Why Negative Feedback Will Make You a Better Student

Why Negative Feedback Will Make You a Better Student

What is your initial reaction when you receive feedback from your instructor? Many students feel apprehension and they often focus on any form of constructive criticism. Some students get so discouraged by negative feedback that they get upset, respond emotionally, or disregard it all together.

If that has happened to you, you are missing out on a valuable learning opportunity. If you want to learn how to accept the feedback provided, even if it feels negative or personal in nature, then it will be necessary to control your initial reaction, learn to partner with your instructor, and develop a proactive method of self-analysis.

Why Does Feedback Feel Negative?

Any form of feedback that suggests a need for improvement may appear to have a negative tone or disposition simply because it feels personal in nature. When you write a paper or respond to a discussion, that is a representation of the time, effort, and work you have put into the class. Even if you didn’t do your best, you made an effort and that should be acknowledged, right? When you or your skills or your attempt to complete the assignment has not been acknowledged to your satisfaction, and the emphasis of the feedback is on areas of needed improvement, that may produce an emotional reaction. It’s almost as if your instructor doesn’t appreciate your hard work or the challenges you faced. Unfortunately, if you don’t get those feelings under control, you are going to undermine your progress.

In How to Take Feedback, Karen Wright discussed the process of learning and how it requires a conscious effort to recognize, analyze, and correct our mistakes. She also refers to the work of John Cacioppo, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, who has found with his research that our brain responds more strongly to negative stimuli than to positive stimuli. This has a direct impact on how we receive and interpret feedback, which explains why we can read something several times and miss any positive statements.

Wright also notes research by Peter Gray, a research psychologist at Boston College, who has found that we are more receptive to feedback and constructive criticism when we have asked for it. Students know that they will get a grade for an assignment or learning activity; however, they do not always expect to also receive constructive criticism. Some instructors take time to provide a written critique and others simply issue a letter grade. Your prior experience further contributes to the perception you hold about the feedback process. If you are used to receiving grades but not a written evaluation of your work, the first time you do it may feel uncomfortable.

Wait Before You React

A natural response to feedback, especially when you perceive it as being negative, is to feel defensive, emotional, and reactive. You may be ready to send an email, make a call, express your unhappiness to other classmates, or worse, decide that the learning process is too challenging and give up. But the first step to processing feedback is managing your response. You will not be able to learn anything – about your instructor, your class, or your abilities – until you are able to control these initial reactions. It may not feel good, especially if you have never been told you need improvement in any of the areas discussed, but you have to be willing to let go of the need to react and work with the information received – whether it is accurate or not.

Transform Task Into Ask

You’ve decided to control your initial reaction, so what is the next step to learning from the feedback received? The feedback is often task specific, which means it is an evaluation of the skills and knowledge demonstrated for this particular assignment. Rarely does an instructor provide assignment feedback that evaluates your entire work as a student. It may also be helpful to understand your instructors’ perspective. They review hundreds of papers and over time, they develop a feel for the materials and responses, which means they can quick assess a task for its completeness and thoroughness. They are getting to know you and your capabilities, one assignment at a time, which means they may not always know if you have done your very best or that you do not see these areas of needed development.

Does this also mean that your instructors are always right? Not at all. Many instructors are adjuncts and just like you, they have other responsibilities that demand their time and attention – from class discussions to managing the process of learning. This means there may be occasions when they have limited time to provide thorough feedback and they will rely upon their initial impressions and evaluation. What this further indicates is that they need your input and feedback too – and you will likely find they are willing to discuss the results. It’s understandable that you may feel apprehensive about contacting your instructors directly; however, you’ll find they want you to succeed and that’s why feedback was provided – to assist your progress.

The best approach to take is to start by asking questions. When you do, be sure to take out any initial reactive responses and emotional statements, and request a time to talk about your progress. Ask a question to clarify something that was written or ask a question that probes specific comments or statements made in more detail. If you take a position that you want to do well and improve, your tone will reflect that attitude and you’ll find it easier to communicate with your instructors.

What Can You Learn?

Once you’ve begun to examine the feedback received from a neutral perspective, now the process of learning can occur. It may not seem possible that learning can take place for all circumstances, especially if you have decided that the instructor was not correct or that it was beyond your control – but there is. You have learned more about your skills, emotional intelligence, class, instructor, and willingness to adapt. What you learn may be nothing more than a confirmation about what you believe now about your skills and abilities. Either way, it will help you remain focused on the important aspects of your work as a student.

If you are at the initial stages of self-assessment, start by analyzing the feedback based upon comments made about the content (thesis statement, subject matter, knowledge, etc.) and mechanics (spelling, grammar, etc.) of your work. In my post, Self-Assessment: Charting Your Own Progress, I shared questions for you to consider that are applicable to all learning activities you may be required to complete.

Written Assignments: How would you rate your ability to conduct research? If an assignment requests the use of credible sources, do you know where to look for information? Instructors will expect you to find sources that are credible, accurate, current, and peer-reviewed.

Written Assignments, Online Discussion Board Posts: How would you rate your writing skills? Are you familiar with the writing resources offered by your school? Academic writing requires the use of proper mechanics, including spelling and grammar.

Studying, Preparing for Exams: How effective are your reading skills? Do you fully comprehend the assigned readings and do you use a note-taking method? You can improve your reading strategy by assessing your learning style and discovering what techniques match your preferred style.

Class Discussions, Written Assignments: How would you rate your communication skills? Can you express your thoughts and ideas clearly and concisely, for all classroom postings and written assignments? For an online class, your written words represent you and your ability to communicate effectively in this environment will have an impact on your performance.

Receiving feedback from your instructors will not always be easy and you may not be receptive to what they’ve provided. If you have not developed an effective working relationship with them, or you are uncomfortable asking questions, the process is likely to feel even less enjoyable. But ask yourself, what are your choices at this point? Do you give up because it feels challenging, or do you continue to move forward and take this opportunity to learn more about yourself? If you can work past emotions and use this as an opportunity for self-development, you’ll find that the self-assessment process will make you a better student.

You can follow Dr. Bruce A. Johnson on Twitter @DrBruceJ and Google+.

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