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Another way to think about grading feedback

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A couple of years ago I was teaching about what healthy and unhealthy communication can look like in relationships. And while I had reviewed this information with my Interpersonal Communication students many times, I saw this quote in a new way…

“Dr. Gottman explains how to build a culture of appreciation simply, like this: ‘Notice what your partner is doing right. Catch your partner in the act of doing good stuff!’”

And that made me think, do I do this in other parts of my life? Do I build a culture of appreciation with students? Or when I’m grading assignments am I just on the lookout for errors and mistakes? After all, isn’t that what grading is- correcting mistakes?

The Case for Building an Atmosphere of Appreciation

I remember being a new first generation community college student, dreading the evidence of how I wasn’t good enough, smart enough on my marked up paper. I’m even a little worried right now about potential criticism or “corrections” I might receive on this blog post. And let’s not talk about the pit in my stomach when I go to open end of course evaluations even if I expect them to be good and helpful. Why do I feel this way? Well, criticism puts us in a defensive mode. Also, we seem to live in a culture of criticism. In fact, we teach “critical” thinking, and we “criticize” ideas. And let’s not even touch the criticism that social media fuels.

Why have I taken you on a journey of my self-consciousness? I want you to remember what it’s like to receive feedback from your professors, supervisors, your students. That feeling of defensiveness or dread we can have is what students also feel. And our empathy for that experience can go a long way.

Going back to Dr. Gottman… We know that cultivating an atmosphere of fondness and appreciation can significantly alter our communication climates. Just ask my Interpersonal students who do a four day appreciative language assignment. It changes people’s faces, their posture, and importantly their response and feelings towards you. And when my Business and Professional Communication students interview someone about words and phrases they wish they heard more or less of in the workplace, the answers always center around wishing there was more appreciation and gratitude and less complaining and criticism.

Cute dog in front of iPad

Because who doesn’t need to see a cute pup half way through this post? Photo by Cookie the Pom on Unsplash

So here’s my proposal. Try using the words “I appreciate…” in your feedback to students this week. Does it change your perspective to look for what was done well, what you can celebrate? While we want to point out where errors are made because that’s an important part of learning, we can also do a lot to promote learning through highlighting what’s done well and encouraging that to continue because sometimes students aren’t aware of what they’re doing well until we point it out. I will acknowledge that there might be times where issues of plagiarism and cheating require a different approach. 

Examples of Feedback

Here are a couple of examples of written feedback. As I’ll note later, I like to use video or audio feedback to also convey meaning through my voice (or paralanguage). 

Hi [Student]! Thanks for working to get this assignment in. I know needing to catch up on late work just adds one more thing to your weekly to-do list. I appreciate you sharing about the value you’re taking away from the section on emotional awareness. I wasn’t quite sure which of the fallacies you were writing about when reflecting on sadness. It seems like maybe the fallacy of helplessness? There’s a great video that walks through the emotional fallacies in the unit. I’d encourage you to review it because they’re a really important part of understanding how our thinking impacts our emotions and actions. Drop into the 1-1 discussion board we have if you have some follow up questions about emotional fallacies- I’d be happy to chat more about them!

Hi [Student]! Thanks for summarizing what your interviewee said in response to your questions. For some responses it would be great to see a little more specificity, and if your interviewee didn’t provide it that would be a great time to ask a probing question for clarification (which is a great workplace communication skill). For example, your interviewee said their workplace has a passive-assertive communication style. That’s a little vague to me, so you could follow up with something like “what does it look and sound like when someone is communicating in a passively-assertive way?” It’s always interesting to me how often people mention they wish they heard more gratitude, and the value we can bring to the workplace by sharing more gratitude. I really liked your question about how your interviewee would do things differently if they were the GM. It’s a good question to consider the power supervisors have in influencing communication in the workplace. I appreciated the very clear connection you made to the section about environment in chapter 2 through the use of a direct quote that supports your conclusions.

Student Responses

So how do I know that using more appreciation and positive guidance and reinforcement makes a difference to students? Interestingly, they send me emails of appreciation! This is something that never happened prior to me shaking up my approach. And it also took me off guard because I am not known for having easy classes. Here are just a couple snips from emails last term:

Thanks for your awesome feedback. I really appreciate you taking the time to respond to us each week. I know you probably have a million things going on, so that personal feedback means so much more.

I just want to tell you that I really appreciate all of the feedback you give me on my unit reflections. It has helped me grow in my work and I just appreciate that. Thanks so much!

How can you shake up the way you offer feedback?

