5 indispensable tips for giving feedback to struggling learners

Five tips

One of the most persistent challenges that tutors and workplace mentors face, is how to get learners to respond appropriately to feedback. So often, it seems that the student hasn’t been paying sufficient attention. Repeated enough times, this experience can lead to desperation in which tutors start to sound like a broken record, relaying the same message over and over again, and mentors begin to doubt whether the student is really up to the task. This can easily lead to exasperation and disillusionment for learning facilitators.

Want to hear2
But before you give up on any learner or beat yourself up as a failure, consider whether there are any alternative approaches. Always remember that feedback has to be given AND received.

1. Tell them something they want to hear

No, it’s not a cop-out! But if you want someone to hear you, they need to be receptive. It’s easy if your learner is a real star who you can’t praise enough. Praise for performance can soon feel hollow if it doesn’t fit the situation. Here are some alternative openings your learner might want to hear:

  • You clearly have a passion for [the subject/work]
  • Your personal experience and insights about [the subject/work] really shine through
  • I’m really pleased you managed to submit this work by the deadline, as this shows good time management skills.
  • Just think how far you have come since [the first essay/you first arrived]!
  • I always look forward to [receiving your work/working with you]
  • I was very relieved when your assignment appeared, as I know how difficult things have been for you
  • It is rewarding for me to see the journey you are on.
  • I’m amazed at how resourceful you are.
  • Your resilience/perseverance is impressive!

In other words, the learner may be struggling but you still appreciate them as a person.

2. Focus on observable behaviours

Focusing on observable behaviours avoids falling into the trap of making unwelcome personal comments. You might be thinking that that your student is not really interested in helping the clients. If you tell them this, the defences go up, and any further communication will be hampered. Instead, share exactly what you have seen and heard. The learner stood or sat with folded arms. They missed an opportunity to intervene when a more experienced member of staff would have dived in without thinking. These are then opportunities to talk about body language or to teach ‘helping’ techniques.

Feedback

When students repeatedly make the same mistakes in their written work, it is easy to believe that they are ignoring your feedback. But writing well is hard. Try unpicking the issue. Is it grammar, style, structure, showing understanding, using the appropriate content, using evidence? You might think that correcting grammar is simple, but it can be the hardest thing to do. And grammar mistakes often originate from a poor grasp of the topic or the message. Students who struggle with sentence construction are also struggling to express themselves at all as they grapple with new ideas.

Look for clues in the writing and find alternative ways of helping. Such as:

You used a lot of colloquial/informal language, which made your essay seem less persuasive and less objective

It was sometimes difficult for me to follow your discussion, as you were trying to say too many things at once.

Writing

3. Don’t accuse your learner of not putting the time in

Your learner’s work might appear scrappy, rushed and sloppy. But the chances are, this person has sacrificed their family and social life to study or develop a new career. You will instantly alienate your protégé by suggesting they are not doing enough work (even if this is true).

4. Make clear suggestions for moving forward

This may be obvious, but it’s difficult to do well. The learner who is holding back in the workplace may be lacking confidence and/or skills. Find out which it is and help them to address the issue. Draw on the observable behaviours in your discussions and invite the learner to impart the less observable. How are they feeling? Perhaps there is a clash of values or attitudes that needs unpacking. Whatever it is, make sure you can make concrete suggestions – small things like ‘try smiling more’, or bigger things such as shadowing a more experienced colleague or practising one skill until it is mastered.

Moving forward with written work, again try matching your suggestions with your observations:

Try to adopt a more formal writing style, by bringing in more of the specialist language and the concepts discussed in the course

At the planning stage, have a go at writing one phrase that sums up what each paragraph is about. Does the order of your main points seem about right? If not, change it.

5. Listen. Listen. Listen.

I’ve left this most important one until last. Remind yourself that feedback communication is a two-way process. Find out what your learner is thinking and feeling. Check their understanding of the topics or skills they are learning, as well as the feedback they have received. Ask them for their own ideas of how you can help them learn.

Want to hear