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How do you give constructive feedback in a way that students respond to it positively? The secret is to have a feedback system and here’s how you do it.

I strongly believe that one of the most important and enjoyable parts of teaching is the feedback. This is one of those things that really make a difference, it can boost students’ confidence level and their results will take a quantum leap.

However, many educators think that giving constructive feedback to their students simply means saying “you’ve done a great job!”. But this isn’t enough, that isn’t feedback, it’s a short appraisal or a statement. Meaningful and productive feedback will really stick with the students because it has the power to engage them in doing their best possible.

A question that is fair to ask is, how do you give feedback in a way that students respond to it positively? Without feeling criticized? But instead, they feel motivated and inspired?

The answer is simple. By having a feedback system that blends 3 key things: trust, cooperation, and specific information.

Why positive feedback is important

The common problem with that academic feedback is that it’s being perceived as a performance evaluation. It’s an assessment of the quality of the students’ results according to certain criteria. Specifically, in higher education, the feedback comes as a written main form and it’s usually interpreted like checking the boxes, what is good and what is bad. And now the feedback becomes the grading process.

There’s no student saying that his/her goal is to reach from 5.1 to 5.7 on the performance evaluation scale.

I would say, feedback can be a complicated task for both the Giver and the Receiver but, it’s nevertheless a necessary one.

Some teachers struggle with pointing out specific areas of improvement for their students. And students, in turn, often have a hard time hearing they aren’t performing up to their capacity or that some of their work could be much better.

Let me explain first what the benefits of constructive feedback are and then, I1ll share some tipes on how-to construct positive feedback.

  1. Feedback impacts. A student remembers the feedback more than any lecture because it’s specifically targeting his/her needs. The student is directly engaged throughout a clear exchange of information.
  2. Feedback reinforces performance and productivity. Feedback creates the base for growth by simply guiding through the checkpoints that lead to a final goal. Setting up micro and macro goals will allow every student to keep track of their own progress and to experiment with the new information.
  3. Feedback builds a trust connection. A student may feel vulnerable in sharing the weak points, however over time and with well-paced feedback, the students will become comfortable in sharing their struggles. Then self-confidence will lead to experimentation, experimentation leads to creation.
  4. Feedback inspires and motivates. Students will always give an extra mile, do more than expected if they feel inspired by the work they do and also by the environment that surrounds them. The environment will then be accompanied by energy and enthusiasm, which becomes contagious in class.
  5. Feedback creates critical thinking. Feedback is continuous communication between teachers and students but also among students themselves. By encouraging students to partake in the feedback, they are also learning how to express themselves in an understandable way and to think critically about how and why they do what they do.

Now, I would like to share my feedback system, a system that does inspire students and will push them towards personal growth, and will build a strong trust relationship. Plus it’s also about making it engaging and fun for everyone.

So here it goes, here’s my feedback system.

The system of constructive feedback

First of all, when we talk about feedback as a part of a teaching and learning process we must think from both perspectives. There’s a Feedback Giver (teacher) and Feedback Receivers (students). Between them, there must be continuous communication since the Giver has the information and experience and the Receivers have an interest in learning about it.

However, we are all humans and our brains work the same, we are designed to give and receive feedback. And this happens everywhere, at school, at the workplace and even at home.

As humans, we are designed to ask questions, to listen, to evaluate, and to integrate feedback. It’s part of the growth system.

But then, we also have a defense mechanism. We are designed to listen to our emotions and to “stay safe”. We reject “what feels bad” and accept “what feels good”. If the receiver doesn’t trust the giver, they don’t trust their opinion, they don’t trust their feedback either.

So the challenge is to find the balance between the information and emotions. The experience has taught me that this balance works on three different levels:

schematic illustrating the relationship between teacher and students in a constructive feedback system
  1. Information: specific information and experience are being passed from the teacher to the students.
  2. Context: the teacher is responsible for the class environment while the students are responsible for their own results.
  3. Emotions: all people are driven by emotions in whatever they are doing, teaching, and learning.

With these aspects in mind, here are my 5 suggestions on how to give constructive feedback.

So let’s break them down.

schematic circle in 5 points illustrating the key aspects of constructive feedback system

So let’s break them down.

Hint #1. Make it unique. One shoe doesn’t fit all.

Each student utilizes the same class information, uses the same tools, follows the same framework, and delivers under the same deadline.

However, especially as an art instructor, I don’t want to see the same result all over again, the same style, the same level of complexity, even though I give the same group guidelines and share the same principles.

I would like to see authenticity instead.

Students’ results are based on their individual experiences, skills, and nevertheless energy and expectations.

I’ve seen students with great artistic skills and abilities but they shut down their creativity because they didn’t trust themselves. Others are overconfident and they rush the process of exploration because they just want quick results.

So here is where the personalized feedback kicks in.

