Feb. 7, 2019

Embrace feedback to transform how you teach and learn

Writer, filmmaker, and teacher Pat Hirst speaks at Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning presentation
Pat Hirst, left, and Cheryl Jeffs believe we can combat the fear that comes along with academic feedback.
Pat Hirst, left, and Cheryl Jeffs say we can combat the fear that comes along with academic feedback Michael Do, for the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning

For instructors in higher education, receiving feedback is both necessary and valuable. Still, the feedback-receiving process often evokes negative feelings, shakes confidence, causes stress and even creates fear. On Feb. 20, writer, teacher and filmmaker Pat Hirst, author of In a Perfect World, will deliver a keynote presentation and two workshops at the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning with a focus on identifying and combatting the fear of feedback.

Hirst believes that once we have learned to mitigate our fear, we can focus on the benefits and intended value of formative feedback. For her, this applies not only to receiving input, but also to providing it. She argues that both scenarios can potentially be distressing.

“When I facilitate workshops on feedback, the resounding response to the concept of feedback is fear and frustration,” she notes. “For most people, the mere mention of feedback evokes the fight or flight response. Research suggests that we are as uncomfortable giving it as we are receiving it. Once we are triggered, it causes changes in brain activity that make us closed to receiving feedback.”

Dr. Cheryl Jeffs, EdD, educational development consultant at the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, reached out to Hirst about the possibility of delivering a presentation on formative feedback. In her own work, Dr. Jeffs focuses intently on formative feedback, recently co-authoring an article with Ykje Piera and Brit Paris titled CARRA: Formative Feedback and Teaching Development (published in The National Teaching and Learning Forum). 

Formative feedback in an academic context

Dr. Jeffs found that Hirst’s work readily applied to higher education. When she first met Hirst, Dr. Jeffs was impressed not only by the writer’s ability to address various industries and contexts, but also by her warmth and compassion.

“I find her quite fearless,” Dr. Jeffs says. “Pat is forthright, respectful and conscious of her responsibility as a mediator and communicator. I  really do believe she believes in the kindness of humans, and that we’re all here for good intent — and that’s how she approaches her work.”

The benefits of formative feedback

Hirst sees feedback as a reciprocal process that is beneficial both to the deliverer and receiver. “The best feedback is a two-way dialogue, where both parties share their ideas and perspectives,” she explains. “Creating a feedback culture enhances engagement, trust and quality.”

And what exactly is the role of feedback in an academic context?

“Simply put, feedback allows us to be the best instrument we can be, regardless of the profession we are in,” Hirst says. “I don’t like the term ‘constructive criticism,’ because I believe many people focus too much on the idea of criticism — which is to find fault. Feedback can be more constructive when we see it as ‘improvement’ or ‘development.’ Feedback allows us to clarify our own assumptions about behaviour and gain awareness. The best feedback is descriptive, in that it identifies both the things that we are doing well (so that we can keep doing them) and those areas that we could improve upon.”

Dr. Jeffs argues that “we need to accept that feedback is part of academia. It’s expected. It's a normal and routine part of academic life. What’s not normal is the anxiety it might cause or the fear it might cause.”

She believes that engaging with thinkers like Hirst and opening up a dialogue about feedback is part of a necessary strategy for quelling that fear.

Pat Hirst’s visit is funded by the Campus Mental Health Strategy grants program and supported by the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning