professors a student had written:

““Dr. Dreon teaches in an unconventional manner which may benefit some, but for me it was challenging…. His feedback is very blunt and to the point, so be prepared for that.

As I wrote at the time, it’s not that I want to be a jerk or hurtful in any way. When I offer feedback to a student, I share what I think they need to hear at the time. I focus on what they’re capable of working on and how best I can support their learning. I consider these factors, but I definitely buy into Grant’s “Candor is an act of care” mantra.

Looking at the comments to Grant’s Instagram post, however, it’s clear that candor itself may be an incomplete lens. Rahaf Harfoush, who is a “digital anthropologist” and author, commented that:

“Candor is an act of care that requires trust. You need to trust that people have your best interest at heart and that they have good intentions in wanting you to improve.”

Harfoush’s comment made me think back to a quote I shared a few years ago.

Trust is the well from which we draw the courage to let go what we no longer need and receive what we do. Without a reasonably well-established sense of basic trust, it is difficult to move ahead.” (Daloz, 1999).

While Daloz was writing about mentoring, their perspective is critical for teaching and learning, too. If we want students to have the courage to act on the feedback we offer with candor, we have to first establish trust with them to help them recognize our good intentions and that the feedback is offered for their benefit.

References:

Daloz, L. A. (2009). Mentor: Guiding the journey of adult learners. John Wiley & Sons.

Feedback Loop

We’re entering the fifth week of the semester, which for two of my classes, means that we’re in the home stretch. I teach two condensed, seven-week courses which means that stuff moves at pretty quick pace. Even though the end of the course is near, I’m still trying to gather information on the best ways to support my students. This means getting feedback.

As teachers, we mostly focus on giving feedback. We assign papers, schedule exams, and give quizzes and use that information to give students feedback on where they are in comparison to the learning targets and competencies we’ve set. Some of this can be progress feedback where we communicate to students the stuff they’re doing well. We can also provide discrepancy feedback where we explain things that students can do better and offer ways for them to improve. (For a more in-depth discussion of feedback, check out Glows and Grows)

While we’re in the thick of providing feedback, we can forget that we need to receive feedback, too. Sure, the process of assessment should itself serve a means of obtaining some feedback on our teaching. When students are successful on an assessment, that should communicate how well we’ve done as teachers. When students aren’t as successful… well, you get the picture. Sometimes, interpreting assessment data can be a little like reading tea leaves, though. It can be hard to decipher exactly what the assessment data means and what that says about our teaching. I graded some papers recently and found that half of the class did really well, while the other half didn’t do as well. This “bimodal distribution” seems to confusingly suggest that I’m doing a great job and a not-so-great job at the same time. And that confusion can stifle any efforts for me to revise my teaching practice.

Thankfully, teachers have other feedback strategies at their disposal. At the end of every class, I survey the students about what questions they have or what they’re confused by. I sometimes use the survey to simply ask “How’s it going? How can I help?” These exit tickets serve as both formative assessments for students (and for me) to gauge what they learned, but also as feedback opportunities for me to check how things are going with class. While I’ve used a bunch of different techniques over the years, I really like the ones that I’ve (slightly) modified from Stephen Brookfield’s book, Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher (2017). Brookfield offers these “critical incident questionnaires” as a way to “see ourselves through our students’ eyes.”

  • At what moment in today’s class did you feel most engaged with what was happening?
  • At what moment in today’s class were you most distanced from what was happening?
  • What action that anyone (teacher or student) took in today’s class did you find most affirming or helpful?
  • What action that anyone took in today’s class did you find most puzzling or confusing?
  • What about today’s class surprised you the most?  (pg. 108)

While the student responses can be hard to read at times, the questions can help to uncover opportunities to course-correct (no pun intended). And that’s important to do, even when there are only a few weeks left.

References:

Brookfield, S. D. (2017). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. John Wiley & Sons.

