An unhappy student is a valuable lesson

Education | Brighten Youth Edu Centre 20 Oct 2020

Student dissatisfaction can be upsetting for all involved. It can cause educators to question their practice, vocation and even fitness for the role.

Yet with a slight reframing, unhappy students can actually create interesting opportunities for personal development.

Numerous academic studies have indicated that many educators actually view student feedback in a positive light, acknowledging that it helps improve courses (

A 2014 study found that student feedback might actually be a highly effective way of self-evaluating teaching quality (

The study indicated that student perceptions of teachers were reliable and valid, and many teachers altered their teaching as a result of student feedback.

Sherran Deems, a professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design, gained much of her early experience teaching painting and drawing to art majors. Like many educators, she was used to pointing out areas for improvement as well as strengths. In her early days as a professor, she felt she had been appropriately encouraging, set clear expectations, and worked hard to meet the individual needs of students.

However, her first change in subject matter also brought her first grade appeal. The student in question only absorbed the positive information Deems offered, and did not grasp that negative aspects left room for development, and would have an impact on their grade.

This was a sharp contrast to anything Deems had previously experienced.

In the resulting conference, Deems discovered the student had taken the course for an "easy A," assuming anyone could make art, and parameters for what was considered "good" and "bad" within the art world were fluid.

Deems admitted she became defensive, spending more time guarding her own position than listening to the student's. "I was so dismayed that someone would question my sincere efforts and I took the questions very personally."

Now though, she sees this conflict as a valuable opportunity for development. Thanks to this student, she was reminded to clarify expectations and criteria, and anticipate issues that might arise.

A grading rubric was used every time (an essential for any course at any level), and a project survey was developed. Students are now allowed to give feedback on the clarity, value and structure of projects, and then projects are revised based on this feedback. If feedback is useful, then students should see its impact. They will feel heard.

Lastly, Deems learned the importance of documenting each interaction with a student.

This is important for so many reasons, from guarding all participants against issues of propriety or safety, to providing a useful reference point if letters of recommendation are later sought.

Student feedback - even combative examples - are spaces for growth.

Students are expected to have room for development. The same is true of educators.

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November 2020

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