Feedback From Hell: How To Improve Your Feedback Messages

Feedback From Hell: How To Improve Your Feedback Messages
Summary: When I started teaching online, I had a problem that puzzled me – students didn't take kindly to my feedback. So, if you’re bewildered about the negativity in your feedback and not sure about how to make it more effective and agreeable, consider the following suggestions and your students will appreciate it!

Ways To Improve Your Feedback Messages

When I started teaching online, I had a problem that puzzled me – students didn't take kindly to my feedback. They knew that my message was good for their improvement, but they just hated it – the feedback was from hell. A few of the students even mentioned having stomach pains when they received my weekly emails. Basically, my message was too negative and difficult to accept. Were these students way too sensitive or … God forbid…was I at fault here? Was I that harsh? Maybe…I just didn't like the idea that so many students hated my feedback, and I felt compelled to fix this situation.

After some research and a lot of trial and error changing the feedback messages into a more palatable version, my problem was resolved! Now, quite a few students email me, thanking me for the constructive feedback they received. What a change! Here are my suggestions to improve your feedback messages to students, who don't have to hate them.

  1. Don’t ignore it.
    Instead of assuming that you have too many over-sensitive students, take a clinical look at your own feedback messages. Listen to what the students are saying and tell your ego to shut up. While instructors oftentimes need to be tough and point out issues, they can communicate these problems in ways that are effective and well received. This doesn't mean that all students will love you, but recognizing that there may be a problem with the feedback message, it’s a great first step.
  2. Use certain phrases.
    My favorite new words are “a bit." A post was a bit off topic. Organization of a paper needs a bit of improvement. “A bit” softens the issue, making it not so big for students to overcome. When work is below expectation, “You show great potential,” can be very useful. Most students show potential, even if they are initially hidden. On other instances, “Your efforts are appreciated” work well when you see that a student tried, but it didn't work out. “I can tell that you worked hard here” or “I appreciate your well-thought out approach” can be very useful in recognizing student’s efforts, even if they are not successful. Using “I” makes the feedback more individualized – I noticed you.
  3. Mind your “buts.”
    Many instructors use the “sandwich” approach, where they start and end with positive sentences, but they use the word “but”. For example, they can say that a student’s posting showed a good grasp of the topic, but he should have analyzed the issue better.  Instead of “but”, use “and”. This change will do wonders about how the message is written and understood. You could say that a student’s posting showed a good grasp of the topic and could have contained more analysis. The difference in tone is clear.
  4. Be specific on the positive.
    Use quotations or paraphrases from the student’s work whenever possible to show that you really read the work and noticed it. This could be about a specific calculation done right or a good research resource. The idea is to show that the feedback was carefully thought out, not a template used for all students with no real time spent on the student’s work. The more specific you are, the more it shows you care.
  5. Don’t pester.
    Sometimes we want to tackle all issues, so that students can improve fast. The problem is that this approach can overwhelm and discourage many people. So,  focus on one or two problems at most on  each feedback. If appropriate, make a general comment about the other issues. You don’t have to show all the times a grammar problem happened, for instance. You don’t have to quote the issue or repeat it. The idea is to be focused, discreet, and effective.
  6. Offer prompts.
    Another way to make suggestions is to paraphrase the student’s point and mention, “it would have been great if you had...” These prompts help the students become more attentive and to think deeper about the topics. For example, a student post mentions that managers should be paid more. An instructor may say that the point is valid, but it would have been great if the student had given more explanations, maybe an example or a research resource to backup such statement. I have found that asking “why” may be too confrontational, although it may work in some cases.
  7. Give practical suggestions.
    When telling students to improve their work, give specific suggestions whenever possible. For instance, if a paper is full of grammar mistakes, mention that the student could use "Word" grammar checker or other software to help this annoying problem. If the problem is organization, you may note that the student could do an outline before or after the paper is done to make sure the material is well organized, and the ideas flow well.

Hopefully, these ideas will help you in making feedback more effective and pleasant to you and your students. The key is to use these ideas while still sounding like yourself and not a fake copy-and-paste artist. You could scan the feedback messages, especially the ones for struggling students, looking for at least one positive, hopeful sentence or two before these go out. These suggestions may sound strange, but try one thing at a time and soon enough, these practices will become second nature to you.