Thursday, November 19, 2015

Feedback to the good students - the dilemma

Feedback is one of those really difficult things, and sometimes we screw up. I have a model for feedback: Start with something nice. Address the real problems. Suggest a few changes. End with something nice. It normally works. Then suddenly it doesn't.

I think one of the most difficult things we do is to give feedback on good work. I know I tend to ignore it, except from pointing out it's good, then moving on to what needs to be changed to make it ever better. This, of course, leads to an over-emphasis on the bad stuff, but that's what we want to change, right? So I spend time sorting out the aspects that are acceptable, struggling to find the potential for growth, and highlighting the kind of material I want to see more of. And that's why sometimes my feedback on weak work may look better than feedback on the good work.

Of course, it's a problem if we never say anything about why a good work is good. Just a general gold star isn't enough, but there is perhaps not all that much to say when a student has done exactly what I have tried to make them do for a few months. And then some good student takes his "yeah, great, perhaps work a bit more on this. By the way, great work." feedback and compares it with a lesser student's "this part here is really useful, and I like how you have emphasised this, and you probably can work more on this, and the connection here is very useful." and don't realise that the other feedback is on a very different type of work. It's on something weaker, something that needs a lot more effort and attention from me, something that needs to develop. Because yeah, your work is good. Go ahead like this. Do what you have been doing. I don't have to turn over every phrase of your work to find the good parts.

So, here's my message to the good students.

Do you get good grades or short comments of praise, but feel under-appreciated? Do you feel that your efforts never take you anywhere? Do you feel like the teacher never sees you, and moves on to the next student to encourage them, leaving you hanging? Here is what the teacher is really thinking.

"Oh, this is great. I don't really have anything to add. This person got it, and is on their way to where I want them to go and beyond. They are learning. They are developing. I love seeing this. Not a lot to say here, beyond telling them it's good. I wish they could all be this good. OK, a beauty-spot here. Let's just try to fix that. Otherwise, I love this. Now, next paper. Oh shit. OK, time to get creative and try to help this poor person. I really wish they could all be like that previous student. What can I offer that can help this student to be like the previous one?"

So yeah, good students, we love you. We sincerely love you. Sorry that the reward for being loved is to also be trusted. I trust you know where you are going. I don't think I should try to derail you when you're on your way. Getting out of the way of students who have their shit together is important. And, good student, you have places to go and things to do. Go do them. Without my approval, because you don't need it, you just need to keep doing this.

The truth is though: I do approve. I smile when I read the good papers. I take a deep breath. My teaching gains meaning when previous feedback leads to a good effort. But I want them all to be at your level, so forgive me, now that you're safe, I am off to try and haul that other one to safe ground.

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