Visum Monachae… On Feedback

Sister Edith Bogue

     Spring begins: the semester’s midpoint. Students wonder, “How am I doing in this class?” Some are amazed.  Others worry they won’t get a necessary A, B, or C. A few haven’t thought about final grades yet. Don’t be that student!

    Taking stock after eight weeks is wise. We have plenty of feedback. For students, it may be exam scores and/or paper grades. With the help of the syllabus, most can estimate their grades.  Faculty may have less data. Some gather “one minute feedback papers” every class. Others use quiz scores, student questions or a mid-course survey. Most professors take stock during class: are the students lively or bored, engaged or distracted, confused or intrigued? They, too, can estimate how well the class is going.

    But few stop to thoughtfully evaluate their situations.  Students glance at a grade. “She must have liked my case study; nice A-.” or “Ugh! C+.  I need to study more!” They put it away.  Faculty are similar. “Huh. This class is always quiet: no one talks. I should encourage them more, lecture more, or develop better questions.” We make quick fix action plans based on those assumptions.

    What if the case study was not a good approach, but the student managed to build a solid argument anyway? Maybe the whole class keeps quiet to hide their confusion, not knowing that everyone is baffled by the impenetrable textbook. Did the student know the material well but earn a C+ because of poor test-taking skills? If we don’t absorb the comments and corrections, our action plans cannot address the real issue.

    Honestly listening to feedback, whether positive or negative, is difficult.  It is pleasant to hear positive comments, but we soon worry if we can repeat our performance. Corrections and critiques sting. Sometimes we can’t even perceive the problem until our analytical thinking, aesthetic sense, or depth of knowledge develops further. How do we become teachable?

    “Humility is the virtue that makes we want to change. I’m open to hearing what others have to say to me, what God has to say to me, without a need to defend myself, without a need to pretend.” These words from Mother Rebecca Stramoski, an Iowa Cistercian abbess, highlight the barrier. Our culture urges us to be – or at least appear – confident, competent and prepared. Our self-esteem becomes fragile. Correction and feedback feels like a threat. We defend and pretend, but stifle our ability to grow.

    Try the Benedictine alternative.  Students, review your graded work carefully. Faculty and staff: listen to feedback from students. Pause in gratitude for the opportunity to become better.  Welcome each comment or correction as potential truth. Why is this textbook confusing or this sentence awkward? What do I need to understand to solve the equation or motivate class discussion? Even if the comment seems inaccurate or misguided, spend one minute asking, “Could this be true? Could my view be wrong?”

For Benedictines, humility welcomes correction as the gateway to growth.

Sister Edith Bogue is an associate professor of sociology at CSS and vocation director at the monastery.