In a feedback conversation you provide feedback to your student(s) about their achievement or behaviour. But how do you go about that in a manner that is at once high-quality and effective? This Education Tip focuses on
- the skills you need to have a good conversation,
- specific guidelines for a feedback conversation,
- how best to deal with students’ defensive reactions.
Want to know more about feedback in general? Then take a look at the Education Tip Feedback: (Almost) Everything You Need to Know
Essential Conversational Skills for Giving Feedback
A constructive feedback conversation requires a solid conversational skills set. This skills set consists of regulatory skills and listening skills.
1. Regulatory Skills
regulatory skills are the foundation of a structured conversation. Your introduction will determine the further course and atmosphere of the conversation. It is important, therefore, to establish the talking points and objectives beforehand. This way, both parties know why the conversation is taking place, and what will and will not be discussed. This avoids feelings of disappointment or annoyance afterwards. Finally, allocate a fixed amount of time available to the conversation;
- be aware that misunderstandings and ambiguities may arise during the conversation. Ask for clarification if needed;
- at the end of the conversation, check whether the objectives have been achieved and/or whether all the talking points have been covered. You can do this by explicitly referring back to the objectives and talking points or by summing up the conversation.
2. Listening Skills
Listening skills entail much more than simply listening. It is also important to adopt an active listening attitude, to reflect on underlying feelings, to ask questions to find out more and to summarize to check whether you have collected and understood all the information.
Students want to feel that they are really being listened to in a feedback conversation. This creates a safer environment for them. And that way, they are more inclined to share their views. So show a genuine interest and look at the situation from their perspective. Pay attention to your verbal behaviour.
- be silent now and then, and look at your student(s) so that they want to fill the silence and thus tell you more;
- let your student(s) finish their sentences;
- do not digress;
- ask further questions if necessary;
In addition, strengthen your listening attitude through your non-verbal behaviour.
- slightly lean forward and turn your shoulders towards your student(s);
- make eye contact. This way you show that you are interested, and you can check whether the message has been received. Please note that eye contact is only stimulating when your eyes occasionally meet your student's. An uninterrupted stare may cause the student(s) to feel uncomfortable;
- emphasize your message with your facial expression. Examples of this can be found on websites about body language;
- nod to indicate that you are still listening.
Reflect with your student(s) on the feelings your (sometimes negative) feedback may evoke. Try to rephrase the feelings that resound in the words of your student(s) in your own words. This way the student feels understood and accepted, and you know whether you have placed the feelings correctly. For example, say “I see you are shocked by these comments” or “I see you frowning”. Those are good conversation starters to make sure it does not turn into a monologue.
Encourage students to present their thoughts more specifically and to avoid vague, generic words. This gives all parties a clear view of the situation and you avoid miscommunication. Keep in mind that student statements can cover several vague aspects and that they all need the same amount of clarification. Ask open questions so that you can get to the bottom of what they think is important at that moment. Repeat, summarize and paraphrase to make sure everything is sufficiently specific.
Specific Guidelines for a Feedback Conversation
This Education Tip lists some specific tips and tricks for holding feedback conversations.
1. Contextualize feedback in your student's learning process
Clarify the purpose of the feedback conversation in advance. Explain that the learning process takes precedence and that you want to guide your student(s) in this. The ultimate goal of feedback is to provide starting points and guidelines so that your student(s) can adjust their learning process if necessary. Emphasize that feedback can improve study behaviour and performance. If necessary, repeat the goal one or more times during the feedback conversation.
Course competencies/learning outcomes are incorporated in the course sheet. Use them as a guideline for your feedback conversations. Weigh the learning performance and the learning process against those objectives. It will give your students more insight into what they have already mastered and what they still need to work on.
The video clip below shows an example of how feedback is linked to the assignment objectives.
Use your students' own previous achievements as your starting point and do not compare one student with other students. Do not lose sight of the final competencies: after all, this is what students will have to achieve by the end of their "journey".
2. Focus van je feedback
Only provide feedback on behaviour that students can change. Do not let external circumstances play a role. For example, do not give someone who stutters feedback about the influence of stuttering on their relationship with others. After all, it is difficult or even impossible for the student to change that behaviour. It becomes a different matter if stuttering only occurs in certain situations. In that case, feedback is in order and you have to find out together how you can reduce the stuttering to a minimum.
Behavioural changes occur faster if you emphasize the desired instead of the undesired behaviour. So formulate your feedback as positively as possible. Do not just emphasise the negative behaviour but indicate how a student can achieve the desired behaviour.
Avoid generalized comments. Students are hardly able to optimize or adjust their learning process based on vague remarks such as “Your paper was fantastic” or “This was really insufficient”. They have no clue as to why they deserve labels like 'fantastic' or 'unsatisfactory'. So, instead of saying "Be more specific", say "Clearly state the pros and cons of this point of view and why you take this position".
Watch the video below on how to give specific feedback.
Activate students to come up with their own alternatives for points of improvement and do not limit yourself to a single answer. For example, if you want your students to submit a more structured report next time, you can come up with different solutions together (e.g. using subheadings, paragraphs). Do not spoon-feed them the solutions, but let them think for themselves.
Make sure that students can keep track of everything you tell them. Do not overwhelm them with an information overload. Swamping them with a flood of criticism will have little avail. Not only is it uninviting, it also makes it nigh on impossible for students to adjust their behaviour. Limit yourself to a maximum of three well-chosen comments per assignment. Split up large amounts of information or instructions into smaller chunks and offer those in a structured manner. For example, pick two main points: “There are several things you can work on, let us start with the most important.”
