A question for individual reflection:

How do you usually react to the feedback that you receive, for example, from journal reviewers, or on your teaching or work performance?

Giving and getting critical feedback can be an emotional experience. Even when students know that constructive feedback is about the ‘output’ (e.g. an assignment), receiving feedback can still make them feel anxious, confused or start to doubt themselves (Ilgen & Davis 2000).

Indeed, researchers have long noticed that some people have a ‘high sensitivity’ to feedback, and can take constructive feedback personally (see for example, in Smith & King, 2004).

Boud & Molloy (2013) illustrate how feedback is sometimes misinterpreted by students: “I was told that my work was…. It confirms that I’m not good enough. I’ve always known it…”.

Some students specifically avoid seeking or receiving feedback because of the ‘emotional costs’ of receiving it, for example they anticipate they’ll feel embarrassed, threatened or inadequate (Newman & Schwager, 1993).

Moving through Discomfort

1. Acknowledge discomfort and model reappraisal

One way to help students move through discomfort is to talk to them about fixed mindsets, factors that may hinder responses to feedback and how high feedback sensitivity can hinder learning.

Past or current emotions may clog the ‘communication pipelines’, not allowing useful messages to get through. It’s a good idea to give concrete examples of how emotions can block our ability to hear feedback, share tips to overcome negative reactions to feedback, and have students come up with their own strategies for managing responses to feedback.

Image: By love_the_wind, Freepik

A common technique described in the literature is cognitive reappraisal (Troy, Wilhelm, Shallcross, & Mauss, 2010), which encourages individuals to re-judge and re-evaluate a situation. For example, instead of “I was told that my work was…. It confirms that I’m not good enough”, students could view the situation in a different light, e.g. “If producing perfect academic assignments was easy, there would be no need to do a 3-year degree. I now have specific feedback that can guide me, and I’ll use it in future assignments”.

Also, it is important to focus the feedback on the work, not ‘the person’, and use language like “the work was…” rather than “you are…”.

2. Self assessment

Boud & Molloy (2013) see self-assessment as one of the most effective ways to overcome ‘maladaptive responses’ to feedback. They argue that getting students to engage with the rubric (or specific marking criteria) before they submit their assignment prepares them for receiving feedback. 

3. Help students plan their next steps

person walks up steps

It might be helpful to have coaching conversations with students like, “It’s OK if you’re struggling with a particular concept. Focus on your next step. “Who can you talk to? What steps can you take?” Such conversations can be a good opportunity to promote learning skills support, study groups, online resources, etc. Encouraging students to come up with practical steps will help empower them and move them from a ‘passive’ mindset to a more active one.

Image: By Jake Hills, Unsplash

Power Dynamics

There will be students who may not fully understand or correctly interpret your feedback, but  won’t ask for clarification.

There is an undeniable social hierarchy in the classroom: educators usually have more power and status than students. Many students don’t ask clarifying questions even when they haven’t fully understood feedback comments. It takes a lot of confidence to ask a person with a ‘higher status’ for more details, especially in front of other students. It’s important to expect this and plan accordingly.

1. Actively encourage students to ask for clarifications and more details.

For example – 

It’s a complex topic, and when I was doing my…. (bachelor/masters…), it took me some time to understand. Does anybody have any questions about it? You might have a similar question to another student and not know it until you speak up. I want everyone to feel like they can speak up. 

Help me help you gif

2. Pre-empt potential misunderstandings yourself

literature-review-words-everywhere (1)You can pre-empt misunderstanding by sharing some examples of possible ‘feedback misinterpretation’. It’s common to misinterpret comments about needing to engage more with literature asthe more studies I cite in my paper, the better’. Say It’s not about numbers. You need to demonstrate awareness of the key work in this area. Let’s talk about the specific ways you can achieve it. What do you usually do when you conduct a literature review?”…[followed by a discussion and tips on how to make literature reviews more effective]

3. Ask for ‘actionables’

After you’ve given feedback, it might be good to ask students to come up with an ‘actionable’ plan of how they’ll address the feedback points. Not only will it shift them from being in the ‘passive’ position of a ‘feedback receiver’ to a more ‘active’ position, it will also allow you to gauge if there has been any misunderstandings.

Making a listE.g. “Now that we’ve discussed the ways you can improve your next assignment, I’d like you to take a minute and write down the specific actionable steps of what you’ll do differently next time. Once you’ve finished, split into groups of 3, discuss your answers, and report back to the class”.

Image: Glenn Carstens, Unsplash

Finally, you might also ask students for permission to give feedback, e.g. “I’d like to give you some feedback on…. Are you ready to hear it now or would you prefer to talk about some other time?” Not only will you show respect to your students, but you’ll be cueing them that you are about to give feedback, which can in turn make feedback more effective.

Behaviour watch:warning signal

Literature reports that some markers feel uncomfortable giving constructive feedback to minority students (see for example Croft & Schmader, 2012), and as a result ‘withhold it’ as they are worried about appearing biased. This of course does a big disservice to these students as they do not receive information that they need to improve.

Discussion questions:

Have you tried using any of the above-mentioned strategies in your teaching? What worked? What didn’t? Why?

What other strategies do you use to manage a potentially strong emotional reactions to your feedback?


Boud, D., & Molloy, E. (2013). Feedback in higher and professional education: understanding it and doing it well: Routledge.

Croft, A., & Schmader, T. (2012). The feedback withholding bias: Minority students do not receive critical feedback from evaluators concerned about appearing racist. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(5), 1139-1144.

Ilgen, D., & Davis, C. (2000). Bearing bad news: Reactions to negative performance feedback. Applied Psychology, 49(3), 550-565.

Newman, R. S., & Schwager, M. T. (1993). Students’ perceptions of the teacher and classmates in relation to reported help seeking in math class. The Elementary School Journal, 94(1), 3-17.

Troy, A. S., Wilhelm, F. H., Shallcross, A. J., & Mauss, I. B. (2010). Seeing the silver lining: cognitive reappraisal ability moderates the relationship between stress and depressive symptoms. Emotion, 10(6), 783.

Posted by Olga Kozar

I'm a 'long-term' Mq girl. I did my PhD here and taught on different courses, ranging from 1st year to PhD students. I now work in Learning and Teaching, which I love. I have 2 young kids and a dog, and I love meeting other Mq people, so give me a shout if you'd like to talk 'learning and teaching' or would like to brainstorm together.

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