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Ever wonder how you can give constructive criticism? That is, criticism that is not only helpful, but gets your message across and the work done more productively next time?
 
Well, it’s grading time for a lot of us, and that means critiquing writing is top of mind! So, how can we do it well?
 
Read on for my top tips!
 
When I start to edit documents online for clients or mark student papers, constructive criticism is definitely my goal. However, I personally received a few documents not too long ago that lacked constructive criticism.  While you may think this wouldn’t have an effect on the reader (perhaps just be a bit annoying), the truth is that unconstructive critcism does more harm than good.
 
 
 

5 Warning Signs You Are Not Giving Constructive Feedback (And Why It Matters)

Here are 5 warning signs that we may not be using constructive criticism:

 

1.  Using “You” Statements Is Not Constructive Feedback

One of my favourite courses way back in the last year of my first degree was Alternative Dispute Resolution.  Actually, that’s the first time I thought about “you” statements. Basically, they are for expressing your concern about someone’s behaviour (or in this case, work), but they start off with “you”, placing blame.

“You did XYZ…”,  “When you did XYZ, I felt…”    Now, I’m rarely an advocate for using passive voice, but in this case emphasising the subject can make a writer feel belittled and blamed, instead of empowered to create more content. Focus on the content, instead – eliminating negativity and blame.

 

2.  Continually Asking Why Something Is Done

If only you could imagine how many times I’ve received feedback like this!  Asking why did you do that?   How could you possibly have done that?  How could this possibly work?

I don’t understand, or even simple, unqualified statements without clarification like  “I don’t get this”   harm more than they help.  Truly, when we receive this type of feedback, we feel confused if not enraged.  Instead, let’s try to give feedback that’s clear, concise and constructive. 

Try:

I’m not sure I understand the reasoning behind this example. Could you explain why you’ve included it to help the reader understand?

 

3.  An Angry Tone Is Not Constructive

Motivational-Monday-85-Mental-Calm-new

Next, we need to consider the tone of our comments. Of course, tone is a difficult one to catch over email, word processor tracked changes, or meeting notes.  That doesn’t mean we don’t need to consider, though.  Take a break from the screen, come back, and read your feedback aloud.  How does it sound? How will your students think it sounds?  It does a lot of good to read aloud sometimes!

It’s also a good idea to do our best to stay calm when we are correcting work. When students don’t follow instructions, or communication is lost – it’s frustrating.  Stepping away for some calm and inner peace and coming back later often helps.

 

4.  A Lack of Suggestions Is Destructive

While this one might be obvious, it’s worth saying.  I have, actually, had feedback on my own work that did exactly this. Pointed criticisms without any suggestion or direction as to where to go next are basically useless.

Not only that, they are destructive. They make us feel belittled, unworthy, enraged, and worst of all – demotivated.  To encourage our students to do their best, we need to motivate them to reach their goals.  Without a little help and some specific suggestions on how they can improve, we’re not really doing them much good.  Correcting mistakes is important, but so is giving direction and guiding our mentees.

 

5. It’s All Negative

Of course, feedback that’s constructive is not all negative. We have to remember to motivate our students  to want to the work to improve.  If all they hear is negativity, they aren’t likely to feel empowered.

Trust me, this has happened to me recently on a huge project I’m working on.  (Let me give you a hint: it’s has a 3-letter acronym). When I read that all the comments were negative, it made me feel worthless and (albeit temporarily), quashed any true motivation I had to finish the project.

 

How To Give Constructive Feedback (3 Steps)

Okay, so how can we give constructive feedback in an efficient way?

Here are 3 easy steps!: 

Step 1:  It’s All About the Tone

It’s hard not to “judge” a piece of writing when we’re asked to provide constructive feedback, isn’t it? Taking a step back to observe the writing with fresh eyes often helps me.  Observe and comment, but don’t judge.  Keep the comments neutral at first, commenting on what you observe before saying how you feel it could be improved.
 
A great article by a blog called The Cut suggests avoiding a “feedback sandwich”.   What’s that?  Well, basically it’s two compliments with a piece of negative feedback in the middle.
 
Maybe it’s supposed to “cushion the blow”,  – but really, it makes everything seem insincere. First, the compliments aren’t taken seriously. Second, the piece of negative feedback isn’t really addressed fully. So we haven’t made anyone feel better or accomplished our task! Keep positive feedback together, and address negative feedback separately, in detail.
 
 

Step 2:   Be Specific About What’s Wrong & Provide Recommendations

Have you ever heard of the DESC model?7 Steps to Teaching Essays
 
 
I first heard of it in my Alternative Dispute Resolution class taught by mediators at the University of Alberta way back in 2006, as a method to help assert your feelings in a complex communication situation where you felt your rights weren’t respected. However, I think it could work just as well for providing constructive feedback.
 
Describe – the situation
Explain – your feelings when the situation happened
State- your needs
Consequences – the other person understands
 
For example, we could use it like this:
 
D –  This paragraph contains a lot of information
E  –  When I read it, it seems to have two or three main ideas
S –   I need to see the connection between this idea and the last one, and one idea per paragraph
C –   Without a connection, I’m confused about the main idea expressed
 
 
In fact, Dede Henley writes for Forbes that Millenials prefer suggestions and an ongoing dialogue, rather than written feedback.  She cites author David Rock who suggest that the brain has a “threat response” to feedback. A continuing conversation could be much more effective than drafts and feedback.
 
 
 

Step 3:  Provide Potential Solutions (and support!)

In my opinion, providing support is just as important as writing the feedback itself. If students feel supported, they can learn from our feedback and continually become better writers.

With writing, practice definitely helps. However, if your students are like some of mine, it’s not always easy to find essay topics they’ll love, or learn to teach essays in a way that’s fun.

If you’re looking for more teaching activities, be sure to check out my free printables library.

Free Printables Library

 

Following Up After Constructive Feedback

 

So, guess what?  Our job is not quite done after we’ve given our students (or clients) constructive feedback.  We need to see how they’re doing perhaps a week, month, or even a few months down the line. If they understand our constructive criticism, it may be easy to implement. However, we have to remember that miscommunications happen more often than we’d like.

 

Actually, I’d suggest sitting down (even if it’s virtually) with your students who need the most help.

 

Consider this:

  • Do they understand the feedback?
  • Can they implement a few changes for you to approve before they continue, or before their next assignment?
  • If they use the DESC model, can they voice their concerns? Can we, as teachers or coaches?
 
Personally, I like to think of teaching and giving constructive feedback as a type of coaching. Our goal should be not to have it be perfect, but to guide our students to be able to produce an improve piece of writing next time. If you need topics to help your students practice writing, be sure to check out my other posts.
 
 
What constructive feedback tips do you have? I’d love if you could share them with us here on the blog!
 
Comment below – I read and reply to every comment 😀
 
 
 
Happy Teaching!
 
 
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P.S. Photo lovers, the photo for today’s post is one I took in Vienna, Austria in June 2019.

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