3. Course of the Conversation
Ask students what they think of their paper themselves, and why. Ask them how the process went and what the sticking points were. This will give you insight into the self-esteem of students and their vision on their product, efforts and achievements. It may also reveal other aspects that you would not find out otherwise. You force students to reflect on the quality of assignments and on possible adjustments.
Watch the video below for an example of a student assessing their own paper first.
Make sure not to put too much emphasis on what went wrong.
When you start by highlighting positive aspects, your students will be more likely to listen more attentively to what aspects need improvement. Please note: this tip does not apply to a bad news conversation.
The video below shows how you can start positively as a lecturer.
Start from the students’ actual behaviour: describe what have you read, heard or seen, and what consequences that had or what impression it gave you. This way you stimulate the learning process. That is much less the case if you immediately assess the student in terms of 'good', 'unsatisfactory', etc.
If students do not respond on their own, ask for a response. Make sure your students understand what you mean. If necessary, ask them explicitly. Only when you have their assurance, ask them if they agree with the guidelines provided and/or if they would rather consider other options.
Provide a written account of the students’ comments and the agreements you made with them. You can either write a concise report yourself, or ask your students to do so.
Tailor your language to the listener. Avoid formal language use, words like e.g. notwithstanding, aforementioned, etc. This creates an exaggerated distance.
Although the intention may be to lighten up the feedback conversation, the use of irony comes across as demeaning and has nothing to do with feedback an sich. In no way do they stimulate the feedback process. On the contrary, students are quick to feel ironic feedback as disrespectful and insulting. And they will not be inclined to use such feedback in a positive manner in their learning process.
Feedback that is not understood is meaningless. In order for feedback to work, students must understand it the way you have intended it. Regularly check whether students understand the information presented by asking them. This way you gain insight into their knowledge and insight into your discipline. Pay extra attention to students whose Dutch or English language proficiency has not yet developed sufficiently.
Feedback is a personal matter. The moment you give feedback, you give your personal opinion on the work or achievement of students. When using you-messages, you correct the student (“You are doing something wrong”). This entails the risk that the student will deny the statement, or react defensively. In either case, it distracts attention from what you want to say. Speak from your own position: “To me it comes across as if...”.
For lecturers it is important to present the facts, describe how they feel about those facts, and what the consequences of such behaviour is. Students needs this information to be able to understand the meaning of the feedback. Find out more in the Defensive Student Reactions section.
Secure a quiet room in which you are not constantly disturbed by incoming calls, student traffic, etc. This benefits the concentration and gives your students the feeling that they are really being listened to.
Students prefer timely and regular feedback over extensive but belated feedback. The closer the feedback follows the behaviour or assignment, the greater the students' insight into how they can influence the outcome themselves. Interim feedback is therefore the best way to structure the learning process.
Determine the duration of a feedback session in advance. If you plan several sessions per student, indicate how and when you will be available (in terms of hours).
Defensive Reactions by Students
The effectiveness of feedback depends on the manner in which it is given and the recipient’s willingness to receive that feedback, and to act accordingly. Sometimes feedback does not go the way you had planned. When you give negative feedback, your student may react defensively. Take a look at the video clip below.
How best to deal with such defensive reactions?
Start the feedback with two irrefutable facts
- the student will not have expected a low mark and have not yet reconciled themselves with the result. So avoid endless discussions by starting the conversation with two irrefutable points of feedback;
- the lecturer in the video clips above starts with small mistakes such as incorrect sentence structure, while these have not caused the low mark. As a result, the lecturer finds himself trapped in an endless discussion without actually getting to the gist of the problem, i.e. poor structure and argumentation.
Start with the objectives
- link the student’s performance to the assignment or exam objectives. Students will then have a better understanding of where they are headed, what they have mastered and what they need to work on;
- the lecturer in the video clips above fails to do so, and as a result, the student is clueless about how to improve her work. This is also shown by the reference to a previous conversation and the final result.
in the video clip, the lecturer is shown to have an unclear idea of the student’s performance. This is what leads to his citing elements that provoke a defensive reaction, e.g. referring to spelling mistakes, the underscoring of titles, ... .
in other words, be prepared when you hold feedback sessions. Work by appointment, and go over the paper or exam beforehand. If you hold "walk-in" feedback sessions during regular office hours, ask your students to give you a moment to reflect on their performance before starting the session.
Do not compare amongst students
- in the video clips above, the lecturer focuses on that specific student’s paper and rightly avoids comparison with the student’s peers;
- it is important, in other words, to focus on objective criteria that are based on the assignment objectives.
Do not negotiate the marks
If a student wants to negotiate their marks, put an end to that discussion immediately. Clarify that you are willing to give feedback, but not the negotiate the mark;
if the student persists, discontinue the feedback session and plan a new one at a later date (if necessary).
Want to Know More?
Take our training session on the Feedback Conversation.
Consult the feedback-related Education Tips below:
1. Feedback: (Almost) Everything You Need to Know
2. Coaching (Individual) Students with Their Written and Oral Assignments
3. Written and Oral Assignments: How to Give Language Feedback and Assess Language Skills?
4. Master’s Dissertation: How to Coach Students?
Allow yourself to be inspired by Ghent University colleagues. Check out our Ghent University Practices and filter on ‘feedback’ in the left-hand column.