Harvard University Softens the Emotional Blow of Critical Student Feedback

If you get 49 positive comments and one negative one on a course evaluation, as a teacher, you tend  to fixate on the negative one at the expense of the others.

That’s a real problem. First, it takes an emotional toll on the faculty member. Second, it makes using student feedback to improve difficult. How can you soften the emotional blow of critical student feedback while still using core ideas it contains?

Dr. Joshua Goodman, Associate Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about creative ways to soften the emotional blow from critical student evaluations through “summaries.”

What Negative Student Feedback Feels Like

“At this point in my career,” Joshua told us, “I’m a fairly experienced teacher. Most of the courses I teach in most years go pretty well, and so when I read student evaluations of those courses, the vast majority of the comments that students are making are either positive or if they’re critical, they’re constructive.”

Once in a while, however, he receives a particularly negative comment. Sometimes, it’s substantive and sometimes personal. The pattern, however, tends toward focusing on the few negatives rather than the positive comments.

“If you’re overly weighting the negative comment, you might not actually be doing the best job you can for future cohorts of students,” Joshua said.

That realization led him to ask how to read student evaluations in a way that maintains the benefit of the feedback that he wanted to absorb but keeps him from being overly focused on the negative parts that don’t matter as much.

How to Soften Critical Feedback to Make it More Useful

About two years ago, Joshua asked his trusted administrative assistant to read his student evaluations first.  

“I basically said to her, ‘Would you mind taking the comments that students have made and sort them into three buckets.?”

In the first bucket, she put the positive comments, copying them word for word so he could see some of the good things that happened. This gave him a little boost of energy for next year.

Then, she put constructive criticisms in the second bucket. These remarks she didn’t quote word for word. Instead, she extracted consistent themes. That gave Joshua a list of things more than one student was concerned about, things he could change in the future. “I’ll see those,” he said, “but they won’t be phrased in language that’s verbatim, it will be a summary, enough for me to act on but not enough that I’ll be concerned about the precise language.”

And then there’s a third category. This one contains the reviews that might be overly personal or just criticisms that there is nothing the professor can do about. “All that will happen is I will dwell on those negative words but I won’t be able to do anything about them,” Joshua said, “so it will just spoil the next week of my life with no benefit to anyone. So, take that third category and don’t show them to me.”

The major benefit of this process is in taking the constructive criticisms, which even if they’re constructive can still sometimes feel quite personal, and summarize them, removing the emotional heat.

The Benefits of Softening Personal Feedback in Non-Academic Settings

Many of us react to negative criticisms much more strongly than we do to positive feedback. We can even make the wrong decisions about ourselves because we are so focused on small critiques.

The broader point here is to think about how you give feedback in a way that the recipient of that feedback accurately weights the positives and the negatives.

“I think that’s applicable in a wide range of settings and it’s not just an issue of teachers and students,” Joshua said.

Next-Steps Advice for Faculty Looking to Soften Critical Feedback

It’s great if you as a faculty member can find someone in your professional life who can provide this service for you or with whom you could swap these services. That person could work in your department as an assistant, an administrative assistant, a teaching assistant, a fellow faculty member, or some other departmental employee.

“I would love to see, in general, academic departments think more seriously about how to make students feedback useful to faculty members,” Joshua said. “I think right now that student feedback is often done as a process that everyone recognizes should happen, but then the actual act of taking that student feedback and using it to improve instruction is not always very systematically thought out in many departments.”

If departments are serious about this, they need to devote some resources to making it happen.

This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. Joshua Goodman from Harvard University. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.