I Hate This Class!: Constructive Criticism from Students

I Hate This Class!: Constructive Criticism from Students

Constructive criticism is one of the most difficult parts of self-improvement. While it can be uncomfortable to listen to your coworkers or supervisors evaluate your performance and offer suggestions, it is excruciating (for me at least) to take feedback from students. Even the best intentioned remark can appear uninformed or rude by students who don’t seem to understand the amount of work you dedicate to your career. And yet, we ask students to deal with this phenomena each day in multiplicity. Every passed back assignment, graded essay, or final score an exam is a review of their progress. Grading is, at its very core, the ultimate constructive criticism. 

Students take constructive criticism very well. It’s hard to say if their willingness to improve is based in the idea that it’s expected of them for eight hours a day at school, or if being younger just lends itself to an openness to learn. However, I do know that my students accept criticism more readily than I do. When students offer constructive criticism of my teaching, I instinctively shut down. I immediately feel the urge to justify and excuse the aspect of teaching they are criticizing. It is sometimes tempting to disregard their opinions with the reasoning that they don’t truly understand the effort that goes into teaching.

And you know what? I’m not wrong. Students don’t completely understand what teachers do. Due to their age, psychological development, and sphere of knowledge, students struggle to comprehend the hours I put into my lessons, the time I spend grading, and the consideration I give to their individual academic experience. But that doesn’t make their opinions unworthy! I can’t expect my students to happily accept criticism every single day, and not let them give their input to me. More than being unfair, that’s just silly. I need to practice what I preach, and give students their due when they have comments to make on my classroom. These are a few things that I am going to work on as an educator, and hopefully they can help you in your journey to take constructive criticism from your students! 

►►►I will be aware of how criticism affects me. 

Recently, I made a short iMovie film as an application to become a blended learning teacher with my school district. In this video, I was asked to explain a variety of elements in my classroom in a creative way. To fulfill the creative requirement, the beginning of the video is set up a la the well-known comedy The Office. The music is the same as the introductory theme song, the shots are similar in directional nature, and (if you’re as obsessive as I am) you’ll notice that the shots change in time to each of the shots in the actual Office intro. Needless to say, it took me an impressive amount of time to compose the introduction, let alone the rest of the film. Upon showing it to my students, they were all politely interested, but not wholly impressed. This is where my instinctive response comes in: Oh, they don’t understand. This was an incorrect assumption. One of my more outgoing students tentatively said, “This is great Ms. Marshbank, but if I had to give some constructive criticism, it’s that you need more kids in it.” 

I was taken aback. Technically, he was correct. In my introduction, there had only been shots of scenery, my classroom, and details of students’ schoolwork. There were no kids until later in the video.

“Well, there are kids in the rest of it,” I immediately responded. The student dropped the subject. I don’t blame him. What are you going to say to your teacher in this scenario that won’t immediately put you in hot water? He’d done his part, and I’m grateful to him for that. Three days later, after staring at my blended learning application for hours on end, I decided he might be right. I altered my iMovie, replacing duller shots with neat clips of students doing charming things.

And guess what? My iMovie was better. Surprise, surprise! 

This was my wakeup call with constructive criticism. Why had it taken me three days to even consider the politely phrased criticism from my student? There’s no question that I reacted poorly to this well intentioned comment. In the future, when I find myself in a similar situation, I’ll look to Nicole Lindsay's 6-step advice she provides in an article she wrote with Forbes called “Taking Constructive Criticism Like a Champ”:

  1. Upon receiving criticism, don’t react! You may unconsciously roll your eyes, sigh, or make an excuse. Do your best to remain completely neutral when given negative feedback.
  2. Think of the intentions of your reviewer. Despite the frustration that being criticized by those who aren’t fully informed on your profession, take the time to understand that it comes from a place of well-meaning.
  3. Listen. Repeat back what the person is saying. “You think that if I included more shots of students in my application intro, it would make it more entertaining. Is that correct?” 
  4. Express your gratitude. Remember, saying thanks does not mean you agree. It means you appreciate their input.
  5. Ask questions to make sure you understand their concerns.
  6. Take some time. I had to take three days before I could fully appreciate the feedback given to me by my student. That’s okay! It is not easy to be critiqued, but we can learn from the overall experience.

►►►I will give students a controlled environment to offer criticism.

Students have valuable suggestions for your curriculum and classroom environment, but sometimes they express these suggestions in inadvertently offensive ways. They’re trying to help, but sometimes it can come across harshly. Thrown out comments like, “This book sucks!” or “These assignments are a waste of time!” are coming from a place of improvement, but their delivery needs polish. Offering students the opportunity to give helpful feedback in a controlled format ensures that you will be getting the kind of criticism you can handle, while allowing them to express their feelings about your classroom.

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I have created this Google Form document for your use as a suggested model for a student evaluation. Questions on this form take inspiration from Elena Aguilar’s article that is referenced later in this blog. This form utilizes the Likert Scale which students are probably familiar with from other survey-types of forms. This is a quick way to get some across-the-board data about students’ classroom experience. Additionally, the form also has some short answer questions where students can give ideas for your next class. It’s important to let students who are willing to write out suggestions have the chance to do so in an accountable format. One of the ways that I keep this particular evaluation form accountable to the student is by having them include their first and last name. 

While I understand the reasoning behind anonymity for feedback in a variety of scenarios, I don’t believe that anonymity mimics most career experiences. When students begin their lifelong occupations, be they college-bound or not, anonymity will most likely not be an option when they are offering constructive criticism to coworkers. If students have concerns or critiques of my classroom experience, I want them to phrase it politely and with the knowledge that I will attribute their words back to them. However, my classes will have a conversation preceding this Google Form where I talk about my own integrity as a teacher and the understanding that negative criticism is not something that affects my opinion of them--as long as it’s worded respectfully. 

Elena Aguilar says it best in her article for Edutopia called “How to Foster Student Feedback” when she states: 

I need to know what you think about this class and my teaching this year. Your ideas and feelings are really important to me. [...] However, I’d also like to ask you to be responsible for how you say things.

While Aguilar advocates for anonymous surveys, I think both of our sentiments are adequately proven with her well worded statement. 

I want to have an honest and open dialogue with my students. I want them to know that I take their opinions seriously and that I respect their views. Hopefully, the improvements that I am making on how I receive and ask for constructive criticism will convey my belief that my students are one of my best resources for improving my teaching. By following the quick 6-step guide to reacting to constructive criticism and remembering to give my students outlets to express their views such as the Google Form student evaluation, I can use their feedback to make my classroom the ideal place to be. 

If you have any questions, please feel free to email me at andreamarshbank@gmail.com. You can also find me on Twitter at @msmarshbank, Instagram at @amarshybank, and Linked In at Andrea Marshbank

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