One-on-one feedback will allow students to understand the nature of their style, an authentic style which they have to choose and create by themselves. But in order to give personalized feedback, the instructor has to do 2 things:

  • To know and understand what the student is looking for, and that’s possible only through a back and forth discussion.
  • To give feedback that is both practical and workable within the abilities of the student. But at the same time to inspire and to open new possibilities.

Hint #2. Make it short, ongoing, and engaging.

Imagine a class of 20 students, long feedback of 1h per student is not productive and definitely not engaging, for neither the teacher or the student. The key is micro and progressive feedback that follows up the entire progress.

  • Make it short. Make it 15 min feedback, establish micro-goals for the student to explore by him/herself. Don’t make a long “to-do list” which may be a confusing and overwhelming plus, it blocks the upcoming creativity.
  • Make it ongoing with a regular checkup. See how things evolved but at the same time give enough space and time for personal explorations.
  • Make it conversational and engaging. Feedback has to be like a natural dialogue, a two-way process involving genuine listening. It’s an opportunity for interaction and engagement. Plus, each student has a different way of perceiving the information so it’s important to understand his/her point of view.

Hint #3. Make it practical. Simply show how to fix something.

There are so many educators with tons of knowledge since they teach the same topic for many years. But then, knowledge without continuous practice is in fact theory, a philosophy of how to do things. On the other hand, the repetitive experience without an overall knowledge I believe is something similar to ignorance.

There’s harmony in finding the mix for constructive feedback, between knowledge (information) – experience (workflows) – technique (tools).

When you do that, when you share the whole package it will all make a total sense for the student.

  • Break the feedback down. Split the feedback into 1 or 2 specific things. Then, literally show How to improve based on the Why. Show how you would do it.
  • Be specific. Avoid giving vague information on what could be improved. The feedback has to be clear and straight to the point.
  • Make it visual. Use schematic notes, workflow practices, hands-on tips, and tricks of the tools.
  • Make associations. Explore possibilities with examples for expanding the range of imagination of what could be achieved. It will frame a bigger context with more possibilities.
  • Focus on the feedback, not the results. Setup expectations, however the result it’s totally the student’s responsibility. They have to take the journey of discovering themselves, they have to build their own authenticity.

Hint #4. Make it interactive and productive.

Every day the technology is changing, the needs are changing and there’s also a matter of efficiency and productivity, therefore use the various channels of creativity.

  • Use video recording notes. Not all the feedback can be done in real-time, as I’ve said, it’s also about productivity. In just 5-7min video, simply point out the key elements. It will create a clear focus for the students, easy to review if necessary.
  • Make visual notes. Mix the traditional written feedback with a visual one, use powerful keywords and simple visual schematics.
  • Open up a common library of resources. Share your resources and inspiration with your students. This one will really expand ideas and possibilities.
  • Use a project management tool. It’s so easy to track the main tasks of your students especially if it’s about a large group project. Just use a simple management tool.

Hint #5. Make it energetic. A deeper meaning.

The educator is passing experience and information to students and nevertheless, it influences the students on a personal level as well.

The educator is sharing his/her passions, it’s not just an exchange of information, but an exchange of pure energy.

However, the student is on his/her own journey. Therefore the feedback has to be given in a way that the student resolves the problem (outcome) by him/herself. In their journey, students will also learn how to trust themselves, don’t limit their imagination, and push themselves forward.

Feedback now becomes energy:

  • A communication channel that facilitates both professional and personal growth.
  • A bed of creativity and inspiration where everyone is doing their best possible.

The only way to do this is to simply be kind to your students. Not critical, not judgemental. It’s just a matter of helping without expecting anything in return. It’s the natural and genuine human ability of caring and giving.

Just remember the past times, when you (the teacher) were in their shoes. Remember your own younger version of figuring out stuff with curiosity and excitement.

So be patient in the teaching process but yet, push them by sharing your thoughts and passion as well.

Takeaway

We receive and give feedback daily, from our family, from our workplace, from friends. And the fact is that feedback makes us better, we need feedback in everything we do.

Constructive feedback means: trust, cooperation, and information. It’s also a two-way communication street. This combo has the power to inspire and to positively influence students.

My students inspire me to do my best, they push my creative skills, but also my soft and hard skills. Because I’m the one, as an instructor, that has to fit their needs and challenges. I’m the one that has to look for new ways in passing my knowledge and skills to unique individuals.

And then, I figure out that my students are giving back continuous feedback. They don’t even realize it! Their personal results it’s a reversed feedback to me, it’s like a mirror of my own feedback to them.

It’s not about the perfection of doing things (that’s something relative especially in art-making), it’ll all about progress, even if it’s baby-steps progress, it’s still progress that makes us move forward.

And one last tip. Laugh, really enjoy the class atmosphere, make jokes when it’s the right time, and just have a great time.

Cristina Zoica Dumitru

Cristina Zoica Dumitru

I teach digital art courses online and on-location. My mission is to challenge students to reach their maximum potential for creativity and authenticity.

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