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The Emotional Journey of Learning From Feedback

The Emotional Journey of Learning From Feedback
Karen Keely, English faculty

I’ve been writing, and getting feedback on my writing, for decades now … and in some ways, it never gets easier. I believe strongly that feedback and revision are the path to better writing—both to better pieces of writing and to better development of writers—and yet I’ve never once gotten feedback on my work that didn’t hurt my feelings. Even if the feedback is thoughtful and well-intentioned and will clearly make the final product stronger, I’ve been known to cry over it.

Over the years, I’ve developed an approach that works for me: I have a few trusted friends and colleagues whom I regularly ask for feedback on my writing-in-progress; I take notes on their feedback in the moment; and then I put everything away and sulk, sometimes griping to myself about how I’m underappreciated, often doing some emotional eating of chocolate, maybe shedding some tears of frustration or resentment. After a couple of days, when this flurry of self-pity has passed and my confidence has reasserted itself, I pull the feedback out and reread it, deciding which advice makes sense to me and what I want to focus on in revision. I have learned far more from such individual attention to my drafts than I ever did from a class lesson about writing skills.

All of which is to say that I am intellectually committed to the craft of revision, and yet I still find it emotionally difficult. And if that’s true for me, after years of doing this, how much more so for our students? They are learning a lot more things a lot more frequently than most adults do, which means that they are receiving feedback from every direction almost every day. On their English essays and their science lab reports and their language presentations, on the sports field and in the dance studio, in the choral room and in the art studio, students are trying out new things under the watchful eye of coaches and teachers who are going to tell them how to do those things better. And that’s exactly what we should be doing—this is the nature of learning—but it all comes with an emotional cost; it’s no wonder that students are exhausted by the end of the day.

Thomas Newkirk defines what he calls “the awkwardness principle”: “any act of learning requires us to suspend a natural tendency to want to appear fully competent. We need to accept the fact that we will be awkward, that our first attempts at a new skill will, at best, be only partial successes. Moreover we need to allow this awkwardness to be viewed by some mentor who can offer feedback as we open ourselves up for instruction. There is a vulnerability here—it is the irreducible, unavoidable condition for learning” (from his 2017 book Embarrassment and the Emotional Underlife of Learning). 

Since we teachers regularly require our students to be vulnerable, we need to support them through the emotional upheaval that such vulnerability produces. I’ve started sharing with my students how difficult I find getting feedback (including the chocolate and the crying), trying to normalize immediate emotional responses to feedback so that we can then move on to the intellectual and educational responses that allow for learning. I want students to know that crying over or resenting feedback is often a necessary first step before we take a deep breath, dry our tears, and get down to the important but challenging work of growing.