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Four steps for holding courageous conversations in your classroom

When conducting group work, it’s essential to give feedback early in the project. This gives students time to improve before their final mark is provided at the end of the term. The most valuable feedback a student can receive when conducting group work is not from an educator, however, it is from their peers.

What’s the issue with peer feedback? It can be emotional.

Humans are not naturally good at giving feedback. The role of the teacher is understood. Students expect to receive some sort of evaluation from an educator. However, giving the role of evaluation to students is a challenge.

As teams become more dominant in the workplace, however, it is imperative that students learn how to give and receive feedback. Educators can help by preparing students to have these ‘courageous conversations’ in their classroom. 

We’ve created a four-step plan to help prepare your students to have these courageous conversations with their peers.

Step 1. Explain the range of emotions that typically result from receiving feedback

Be prepared – emotions can run high when students receive their peer feedback report.

Normal reactions include:

  • Satisfaction and pride: They have worked hard. Now their efforts have been rewarded by their teammates and they are pleased.
  • Surprise and delight: They have worked in their usual manner,  and are surprised to learn that the team has viewed their contributions positively.
  • Acceptance: They were already aware that they didn’t pull their weight and thought they could get away with it.
  • Shock and denial: They were not expecting a negative outcome. They thought they had performed and they don’t believe the feedback.
  • Incomprehension and disappointment: They do not understand the reason for their poor rating. They are struggling to visualise how they can adjust their behaviour for future work.

It’s important to help students get past their initial emotion. Personal feedback is part of the journey towards self-awareness and the ability to work with others.

Step 2. Describe how feedback can drive self-improvement

Feedback, although hard to receive at times, can be used to improve yourself. When met with positivity, students can refine their future teamwork skills.

Having a good sense of self enables you to build upon your strengths and correct your weaknesses. Explain to students how this translates into success at work. It can make you a more empathetic team member as you are able to understand, predict and cope with others more effectively. You can better distinguish valid from invalid feedback from peers. This means they will be more likely to achieve realistic personal and professional goals. 

Step 3. Encourage students to engage in face-to-face courageous conversations

Though hardest, feedback should be conducted in a face-to-face session. The following guidelines can prepare your students for these courageous conversations:

  • Encourage openness: Before asking for feedback, ensure you are open to receiving it. Prepare yourself for hearing things that may make you uncomfortable but understand it is intended to help.
  • Acknowledge perception: Understand that the person giving feedback is describing their own perception of the situation. Your intention may have been different, but realise that their feelings about the situation are still real.
  • Avoid debate: Check your understanding of the feedback. Ask questions or get examples, then share your reaction. Clarify issues and explain your actions to correct perceptions people may have of you, but avoid debating.
  • Appreciate: Express your appreciation for the person who has given you feedback, it may have been difficult for that person to be honest with you. Make it clear that you welcome their feedback.

Step 4. Share alternative communication 

If your students have received negative feedback, provide them with the tools to remediate their interactions with their team.

Have each student reserve time to prepare an action plan for personal development. Each teammate should devise a plan detailing how they will improve some aspect of their performance for future work. A detailed action plan should include:

  • A summary of feedback from their peers
  • A list of behaviours they will improve
  • A summary of obstacles that will challenge improvement
  • A plan for how they will improve
  • A plan for how and when the improvement will be measured.

Once completed, each teammate should confirm and agree to each others’ terms.

Courageous conversations can be challenging, but providing your students with the right framework to give feedback can make the process easier on everyone. To learn more about holding effective group work in your classroom, download our eBook: The definitive reference guide for group assignments and peer assessment. Refer to Chapter 8 – Courageous conversations.

Further reading:

Deacon Carr, S. D., Herman, E. D., Keldsen, S. Z., Miller, J. G., & Wakefield, P. A. (2005). Peer feedback. In The Team Learning Assistant Workbook. McGraw Hill Irwin.

Heen, S., & Stone, D. (2014). Find the Coaching in Criticism. Harvard Business Review, 9. 

Quinn, R. E., Bright, D., Faerman, S. R., Thompson, M. P., & McGrath, M. R. (2015). Understanding Self and Others. In Becoming a Master Manager: A Competing Values Approach (6 edition). Wiley.

Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2014). Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (even when it is Off Base, Unfair, Poorly Delivered, and Frankly, You’re Not in the Mood). Viking.

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