Mounds of Papers and Feedback

I’ve been navigating the perfect storm of the semester the last few weeks. I don’t know how it happened, but my courses aligned perfectly (or not so perfectly) so that the students in all of my classes were submitting major assignments at the same time. I probably should chalk it up to poor planning on my part, but I’ve been spending a lot of time providing feedback on student papers and their revised drafts.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I’ve written about feedback a bunch over the last eleven or twelve years. Personally, I subscribe to Wiggin’s Seven Keys to Effective Feedback which outlines that for feedback to have an impact on student learning it must: be goal-referenced; be tangible and transparent; be actionable; be timely; be ongoing; be consistent; and progress towards a goal. I know that’s a lot to address, but basically it means doing a whole lot more than writing “Good job!” on a student’s paper. It involves setting a clear target for students and providing clear, actionable feedback to help students work towards the target. Reflecting on the feedback I provide to my students, I feel like I meet this standard pretty consistently.

The frustrating part for me is that sometimes I’ll provide feedback to students and won’t see that feedback addressed in future revisions. For most of the assignments in my classes, I allow my students to revise and resubmit their papers for better grades. And while I’ll provide detailed feedback on ways to improve their work, I won’t always see that feedback appear in students’ revisions. Some colleagues have advised that I shouldn’t grade those papers where students have ignored my feedback. Others have suggested that I have students write a revision audit outlining how they’ve specifically addressed the feedback I’ve given in their revision. If you’ve ever submitted an article for publication, this type of audit is common after receiving feedback from reviewers. Despite my frustrations with some of the revisions my students submit, I’ve avoided incorporating these policies. Honestly, they just sound like additional barriers that students need to circumvent to revise their work. I want my students to revise their work. But I also want them to incorporate the feedback I provide.

This morning, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed and came across an article from ASCD titled Getting GREAT at Feedback. Initially, I didn’t think I’d find anything groundbreaking, but then I read the byline to the article: “The key to feedback is how it is received by the student.” That prompted more reading. In their article, the authors, Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, offer a unique perspective on feedback. They write:

“However, a common misunderstanding is that it’s all about the amount of feedback given—and the more the better. But the key is actually how the feedback is received by the learner. The relationship between the person giving the feedback and the one receiving it is paramount in terms of how much ‘gets in.'”

To better address how feedback is received by students, Fisher and Frey offer a different feedback model that “forges trust, helps the hearer sense a positive motive, and is clear and informative.”  Drawing on work by LarkApps, they offer the GREAT model for effective feedback. I know, it’s kind of a corny acronym, but the dimensions are pretty thoughtful.

  • Growth-oriented: The delivery signals one’s intention as constructive, focused on improvement not criticism.
  • Real: Feedback is honest, targeted, and actionable (showing the speaker’s grounding in the area in question), not vague or false praise.
  • Empathetic: It combines critique with care and a quest for mutual understanding.
  • Asked-for: The speaker encourages the receiver to ask questions and seek more feedback, after offering brief comments.
  • Timely: It’s delivered soon after the task or learning is demonstrated. Feedback gets stale fast.

Reading through this list, it may sound similar to Wiggin’s Keys to Effective Feedback. From my point of view, however, the main difference is the intentional focus on care, empathy, trust, and relationship building, which makes a lot of sense. People are more likely to receive advice and feedback from people they trust. Although I’ve never done anything to make my students distrust me, I also haven’t explicitly attended to these areas in my feedback, either. If I believe teaching is about relationship building (which I do!), I have to apply that mindset to all areas of my work, including the feedback I provide.

Clarity is Kind

I can give pretty direct feedback on student work. While I consistently provide “Glows and Grows” to students to balance areas of strength with areas for growth, I find that students often bristle with how directly I communicate the feedback I provide. I preach “leading with empathy” but often forget how candid I can be when offering suggestions for improvement. In fact, one former student communicated my directness in a post on Rate My Professor:

Dr. Dreon teaches in an unconventional manner which may benefit some, but for me it was challenging…. His feedback is very blunt and to the point, so be prepared for that.

Needless to say, that student didn’t rate me very highly in terms of instructor quality.

