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Classroom Environment Tip #7: Honest Feedback

Classroom Environment Tip #7: Honest Feedback

Feedback is the breakfast of champions.

Ken Blanchard

Some people dislike feedback and avoid it like the plague. If someone offers a pointer or critical remark, they fly into a rage. Others take feedback as a challenge, turning any comments or critiques into an opportunity to argue the finer points of objectivity versus subjectivity and splitting hairs over inferential thinking. Yet others deflect feedback back onto the speaker, believing that their own performance is so inherently powerful that the tips and tidbits are more reflective of the speaker’s deficiencies than their own.

People avoid feedback for many reasons. The most simple and common reason is that some people simply hate criticism. Maybe it’s tied back to critical comments heard during their childhood or a traumatic emotional experience. When we run from feedback, maladaptive behaviors begin to manifest. People begin to procrastinate, brood, deny, or even self-sabotage in an effort to avoid negative feedback. When people know their performance is deficient but fear seeking assistance, the problem rarely fixes itself.

This type of behavior is highly detrimental to students. Classrooms are a natural place for students make mistakes. Teachers spend a good portion of each day pushing them to do things they can’t do on their own. Students are stretched beyond their natural talents and wealth of knowledge and the resulting discomfort generates great gains. A part of this process, however, is feedback. Teachers should be very intentional with how and when they provide their students with critical remarks about their progress in the learning. (Top)

Improves performance

Some teachers shy away from feedback because they fear hurting the child’s feelings. They are so concerned with supporting a positive self-image that they steer clear of damaging their psyche with any message that is not overflowing with rainbows and daffodils. This fear of confrontation, however, ignores reality. When something needs to be improved, wishing it away does not change it. In the classroom, this can turn from bad to worse in a heartbeat. If a student is performing a skill wrong, such as subtracting across zeroes, learning is still taking place. Every time that action is done incorrectly, it’s getting further and further embedded into her memory. The student is learning to do it incorrectly and reinforcing that action with every practice attempt.

Though it seems counter-intuitive, some teachers struggle with giving feedback. This creates a toxic classroom environment because learning from mistakes is inherent in education. Teachers should provide expert instruction, not reinforce ignorance. It would be similar to a pediatrician avoiding vaccinations because she doesn’t like sticking kids with needles. Feedback improves performance when given with fidelity, clarity, and in a spirit of compassion. Students want to learn and they usually know when they are struggling. Ignoring that isn’t kindness but a mockery. The biggest sufferer is your own credibility. Ignoring the elephant in the room doesn’t make it invisible. (Top)

Mode

Feedback differs widely in modality. Even though it is a poor representation, grades are a form of written feedback. The numerical percentage of items correct displays to students how close they are to hitting or missing the mark. Unfortunately, this feedback is extremely limited. Though returning graded work usually includes marking which answers are incorrect, it does not move students closer to improvement. Unless is is accompanied by a detailed explanation of how to solve the incorrect items correctly, numerical grades or even written comments are poor forms of feedback. They show students where they erred but not how to fix their mistakes. 

To build a classroom culture that is positive and encourages academic exploration, the best type of feedback is oral. Speaking with students does several things that written scores or red marks cannot. First, it opens the door to a longer conversation where students can ask questions and teachers can probe to find the exact area of confusion. Second, it is less damaging psychologically when a person of trust delivers critical feedback. A strong relationship and surety of beneficial intent can soften the blow of almost any critique. Finally, feedback is most beneficial when delivered individually. Many students shut down growth opportunities when they are accompanied by social shame. Some would rather be disrespectful or distant than admitting failure in front of their peers. (Top)

Objectivity

A final thought on feedback relates to the nature of the feedback itself. If students shy away from receiving input from the teacher, it might be the result of subjectivity. Instead of objective insight, some feedback contains personal judgment and loaded terms. When teachers find that their discussions with children include I statements, the feedback is most likely subjective. For example, teachers might say, “I don’t think you got this one right,” indicating that the statement is more opinion than fact. Also, judgment terms, such as sloppy or rushed are subjective and arguable. This type of feedback takes the focus off the work and puts it on various interpretation of terms.

To keep feedback powerful, it should rest more on objective standards than personal preferences. Instead of tearing down the student, which subjective feedback can sometimes do, the focus should instead be on the work. Giving students your thoughts on the task is less likely to produce anxiety or resentment. Students, sometimes with guidance from the teacher, can learn to distance themselves from their assignment. When they look at their work critically themselves, they are more likely to be open to outside feedback. Included in any feedback should be steps forward, not just a recitation of errors. If students knew better, they’d do better. Ultimately, the goal of feedback is to improve performance and any evaluation should point toward how to move forward. (Top)

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