Sunday, October 01, 2006

Working with undergraduate researchers: Giving difficult feedback

This afternoon, I had to give some constructive, yet difficult, feedback to my undergrad research students. They are presenting their work in a few weeks and wanted me to read over what they had so far. What they had so far was not so good.

It's tricky to figure out how to give this kind of feedback to students. On the one hand, I want this presentation to represent their own work in their own words. This is their presentation, after all, and part of the learning experience of "how to do research" is "how to present your results to various audiences". On the other hand, my name is on this work too, and because of that part of me feels this need for "quality control" over the final product. If the presentation of the work is not good, this reflects poorly on me, too.

Where do you draw the line between feedback and control in these situations?

I've had students present work like this before, and maybe I've been lucky, but they did a pretty decent job on their own with minimal input from me. (Sure, there were things I would have done differently, but nothing truly cringe-worthy made it into the final presentation.) But those students also needed less hand-holding in general throughout their projects. These students are different---they required quite a bit of hand-holding during their project. I think on some level they do understand what they did, but maybe not as deeply as the other students did, and they are doing a really poor job of presenting that information. But it's hard to tell students, essentially, "nice try, but you've completely missed the point." And figuring out how to give them the feedback I feel is necessary for them to do a good job on this, in a way that is not soul-crushing, is really, really tough.

What I did was point out the strengths of the presentation so far---there were just a few, but there were some, and that's a good start. And then I gave them a somewhat detailed description of what was missing, with concrete suggestions for how to fix some of the more glaring flaws. I tried to phrase this in terms of "you're pitching this to the wrong audience", and gave them some specific questions to answer among themselves that will hopefully get them thinking about the research in a broader context and get them thinking critically about the details they should and should not include in their presentation. It was longer than I intended---I acknowledged that, and put all the important stuff into bullet points at the end labeled "Concrete Stuff to Do".

I tried to use encouraging and positive language as much as possible, but the fact still remains that there was a lot of criticism of their work in there. So I worry a bit about how the students will take this. Ideally, they take it to heart and come up with a much better next version of this. Worst case, they become demoralized.

This is just another reminder, I guess, of how difficult it is sometimes to teach students how to "do" research, in any field. And more importantly, how difficult it is to both give criticism and teach students how to deal with criticism. It's a valuable lesson for them to learn, but one that I did not enjoy teaching them at all.


Dr. Crazy said...

It sounds to me like you did your best to point out their strengths and to frame your critique positively - not that there weren't things that need to be fixed but rather you showed confidence in them that they can address those things. (I think the bulletted list of concrete things to do was great in this regard.) Criticism's tough for all of us, but if the criticism is constructive, it gives the student somewhere to go - something he/she can do to improve. It's the difference between "correcting" student work and giving feedback, you know? I'm going to add a link to this post over at my post on mentoring - I think it really contributes to the ongoing discussion about this on my blog and the blogs of others.

Jane said...

Thanks, Dr. Crazy (and thanks for the link---great series, by the way)! I ran into one of the students today, and she didn't seem upset or demoralized, so I take it that the feedback went over ok. I always use the rule of thumb "how would I like to receive this feedback?", and try to tailor my feedback accordingly. But it's tough to do consistently.

Susana said...

I am 100% convinced that honest feedback is one of the most valuable things you can provide your students. Certainly, you have to be reasonable about how you present it, but it sounds like you gave your students a productive, focused evaluation of projects that were important to them. How else are they going to learn?

You didn't raise this issue, but it's especially important when working with any kind of 'minority' student. Reflecting back on my own graduate career, it's clear to me that most of my (white, male) professors rarely gave me the constructive critical feedback I needed; I think they were too busy tiptoeing around trying not to offend or discourage me. It's something I try to always remember with my own students.

Kudos to you for taking your job seriously.

Clyde said...

Way to go! I agree with what others have said about the list of concrete suggestions on what to do next as expressing confidence in your students' abilities. And as I always tell faculty that I don't object to constructive criticism (in fact, I thrive on it). Although, of course, that requires more work on the overworked faculty member's part - to get beyond the sense that something's wrong to thinking through what it is that's wrong and offering some suggestions for what might be done to address the problem (without necessarily solving the problem). Reminds me of the difference between helpful and non-helpful peer reviews on journal submissions.