Throughout your academic career, you will be called upon to provide feedback, in both written and oral forms, to students and to colleagues. Knowing how to provide constructive feedback is a highly useful skill that will serve you well whether you are commenting on a student's paper, serving as a paper discussant at a conference, or giving input as part of a committee. Giving feedback well is essential for becoming an effective teacher and valued colleague.
In graduate seminars, you may have been taught how to critique someone's ideas—often an absent author whose work is under discussion. You also may have suffered through a session in which your own work was ripped to shreds, and possibly your self-esteem along with it. If you've experienced this form of critique, you already know that while it may demonstrate the intellectual skills of the person making the appraisal, it may not help the hapless scholar on the receiving end improve his or her work. Giving feedback in a tactful, helpful way is particularly necessary in the classroom. A seasoned academic can probably take a scathing attack—some will even relish the prospect of doing intellectual battle, much like a sporting event. Most undergraduates, however, don't feel secure enough in their skills and abilities to withstand such treatment. The smallest amount of sarcasm or any form of derisiveness can intimidate and demoralize students, which is not conducive to learning or to building a productive and engaging classroom environment. Even in cases when instructors aren't trying to be hard on students, they may overwhelm them by pointing out every single thing that was done wrong or could be improved.
To provide helpful feedback to students, you need to keep in mind that the point is to help students learn and improve, not simply to identify errors and shortcomings. Whether you're writing comments on a paper, responding to a student's contribution to a class discussion, or assessing an oral presentation, the following tips may help you critique your students in ways that are useful, rather than punitive.
Let students know what they are doing right, as well as what needs improvement. For instance, you can point out the places in a student's paper where he or she has made an interesting connection between authors, or has marshaled evidence for an argument, or in some way has done what the assignment asks him or her to do. It's not just a matter of using positive feedback to make students feel better about themselves or to soften the blow of negative comments; students need to know what they are doing right so that they can continue to do those things and build on their strengths.
Prioritize your comments. Instead of pointing out every flaw or trying to discuss every area that could use improvement, focus on a few main issues on which the student should work. Too much feedback is simply overwhelming—the person receiving it won't know where to begin and may just end up discouraged.
Help students figure out how to improve their work. Instead of cataloguing what the student has done wrong, concentrate on how the student can do better next time. Comments such as "awkward" are unlikely to help students who may want to express themselves more clearly but don't know how. Suggest specific strategies, like reading a paper out loud to hear how the language sounds or outlining a paper after drafting it to check how well the paper is organized. Consider how you can use your comments to help students think and grow intellectually. For instance, you can pose probing questions to help them think about what they missed in formulating their answer or how they might have developed a stronger point, instead of just telling them they've left out relevant material or made a weak point. (You can ask questions like: "how would X's ideas apply to this example," "how else could you describe this," "why do you think this is the case," or "what does your point on p. 3 imply about Y's findings?".
When giving feedback orally, use a neutral, relaxed, pleasant tone of voice; don't allow your vocal tones or facial expressions to show anger, disappointment, or boredom.
If you develop your ability to provide feedback constructively, you'll be a more effective teacher, and you'll be better able to help your students achieve the instructional goals of your courses.