Students say that they love feedback. But that’s not completely true. They love feedback that they believe in.
Put yourself in the student’s shoes. They want to hear what they’ve done right (or wrong), and they want to do better. When the feedback begins, though, what they hear is often criticism. As justified as the criticism might be, it’s hard for anyone to hear that the effort they expended was not really very good. Instead of feeling that they are closer to being a lawyer, the student feels they are getting further away. The challenge is to present the feedback so that it is received with appreciation and so that stimulates the mind – not so that is depresses the spirit.
One effective way to motivate is to delay your feedback. Let the student talk first. Ask: What did you find challenging? Did you think you did some part poorly? Where would you like to improve? What was the hardest part of the work?
Those answers and the self-reflection they require opens the discussion with the student’s own concerns, instead of the instructor’s critique . The instructor’s critique comes from a person of experience and expertise. That can be intimidating. Let the student tell you what they need help with first. When they get the help they wanted, they are ready to talk about improvements they didn’t know were necessary, and improvements they never considered.
I recently talked to a student who had turned in a required assignment – the first draft of an appellate brief. In my opinion, this student was just awful at proofreading. Obvious spelling mistakes, repeated words, odd spacing and poor grammar plagued his brief – so much so that I had a hard time reading the thing. When he came to my office, I asked him, “What was the one thing you think you could do better?” He spoke up quickly, “I have a hard time with the details.” That led to a discussion about a trait he and I have in common – we love to have someone else check our work. That wasn’t possible with this assignment, so he needed some different tools. Grammarly and Brief Catch are both available to all students at Baylor Law, and we walked through using those as an electronic proofreader and style coach. Software is not perfect, but it was just the tool he needed. I wonder if we would have ended up sharing a common trait and worked on a good solution if I had started our conversation with “You know, I don’t think you did any editing and proofreading on this brief,” or “You need to spend some time editing and proofreading before you turn in the next draft.” Either would have been truthful and constructive. But, had a professor told me that, I would have recoiled a bit, and maybe wondered if I was cut out for this profession.
There is a time to be brutally honest. There are more times when we should seek to inspire.