Giving bad news

How do you give a student the bad news that he’s failing on a programme, and unless something really drastic happens, he’s going to fail the module.

That’s what I’ve had to do recently, giving feedback to a student on an assignment where he had gained just 20%, and that to pass the module he’ll need at least 60% in the presentation/assignment which makes up the final part of the module.

The classic technique is the ‘good news, bad news, good news’ sandwich. You start with something positive (“I see you managed to print the assignment off and hand it in on time”), then the criticism, (“But the work you submitted was just a cut and paste from a single web site without being referenced”), then finish with the good news again (“But you did manage to use a very clear font, which helped me in reading it”).

Personally, I don’t think this works very well… it’s like you’re hiding the pickled gherkin (bad news) in the middle of the sandwich. If I’m consciously giving bad news, and have had time to think, I tend to try three stages.

1) Empathise. “How do you feel you did in the assignment?”, “Were you under a lot of time pressure when you wrote this?”, “I know what it’s like when you’ve not done your best work”

2) Criticise the product. “I’m afraid the assignment only got 20%”, “There’s no way the module can be passed now”, “This will have to be taken to the cheating committee”. The important thing here is to criticise the work/dissertation/assignment, not the individual. To say “You failed the assignment”, “You failed the module” does not help the student at all.

3) Build the person up. “You can submit better work next time”, “This isn’t the time to panic”, “I know from your previous work you can pass this module”. The emphasis is on the individual this time, not the work. Even if there’s some exaggeration in your belief of their abilities, it’s important that they leave feeling confident.

This is slightly idealised – in reality things can happen quickly when giving feedback (students in tears is always difficult), and it’s not always possible to think as clearly as I can here typing this down. But if you criticise the work, and support the individual, then this goes a long way.

Let’s put this into practice, as I now tell some students that they’ve failed their second formative PRINCE2 test!

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1 comment so far

  1. […] techniques are similar to those that I outlined in ‘Giving Bad News’,trying to build a rapport with the student.  The book that I recommend to students – How to […]


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