  • Use the phrases “I appreciate…” or “thank you for…” followed by something specific and descriptive in your feedback.
  • Instead of “you don’t seem to understand…” style phrases, consider something like “it was hard for me to see… maybe next time you could try…”
  • Do a little audit of your feedback. How often is the tone encouraging towards growth and development or a criticism for not getting the “right answer”?
  • Remember feedback phrased as criticism/evaluation instead of descriptive guidance can illicit levels of defensiveness that impact our listening and communication. You might even do a quick read about defensive communication to learn more. 
  • Try giving feedback as a Video Note so students can actually see and hear your appreciation- my students tell me every term how much they love actually hearing from me in occasional video feedback. Remember to consider accessibility for students with accommodations.

Our students are people just like us. The words we use with each other matter. Look for opportunities to be a builder of appreciation and potential. We can always use more of that in our lives.

About Stacie Williams

I'm the Faculty Department Chair for Communication Studies at the Rock Creek Campus, and I also serve as an Online Faculty Mentor for Communication Studies and Journalism. I love learning new things about teaching online, and seeing student... more »

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Comments

There are 11 comment for this article. If you see something that doesn't belong, please click the x and report it.

x by Max Macias 3 months ago

Thanks so much for your excellent tips Stacie! I appreciate your practical examples and your passion for teaching.

Thank you!

x by Martha Bailey 3 months ago

Stacie,

Thank you for your honest sharing. I really appreciated reading your reflections and ideas.

Can you share more about how your 1-1 discussion board works? Both how it is set up and how you get students to use it, please! It’s something I’d like to have, but haven’t hit on how to make it work, and it looks like you have.

x by Wendy Fresh 3 months ago

Great information Stacie! Thanks for these ideas together in such a complete post.

x by Jean E Mittelstaedt 3 months ago

I try to use “I like…” and mention the specific thing I noticed. I also try to mention something the student could work on in this way: “What about if you tried…?” I sometimes ask about their choice: “Why did you…?” to get the student to think about it. Sometimes they will say, “I don’t know,” or sometimes they will look at it with fresh eyes and decide that they could do it differently. This even works on pesky grammar. :-)

x by Jill Tuleya 3 months ago

Aww, Stacie. There you go, tugging at the strings of our hearts. I love this message and will certainly use your advice this week in grading and talking with students. I appreciate you.

x by Stacey Fiddler 3 months ago

I really appreciate this article, especially the reminder that students can get defensive when they see criticism. At that point, any learning that we intend from our feedback is undermined. As an experienced teacher, I’ve done a lot of work in my career focused on the learning environment, but there are never any workshops on grading. This is the current focus for my self-reflection and course improvement, especially around equitable teaching practices. I think the most important idea for me to remember is growth mindset! I think the idea of fostering a growth mindset in students has really helped as I’ve had to move courses to fully remote and asynchronous these past few terms. Thanks for your specific examples and tips – I will be stealing some of them! And thank you for your vulnerability at the beginning of the post (has anyone read Brene Brown? Check her out). It makes me feel better about my own journey!

x by Delpha Thomas 3 months ago

Great post, Stacie! I need to print out the bottom half and put it next to my computer, especially when I have a lot of student work to get through. I am also trying to remind myself to take breaks and eat something before grading. My words don’t flow as nicely if I am hungry or feel tired!

x by Josephine Pino 2 months ago

This was a perfect read for today. I especially enjoyed that you shared real examples. I try to use this type of approach, but I feel like my phrases have gotten stale and redundant, and I’ve occasionally wondered if students see that too. Your examples are going to revitalize my feedback language. Thank you!

x by Shirlee Geiger 2 months ago

Stacie,

THANK YOU for your wonderful post, asking us to think about how it student might receive our grading feedback AS we are giving it. Such good advice!!

I remember a day, long ago, when a department chair at another institution sat me down and told me I wasn’t being tough enough in my grading and feedback. His message was that I needed to flunk more people, and let students know there was a risk of flunking, in order to motivate students to take the work seriously.

I went away from that meeting thinking that I needed to be more covert in my encouragement and appreciation of students. With your message, I feel compassion can come out of the closet!! We can be effective instructors, with high expectations for our students, and be kind at the same time.

Whew!!!

x by Ralf Youtz 2 months ago

Thank you, Stacie!

People, like our students and us teachers, have hearts along with our minds. Doing our best to engage both helps both students and us get so much more out of coursework.

You’ve shared some great tools here for engaging our students’ hearts along with their minds, while building more space in our hearts for our students.

x by Morgan Chase 2 months ago

I appreciate your heartfelt exploration of your feelings regarding giving and receiving feedback, as well as the numerous concrete suggestions that the reader can implement right away.

You may be interested in this article: https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/difference-between-elicit-and-illicit

^ Paragraph 2 is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but we don’t know each other and my humor doesn’t translate well in plaintext. :)

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