Here is my reflective, diagnostic process for figuring out what to do.
My initial analysis of the situation: Although my feedback practices normally work for my students, they aren’t working for this student. I need to diagnose what the problem is and work out a strategy that will support this student.
My diagnosis process starts with talking with the student and reading their work, then forming a hypothesis about some promising diagnoses, then devising a solution based on these diagnoses and trialling one or more of these solutions. If that fails, I rule out the first diagnoses and go to an alternative, trialling a different solution based on this diagnosis. And so on until I find a solution.
One diagnosis I always reject: It’s their problem because they aren’t smart enough, or they shouldn’t have been let into my class, or they don’t do the work, or they simply ignore my feedback.
I don’t even consider this diagnosis, first because it’s based on the fallacious idea: “I’ve tried everything, and it didn’t work, so it must be the student at fault.” But I haven’t tried everything, and it is impossible to try everything, so it is a fallacy to blame my current lack of a solution on my student. Put another way, it is an unjustifiably defeatist response. Instead I take the mindset that there is always a way to enable every student, but I may have to do some work to figure it out.
But most importantly, I ignore this diagnosis because it is irrelevant. The only relevant point is that my teaching is not working for this student. Blaming my student (or even blaming myself) is missing the point. The job I have as an educator is to devise methods that will work for this student.
As an aside, because teachers can be overworked, it is both honest and appropriate to think: “I don’t have time to sort out this student at the moment”. Then you can come back to a diagnosis and possible teaching solutions when you have more time, perhaps when you are designing your next round of teaching. Just don’t fool yourself that there is nothing you can do.
Here are some of the diagnostic possibilities that I do consider, each one followed by a possible ‘treatment’. The list is not exhaustive, but does cover many of the most common areas of trouble for students.
- Your feedback is not clear for this student.
- Try to explain in several different ways, and find an way of expressing yourself that does make sense to this student.
- You are asking too much of this student, too fast. I’m asking them to do tasks that are too hard for them.
- Break the task into do-able steps, and support the student to tackle each of these steps.
- They are terrified of the task, or they think they are incompetent.
- Build their self-confidence and self-efficacy. Tell them they will succeed with time and effort. Give them doable tasks so that they experience a sense of success.
- They don’t understand what feedback is, what it is for, or why it is important.
- Explain what feedback is, and convince them that it is beneficial for them.
- They don’t understand how to use the feedback you give.
- Give them guided practice at using feedback to improve. Show them how you would use your feedback to improve a small aspect of their work, then ask them to follow the same process, using other feedback to improve a different aspect of their work.
- They expected more or different feedback than what you provide.
- Negotiate with the student to align your expectations with theirs. Find out what they expected, and either convince them to change their expectations to what you actually provide, or change what you provide to better meet their expectations, or some combination of the two.
- The student has some deeper conceptual misunderstanding about the nature of the task for which you are giving feedback, for example, about what it means to write a critical essay. While they lack this foundational understanding, any feedback or instruction you give them will be misunderstood and pointless.
- Identify concepts that are crucial to the task (sometimes called threshold concepts) – such as argument, evidence, reasons, and convincing the reader – and help the student understand these concepts. Build this understanding before you tackle the issue of feedback directly.