Potential Conflict: Critical Feedback and Transformative Conflict Resolution

 

Just the other day, I received a note from a student, “When you mark my papers can you please give me lots of positive criticism because I really want to do well on all of my courses. I have not been in class for a long time and I just really want to succeed”. I really liked that note, and wish I would receive something like this more often as I felt we could talk early and openly about managing our expectations.

 

I wrote back, “I do what is called constructive criticism (hopefully it feels positive). It is like riding a bicycle or driving a car if you haven't done it for a while. I look at everything you write, composition, style, tone, argument, use of concepts, etc.  The best way to look at this is that I am paying attention to you, and want to give you feedback to enhance your creative expression. If anything I say hurts you, let me know, and I will try to explain it better.”

 

My view is that writing is very personal and very much tied to the student’s self-esteem, sense of self-worth.  So why are we surprised when students respond negatively to a grade that is lower than they expected?  This is a conflict, whether you think it is or not; the student perceives you did something wrong.

 

You also take it personally when your grading is being attacked.  Your grading is also tied to your self-esteem. So the conflict becomes real to you by this attack against you. And now you feel sandwiched between the student and your coordinator, and the fear of what will happen to you if this escalates.

 

In Getting to Yes, Ury and Fisher provide basic rules to help if there is a perception of conflict.

 

  1. Separate the person from the problem (rather than seeing the student as “the problem”, focus on the behavior that can be addressed). Also examine this for yourself as the teacher: you feel you have been wronged, but is there anything you would change in your commentary (not necessarily the grade), e.g., the tone?

  2. Don’t blame nor be blamed (each person is accountable for their actions/words). Defuse emotions through neutral language: “I got upset when you said”

  3. Focus on the interests (identify what is mutual), rather than being positional (I am always a fair marker versus You are an unfair marker).

  4. Identify options that are fair, equitable, achievable (not lowering academic standards) as a resolution.

 

Don’t walk away from the conflict (immediate transfer UNLESS there are elements of safety, abuse, discrimination/harassment). Use the Ury and Fisher model for examining it. Let the student tell their story, where they are coming from. This helps to identify the emotional triggers in your comments. Summarize their perspective, and their story. Reframe on how the interests of both can be met, the value of teaching, the importance of their learning. Incremental growth happens step-by-step, not through jumps and leaps.

 

Focus on available modes of student support if the student needs additional help at critical thinking (a course will help here as foundational), and the AU Write Site (you are there to critique on the discipline, not just the writing and they can help edit for clarity).

 

Other aspects to examine are gender, culture, social class, religion. This is why it is important to examine their story, their roots. “Tell me more about yourself, where you come from, clarify what you mean when you say…”  Getting a sense of who your student is, and how they see the world will help a lot on how you frame your feedback.  However, framing your feedback does not mean you have to compromise academic standards…ever.

 

So let’s say you thought you handled the feedback in a sensitive way, and you still received what you consider a whining or knee-jerk reaction to your comments, with lines such as:

“My other instructors give me A’s, and you give B-s“; “you are a hard marker, and don’t know how hard I worked on this assignment”; “you failed me, and I want to quit university”; “you are a mean person, and you belittle me with your negative comments all the time”; “you shouldn’t be teaching; you are insensitive to people like me”.

 

How do you handle this negative reaction to your feedback?  You can first acknowledge the disappointment and/or frustration of receiving a lower grade than expected. You may say
in retrospect that even though it may seem to you, the marker, that the student did not spend the required time on the assignment, there may be other causes. Perhaps you focused too long on a particular area that was not central to the paper, or the paper seemed rushed as it arrived very late around or after the due date, or so many assignments arrived together there was not time to make corrective measures through feedback.  When linking to probable causes, always note this is speculation, and ask for clarification.

 

However, if you receive comments such as “You are racist.” “You are unqualified to mark this paper”. “I want a real professor to mark this”, I recommend you speak to your coordinator before engaging in further discussion, and take notes of that discussion and date it. Send a summary to your coordinator of what was said.  There are times when there is need for help with a dispute.

 

A student may say “Then I will appeal the grade”.  Rather than seeing this as escalating the conflict, focus on why there is a grade appeal process. The appeal process is there not as an impediment for the instructor, it is about due process, the student’s right to be heard. Students may also need to appeal a grade for a sense of empowerment. They may feel wronged even if you feel the grade is justified. They may learn more about themselves in the process of appealing a grade as well. In the end, they may decide that you were right in assigning the grade even if they don’t like it. This is all about relational fairness. They just need to be heard, understand why they did not do well, and be treated in a respectful way.

 

As every conflict specialist knows, conflict is an inevitable aspect of life. Rather than feeling you can avoid it, engage in a respectful way with the student, and hear the person out. It can result in a healthier, transformed working relationship…. it may not just be about the grade after all.

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