Demoralising Feedback – a cautionary tale

3 Sep

It’s not often that, as teachers, we are given the opportunity to step into the shoes of our students.  Ken Wilson writes about his experiences in the German classroom on his blog and Scott Thornbury has described being a beginner in Catalan – but I gave up learning Portuguese six years ago after about two lessons,  so stepping back into the learners’ role has opened my eyes a bit.

What happened in my case was I asked my supervisor to take a look at a draft copy of my dissertation.  If you read the last post I wrote on this blog, you’ll know it’s been a bit of a struggle, but I’d had some positive feedback and I was confident in my mind that I knew where I was going with it, that I knew what I wanted to achieve and that I’d found a structure and organisation that would allow me to do it.  The draft that I emailed over to my supervisor was, I thought, near final.  A few presentational tweaks and the like, chase up a few loose references and I would be done.

Nope.  Not wanting to go into things in great detail, but it seems I’m quite a long way away from “done”.

But what has prompted this post is the realisation of what learners must occasionally feel when they get my comments scrawled all over the bottom of their written work – doom, desolation and blank incomprehension as to what exactly they need to do in order to improve.

Not all learners put all their energy into everything they do, so this is a generalisation, but a piece of written work does represent creativity, thought and effort on the part of most learners.  Most people want to do good work, get good marks and feel as though they have achieved something, that their efforts have been rewarded.  A typical comment like “some good ideas here but you need to improve your organisation – 13/20”  does not entirely meet those criteria.  Having been on the receiving end for once, I now think that if I got that back I would (a) wonder what the point in writing the damn thing in the first place was (b) have no idea what I should be doing better.

In my situation, I picked up the phone, called my supervisor and we had a chat.  It was, much more than the comments in his email, the conversation where I explained what I was trying to do and he was explaining why what I was trying to do wasn’t really a dissertation, that clarified the problems in the document I produced.  I think the idea of conversational feedback is a good one, though I understand that it might not be easy to do all the time in every context, especially with large class sizes or on courses that have a heavier focus on written work.

Having that conversation at least allows the teacher to find out whether the learner is aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the work before building out of that and helping the learner to see how things can be improved.  Anyone who’s been observed by their DoS will probably be familiar with the questions:  What went well?  What went badly?  What would you do differently next time?  In some respects the process of reflective analysis is more important that creating the written work in the first place, at least in terms of seeking improvement.

So perhaps this is a conversation I need to have with my learners more often – and to try and avoid the demoralising red ink scrawl at the bottom of the page in the future.

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One Response to “Demoralising Feedback – a cautionary tale”

  1. alexcase Tuesday 4 September 2012 at 13:14 #

    My accidental prompt of those kinds of conversations in my classroom is my bad handwriting – students ask me what on earth I’ve written, and my explanation is usually better than what I originally wrote

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