Another way to think about grading feedback
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.
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.
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.