Just as there are growing levels of anxiety in our society, we also see growing levels of student anxiety, especially around assessments and feedback (Ryan and Henderson, 2017). While we all do our best to place feedback in context, once the flight / fight / freeze mode is triggered, students can become very sensitive to what they perceive as negative feedback. The other big issue is that students often see themselves as passive members in the feedback process (Ajjawi and Boud, 2018). I have used a number of strategies that may assist with this.  

What’s important about this learning and teaching story?

There is a paradox. Students know feedback is important (Carless and Boud, 2018; Dawson et al., 2018), they understand it helps their learning and progression but the negative side effects of feedback often leave students with anxiety around assessments and it impacts on their ability to learn from feedback. Our role is to help students learn, so while (most of us) are not psychologists and cannot take full responsibility for the mental health of individual students, we can frame the feedback process, which includes pre, during and post feedback to combat or at least not to exacerbate any negative emotional response (Carless, and Boud, 2018).

What were you trying to achieve?

I firmly believe feedback begins before the assessment is submitted. I ask students to submit sections of an upcoming assessment in the only forum, usually something tricky or not worth much, and we work through it together. This combined with a detailed marking guide (which we discuss in detail) goes some way to help, but does not alleviate all the problem. Misinterpretations of expectation still occur and this is typically where the problem surfaces. Most students accept the feedback (or don’t even read it), but there are some that are hurt, or unwilling to accept that there is room for improvement. They often see negative feedback as a personal attack. They don’t separate ‘work’ feedback from ‘me’ feedback.

They don’t separate ‘work’ feedback from ‘me’ feedback.

Underlying some of these responses are layers of anxiety and self-doubt that reject the many positive comments offered, and focus in on a single ‘negative’ comment, not matter how it is phrased. These responses not only fuel further anxiety, but limit learning and growth. I wanted to promote resilience, or my preferred framework, ‘anti-fragility’, without verging into the territory of being a personal psychologist for all students, something that I’m not qualified for. Anti-fragility is a property of systems that increase in capability to thrive as a result of stressors, shocks, volatility, noise, mistakes, faults, attacks, or failures. It is a concept developed by Professor Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

While it’s important to make students aware of alternative responses and create ‘safe spaces’ for sharing, trust is harder to build in the online environment. In addition, students can reinforce their current perspectives through seeking out others who are similarly resistant to reflecting on and using feedback to support further learning. In the digital space, my own research has shown how we seek out opinions that reinforce our own, rather than those that challenge us through alternative perspectives.

By exploring strategies that don’t exacerbate these known anxieties, I hoped to help all my students take advantage of feedback and, in so doing, improve their learning.

What did it look like?

By better structuring interactions with students we can assist in, at a minimum, not exacerbating anxiety and at best alleviating existing anxieties, and so enhance learning.

To address the issues raised, I have adopted the following strategies with students:

  1. I scaffold assessments, so feedback from one assessment can be rectified in the next. This approach gives students a chance for ‘redemption’ and keeps them engaged.
  2. I clarify that feedback is about the work not the person (Ryan and Henderson, 2017). This separation allows students to focus on skills and attitude.
  3. I create an understanding that feedback is an active dialogue not an asynchronous process (Ajjawi and Boud, 2018). So we start feedback before the assessment is submitted. I use the online meeting to let students share part of their assessment answers, or get them to place it in a forum post. This way they see feedback as simply part of the journey, a dialogue and not a final full stop. This also allows students to become better as self-evaluation, improving their ability to make it about the work (Carless and Boud, 2018).
  4. Feedback is often presented through multi-modal means, e.g. in-text notes, audio feedback and one-on-one discussions (Ryan, Henderson and Phillips, 2019). I don’t rely on one mode, unless the assessment is 10% or less (students tend to view this as less credible) or just asynchronous feedback. I choose the best format for the circumstance, and find this yields better results, which may include a phone call or Skype session. For example, one thing I have done over the years is when a student has not done their best (even if they get a Distinction) and time permits (Henderson, Ryan and Phillips, 2019), I will call them to discuss the feedback rather than relying on asynchronous feedback.
  5. Identifying student fragility is important. Usually I only get a sense when students either complain, or when reviewing the SES report. The latter represents a difficult situation to rectify, but the former does provide opportunities for improved processes and techniques. Talking through problems/issues/areas of improvement seems to have better impacts and turns a negative into a learning opportunity. The problem is that when I call, I often find online students to be a closed book (most postgraduate students are the exception). Often, they prefer written exchanges, rather than verbal exchanges. I sense in this instance, an independent third party may be more useful and is something I am keen to explore.

How can I make this happen?

Establish a culture in which feedback is a dialogue.

Utilise more than one modality when providing feedback.

Consider synchronous and asynchronous feedback, especially with those anxious about receiving feedback.

When teachers signify in writing and speech that they care about their learners, student engagement with feedback is enhanced. Remember to make feedback usable, detailed, considerate of affect and personalised.

Encourage active involvement with feedback.