I still remember the feedback I got on the first essay I wrote in freshman English. I had worked on it for a full week: writing, revising, rereading, rewriting. I wanted to wow my professor with my creativity. I wanted him to read my essay and break into song. (Okay, so I was eighteen.)

If he did break into song, apparently it was a dirge. With red ink, he circled a handful of spelling errors. (This, of course, was before spell-check.) Atop the first page, he wrote one lone and chilling sentence, which I now quote verbatim despite the many intervening years: “Young man, this is hardly a good start on a college career.” Like most first-year students, I was at least as smart as a rat in a Skinner box, so I quickly discerned what was important here. I turned my energy to correct spelling. One of my roommates, it turned out, was a human spell-checker and glad to help. After that, I submitted hurriedly prepared, bland, pasty writing with impeccible…er…impeccable spelling. I passed the course but, in retrospect, wasted the semester. John Dewey was right that the collateral learning is often more powerful than the lesson the educator intends to teach.

Lo these many years later, here is one of my guiding beliefs as an educator: Human beings are either protecting or growing, and, for the most part, these two approaches are incompatible. While protecting, we contract toward safety. While growing, we expand toward learning. Therefore, to encourage learning in my students (especially my struggling students), I need to create a learning environment safe enough for them to choose the risks of growth over the safety of protection.

In my experience (both as a student and instructor), few things make learners feel less safe than judgment. By “judgment,” I mean an evaluation that spills over into a stated or implied criticism of the person. A “judgment” oozes self-righteousness. A “judgment” says, “You are ‘less-than.'” The finger of judgment waggles in the face of a grave and personal deficiency.

And here’s what makes judgment even more complicated. Though I may not intend a judgment, students may still perceive one. Whether real or perceived, judgments wound all but the most confident, and when wounded, many students replace learning with protecting. Protecting often shows up as “fight or flight.” In higher education, we see “fight” when a defensive student snaps an insult or files a groundless grievance. We see “flight” when a student withdraws or evaporates for no apparent reason. Anyone looking for a dissertation topic? How about a study exploring the impact of judgment on attrition in higher education? I think we’d be shocked to discover how much impact judgment has on students jumping ship.

Here, then, are four strategies I have found helpful in extracting judgment from evaluation and, thus, improving students’ ability to learn from and act on corrective feedback.

1) FIRST, FIND THE GOOD. As experts, we can easily spot weaknesses in students’ efforts, especially because what’s “wrong” often dwarfs what’s “right.” But when I consciously look for something positive, I ALWAYS find it. So, first off, identify something praiseworthy about a student’s comment, assignment, or test. Be specific and genuine. For example, “I was intrigued by your opening anecdote. It really grabbed me.” (even though I am totally confused by what follows) or “You worked the first three steps of this problem beautifully. Bravo!” (even though the student’s ultimate answer is miles from correct).

2) OFFER CONCRETE SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT. What could the student do better or differently next time? Again, be specific: “I think adding an example would go a long way towards helping me understand what you mean in your second paragraph.” Or, “Please review pages 67-71 in our text book about multiplying two negative numbers. Then take another look at step 4.”

3) PROVIDE AN OVERALL POSITIVE COMMENT…AND RAISE THE BAR. In summarizing your feedback, offer global encouragement about the student’s work: “I find a lot to like about your project.” Also offer encouragement about the student’s effort: “I can see your hard work is really starting to pay off.” Studies have shown the importance of helping students realize that their effort, even more than innate and immutable abilities, makes a huge contribution to academic success. Finally, advocate for an even greater level of excellence. “I have high expectations for your next project, and I very much look forward to seeing it.”

4) USE “I STATEMENTS” WHEREVER POSSIBLE. This is a guideline I endeavor to weave throughout the first three. “I statements” are especially important when explaining reasons for suggesting a particular improvement. For example, I could say, “Your second paragraph is very confusing, and you should add an example.” An alternative that I think helps struggling students hear this suggestion is: “I find myself confused by your second paragraph. I think adding an example would go a long way towards helping me understand what you mean.” I know it’s easier to use “I statements” in most humanities and social science courses than in disciplines like math and science where answers are more likely “right” or “wrong.” Still, instructors in math and science can help students by focusing feedback on the correct answer, not the incorrect person: “The correct answer for this problem is 47%” (not “Nope, you got it wrong.”). If the difference here seems subtle, imagine the words spoken with the waggling finger of judgment pointing at you, and you might better comprehend the inner experience of the struggling student.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow described well the inner battle between safety and growth: “[W]e can consider the process of healthy growth to be a never ending series of free choice situations, confronting each individual at every point throughout his life, in which he must choose between the delights of safety and growth, dependence and independence, regression and progression, immaturity and maturity. Safety has both anxieties and delights; growth has both anxieties and delights. We grow forward when the delights of growth and anxieties of safety are greater than the anxieties of growth and the delights of safety.”

With effective feedback, we can help students minimize the anxieties of safety and maximize the delights of intellectual growth. Had my freshman English professor been a bit more skilled at providing feedback, perhaps he would have conveyed to me the importance of dressing my thoughts in correct spelling AND encouraged me to continue growing as a writer, a student, and a lifelong learner.

–Skip Downing, Facilitator, On Course Workshops, Skip@OnCourseWorkshop.com

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