To my own defense, I’m honestly not motivated by hurting anyone’s feelings. I don’t use putdowns in my feedback or call my students names or anything. I also don’t see myself as one of those people who elevates his own ego by diminishing others. Instead, I subscribe to the Brené Brown mantra: “Clarity is kind.” Applied to my teaching, I try to provide clear, focused feedback for improvement. In my mind, that kind of feedback will better support students’ growth and success. It can often be difficult for my students to hear, but it’s in their best interest.  But my students don’t always see that as being very kind.

But sometimes, the “clarity is kind” practice can lead to unintended outcomes. This semester, I’ve been working with a group of graduate students in one of our doctoral classes. After providing feedback on revisions of their papers, one student joked about how challenging it was for her to read the feedback I gave. “You don’t pull any punches,” she said. “And that can sting.”

Once again, I tried to explain my motivations and how I was focused on her growth. This time, I even brought in an  assurance that I regularly share with my son and daughter: “I’m on your side, 100% of the time. You just might not always know it.”

Flash forward to this weekend. This student gave a presentation at a research conference that some of my colleagues had organized. She was sharing work that she had completed in our class this semester and she did a great job. After the presentation, I met with her briefly to communicate my praise for her awesome work. “You rocked it,” I said. And I could see a grin beginning to emerge, and then she paused. “Are you serious?” she asked, before correcting herself. “Of course, you’re serious. You wouldn’t really hesitate to tell me otherwise.” I laughed, but I knew she was right.

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about Paul Hollywood, a judge on the Great British Baking Show. When bakers meet his high standards, he offers a handshake as a form of praise. The handshake is only meaningful because he holds high standards and communicates clear feedback for growth.  While I don’t see myself as being nearly as cool as Paul Hollywood, I’d like to think that I’ve laid a similar foundation so that my praise is meaningful when it is offered.

That might make me unkind. It might make me blunt and unconventional. But I’m not really worried about any of that.

Did I mention that my student rocked her presentation? That’s enough for me.

A Time to Every Purpose

For last year or so, I’ve been getting back into vinyl records. My wife and I dug out our old albums, dusted off our old record player and have been playing some of the classics from our youth. My kids have also caught the bug and have started buying records when we go shopping at vintage stores. While our house has always been full of music, it’s now alive with songs from the Smiths, the Velvet Underground, and the Violent Femmes. Oddly, my children have also taken to some of the classic albums from the 1960’s. They’re playing the Beatles, the Beach Boys and even the Mamas and the Papas. It’s definitely an eclectic musical mix at our house.

One song that has been in heavy rotation recently is Turn, Turn, Turn by the Byrds. If you don’t know the song, it was originally written by Pete Seeger, but he pulled most of the lyrics from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. The song starts out:

“To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven.”

If you’re a music lover, you may be humming the song in your head right now.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the phrase “a time to every purpose” lately. It’s the first week of the semester on campus and new classes have begun. It’s the season of introductions and syllabi and book lists. It’s the time when faculty outline their expectations and their assignments. And it’s the season for students trying to figure out how they can meet those expectations considering their other classes, their jobs, and their other life commitments.

To everything. (turn, turn, turn)

Even though it’s early in the semester, I’ve already provided some feedback on the first set of assignments. When providing feedback, I try to remember the work of Grant Wiggins who offers Seven Keys to Effective Feedback. These include:

  • 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

The challenge is that since it’s the first week of the semester, students (and maybe some faculty) are feeling their way through a new set of classes. While it’s the season for faculty outlining their expectations, it’s also a time when students may not fully understand those expectations. While we all try to make our expectations tangible and transparent, students come to our classes with experiences with other professors, other courses and other assignments. These experiences may cloud how they interpret our expectations and assignments.

Which makes effective feedback so critical at this stage of the semester. While some may be inclined to go a little easy this early on, providing consistent feedback early in the semester is more important than ever. Drawing back to Pete Seeger’s lyrics, there’s “a time to plant, a time to reap.”

And what we plant in week 1 of the semester, we can reap later on.

(turn, turn, turn)