Giving that first, painful, negative feedback…

This is the time of year when I give the new 1st-year students the feedback on their first attempt at a University Geography essay. The way I have been handling this for the last few years involves a certain amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth on the part of the students. Some of my colleagues (and many of the students) say that I should be more gentle with the poor dears.  Many students have a lot of trouble making the transition from School to University, and a great deal of work is going on in Higher Education right now looking at this issue of ‘transition’. There are many aspects to student transitions into Higher Education, and different parts of the problem require different solutions. In some respects students need plenty of support and gentle coaxing, but sometimes that is not the best approach.

One particular problem is that students coming into University direct from school without a gap year or any work experience often approach their first year at University as an extension of 6th Form. They drift in without really thinking. They believe that A-level case studies, their teachers’ notes and their favourite facts4u web sites will be all the information they need to cruise through the year. They don’t really appreciate that there is a transition to be made, especially if that transition is disguised, softened and smoothed over too much by well-meaning tutors. Many of my students were amongst the best in their classes at school and they are used to being praised by their teachers and used to being told that they are “good at geography”. And so we face the problem of breaking the news, gently or otherwise, that University is a whole different place from school, and that students need to start working right now at the level of young professionals, academic apprentices and honours students. They are no longer the Geography big fishes in their small school pools. The standard of work expected now is higher than what they were doing at A-level. A-level, and the fact that you were top of your class at school, frankly no longer counts.

Part of our approach to this issue in recent years has been to set students a diagnostic essay assessment on day one. During their induction lecture a title is set and they have to hand in a 1500 word essay at one of their first tutorials a couple of weeks later. They are given written instructions and a House Style document, but basically left on their own to produce the very best essay that they can. They try hard, but of course the standard of their essays, based on their experience of working for A-level, is far from what we expect at University. Usually they are very thin on peer-reviewed sources, they show little evidence of understanding how sources should be cited and listed, they lack original insight, they are based on limited and outdated text-book case studies, they are structured as lists rather than arguments, they lack evidence for their assertions, they include material that is not relevant to the title, they focus on the broad topic but ignore the specific question… they are not great essays.

Is this an unfair test? Is it setting students up to fail their first assignment? Yes. Is this a cruel and unfair style of teaching? No. What we are doing here is establishing a teachable moment by allowing the students to reflect honestly on their current approach and standard of work right at the outset of their University life, and enabling them to compare that approach and standard with what they should be aiming for as they start work for real on their programme of study.

In the past, for many years, we delayed setting the first essay until the students had gone through extensive training in how to write essays. Throughout that training many students continued in their A-level mindset, not appreciating the challenge that they faced in working to a higher standard. However much we told them that their University essays would need to be different from what they did at school, they never really took the message on board because they had no concrete experience to make our message seem real. By setting them the essay early, looking with them at what they produce, and then (gently but firmly) pointing out the areas where their A-level approach differs from what they are now working towards we enable students to recognise more effectively that gulf between where they are and where they are going.

Part of the process is necessarily a moment of shock when the students see how many aspects of their first essay I have found reason to criticise. I could play it soft-and-gentle and sugar-coat the story, but without that unpleasant moment when I, grave-faced, hand back the red-inked essay, the teachable moment would not appear.

I am sure that many readers of this post are right now shaking their heads and rolling their eyes at my primitive technique. “He uses a red pen” they will be saying, “he still thinks essays are an effective form of assessment”. The fool.  This is tricky territory and the pedagogic jury is still out despite the loud voices of some academics who are very sure of themselves. Certainly I agree that this hard-line initial feedback has to be handled carefully. Not softly, but with safety nets and follow-up activities in place.

My approach is to end the first feedback tutorial on a bit of a negative. I have given them the down side but not yet got onto the up side of their way forward. The result of this is that I always get a flurry of emails or facebook posts saying how harsh I have been. Don’t I know that they are delicate flowers, and their teachers told them they were good at Geography? How dare I criticise their essays… and with a RED pen! Letters to the Dean and Vice Chancellor are being considered, I am told!

The anger that some students feel is painful for them, but opens up the way to rapid and deep learning. These students really feel strongly about this introductory piece of academic work now that I have wielded my red pen so harshly. These students want to show me I was wrong, and if they can’t do that by arguing away my criticism of their first essay, they will do it by making the repeat-submission that I have demanded so good that it is beyond criticism. Suddenly these students REALLY want to write me a brilliant essay. They really want to prove me wrong!

The safety nets and follow-up activities? Here are just a couple.

1. Have a Facebook group or VLE discussion space set up where the students can talk to each other and, more importantly, to previous years’ students. The current 2nd years, who went through this last year, can be a real source of both comfort and motivation to the new 1st years when the new students post their sad stories about how cruel and nasty Dr Knight has been. Here are a couple of lines from what my 2nd-years wrote this week in one of those discussion boards, in reply to the anxious cries for help from 1st-years clutching their ink-stained and tear-stained work: (remember, these are fellow students offering advice to the new 1st-years)

 “…this is a very important stage that will help you to become a great student. A bit of advice for all your tutorials is just stay on you feet and pay attention and join in. Don’t worry if you found that your feedback is negative, because you can turn it into a positive by applying what Peter has told you in your feedback in your next piece of work. “

 “First years – just buck up, if someone tells you you can’t do something, you’ve just got to turn around and say ‘watch me’. If you don’t have this attitude you’re not going to do very well this year…”

 “My first essay feedback was pretty horrendous – personally anyway, coming from A-level and having a reputation of doing fairly well, not doing so well can come as a shock and in my case, be very upsetting. But you learn from your mistakes. It’s natural, it was you’re first Uni essay ever. If it was perfect there would be no need for you to be here. Don’t let it get you down too much. If anything, let it motivate you to do better in the next one!”

 Clearly by the time students get one year further down the line they have got over their upset and can recognise their progress. And they still remember that first lesson. Those students, sharing their experience and reflection, can be a huge help to the students following them up the road.

2. Arrange individual meetings, of course, to talk through the specifics of each student’s work and identify positive steps forward, making sure that each student leaves that follow-up meeting with a small number of very clear steps that can be taken immediately to develop their skill and confidence. Reinforce those by picking them up and commending them in the next piece of work. These meetings really do go best if the students have had that initial “negative” experience of the poor first feedback, so that they want to come and explain, justify, argue… and get specific advice. When a student e-mails me after the first feedback complaining that I have been unfair, I know that our one-to-one session in a few days time is going to be really productive! One of the 2nd-years wrote on the discussion board:

 I would recommend you take advantage of Peter’s help as much as you can. If you can send the essay to him before the due date to give it a read through, do it. I was struggling with how to start off essays and the structure so I set up a meeting with him and he went through ways I can set up an essay. It was very helpful and since then, I have felt more confident about my essays and they seem easier

 When older students say that kind of thing the new students seem to pay more attention to it than when I say it, so providing a forum where good senior students can provide sound advice is very useful.

I am anticipating a lot of requests for meetings this week, and I am confident that a short period of initial disquiet will set up the new students for some genuinely deep learning.

Increasingly, over the last few years, I have noticed students coming in with very thin skins, used to being given only “positive” feedback and never, it seems, having had their mistakes pointed out. In the real world, and at University, people will point out your weaknesses as well as your strengths, and that should be a big help to you. Learn to value all kinds of feedback, positive and negative, because all of it will help you to improve.

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