“I thought this was going to be my favorite class. Boy, was I wrong.”
Such was the comment I received on a course evaluation a few years ago. I am accustomed to receiving quite favorable evaluations from my students over the years, but have developed a habit, not entirely unknown among instructors, to focus on the less-than-positive comments students write on these documents. I actually plan very carefully for the time to unseal the envelope and read through them: never at the start of the day, lest you ruin it; always in solitude; and when nothing else must be accomplished, to avoid the distraction that any negative comments will no doubt deliver.
This one, while not surprising, really stung. I carried it around for many days after reading it . This student had been upset with the requirements for a major assignment in the course and had acted out in class during a discussion. A couple of weeks later she stopped coming to class, and then failed the course (only to re-take it in a subsequent semester with another instructor).
Many of my instructor colleagues and I have joked about the impact of student evaluations. While meant to assist us in improving our instructional delivery, and while we claim we want to learn from them and welcome “honest” and “constructive” feed-back, we are struck by the impact of the negative comments, even if they comprise a fraction of a per cent of the whole. After all, we have spent hours planning the course, understanding adult learning, working to individualize instruction, make the learning experience an engaged partnership — only to agonize over the occasional comment that suggests we have not, even after all these years, nailed down the teaching thing in an air-tight, error-free, everybody-had-a-stellar-experience manner. (The actual experience of being evaluated is always a bit humbling, as well: we must read from a script to our students before they begin the evaluation, and vacate the room while they complete the document, which means, of course, that we sit forlornly in the hallway, wringing our hands, sweating, peering at the ceiling, pretending to be very involved in a reading task, and praying to the Evaluation Gods that they are writing nice things about us.)
This experience was brought to mind after reading Rex W. Huppke’s column in the February 17, 2014 Chicago Tribune. His intriguing review of the forthcoming book, Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well,” by Harvard lecturers Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, offers all of us a valuable nudge toward self-reflection.
Reading this review helped me consider the function of feed-back in both my professional and my personal life. I had to read through it a few times, mainly to wrestle myself away from all the focus I have placed on delivering feed-back effectively to others, since this is a major part of what I do as an instructor an in my position in my own department. I have prided myself on working very hard to offer what I hope to be clear, honest, and concrete feedback as an instructor and someone who supervises part-time instructors and full-time staff. Taking great pains to be clear but caring, diplomatic, provide examples, and encourage the recipient’s response are all components I’ve tried to hone over the years, and for which I’ve received, well, positive feed-back.
My students receive feed-back on their written assignments, on their comments during class discussions, on oral presentations, on group projects, and on their interactions with children during field experiences in teacher preparation. I have often talked to them about the rather difficult role of a student, which by definition is an individual who is in constant receipt of some sort of feed-back. That can get pretty exhausting. (Remember?)
So my focus has been how I can be a better feed-back giver.
But the focus of Stone and Heen’s book is on how to be a better feed-back recipient. In a Q and A on their web site, they emphasize the essential value in the feed-back process. They claim that the real power in this process is in the ear of the recipient. Their research, which has focused on cognitive and emotional factors involved in feed-back, suggests that the value and effectiveness of feed-back is in the ability of the recipient to consider it.
They go on to say that our natural, dual human tendencies to grow and learn and the desire to feel appreciated “as we are now,” really run the show in the feed-back process. They suggest that the way to flip this process is to stop and consider the feed-back (particularly negative or confusing comments ) and take a closer look, to tease out the underlying message. Stone and Heen offer up three potential triggers in feed-back that can block our ability to learn from it: truth triggers (the message just doesn’t make sense or fit with the task being evaluated); relationship triggers (our connection with the person delivering the feed-back is impacting the message); and identity triggers (the message threatens our own self of self).
Stone and Heen remind us that feed-back is not confined to the workplace — it is part of our personal lives as well, in our family connections, love relationships, and friendships. The perspective that feed-back is a constant, daily part of our lives lends credence to the suggestion to focus energy on how to receive it and use it effectively. Again — in my work as a college instructor, I have spent a great deal of time being an effective feed-back giver. I construct assignment rubrics so that my expectations are clear. I have developed a system in which students are required to offer feed-back to each other following oral presentations, so that they begin building skills in giving and receiving constructive criticism; in offering relevant comments on their written assignments; and in carefully planned tips for their activities and interactions in their field work with young children.
Students in our field experience courses are evaluated at the mid-term point in the semester. One statement in the evaluation expresses the expectation that the student is able to “accept feed-back with maturity.” While this is a typical standard for future teachers, it is likely easier said than done. Self-preservation is a powerful force in human development, and “Thanks for the Feedback” makes the point in its discussion of the myriad ways we experience it in our lives. Most of us have not grown up learning how to accept feed-back from others — it just isn’t a part of our upbringing. It comes up more often in the workplace than in any other aspect of our lives.
So if Stone and Heen are right, I should probably spend a little more time talking with students about the function of feedback, how it feels, and how they can effectively respond to it. And I can’t do that well if I don’t spend some time doing some personal work on how I respond to it in my own life.
That said, I am going to consider more carefully how I handle feedback, try to understand the message behind it — and tease out the valuable aspects that will enable me to be a more confident recipient. This will likely be a tough process. I plan to obtain a copy of Stone and Heen’s book, and see if I can apply the principles suggested therein. I’m hoping it will have some impact on my teaching and supporting my students’ professional growth, and offer some insight into self as well. This will probably not be a barrel of monkeys, but it’s worth going after.
My thanks to Rex W. Huppke for featuring the book in his column. It has brought to mind the old adage: don’t ask for feed-back if you don’t really want to hear it.
But enough about me. What do you think about me?