Tracey Dillon really lacks confidence and this prevents her taking risks. The trouble is, you’ve found that if you tell her this it only makes her even less confident and more reluctant to take the kind of risks which she needs to, in order to produce good work. You’re struggling to know how to balance praise and criticism, since you’ve found that it’s only through praise that she gains self-belief and improves. What will you feedback to Tracey?
You know the rules, and you know you can’t change them: your feedback must be in line with assignment learning outcomes. However, you have recently come to realise that, when giving feedback (written or oral), there’s good mileage in identifying what needs to be done rather than what’s wrong, that you can turn every negative into a positive and still make the same point (Houghton, 2020): criticism can be avoided. You are hoping this will help Tracey’s confidence and allow her to consider taking risks.
This will probably make her happier and, yes, more confident, but she is still unlikely to work outside the box. This is her safe place, and she is very unlikely to leave it, for Tracey is the first student in her family to go to university, and, as with many other first-generation students, it is putting enormous pressure on her. Says first-generation student Michelle Vasquez (2019), ‘Being the first in your family is tough, and the expectations weigh heavily.’ In Tracey’s case, her father is carrying a grave misconception about Firsts: he has made his way in the world and expects his children to do the same, and he feels certain that, if Tracey doesn’t get a First, she is not trying hard enough and is letting the family down. The rest of the family are clear about this too.
Under this pressure, she works relentlessly hard and because of it, she hasn’t made any friends: she expects those doing groupwork with her to work to her standards – to leap into action the minute a group assignment is set – and they resent the pressure she tries to exert on them. In her turn, she resents them for holding her back.
To add to the pressure, she’s dyslexic, and her anxiety levels are almost certainly higher than most of her non-dyslexic peers (Carroll and Iles, 2006; Jones, 2019) – without the added worry about her family. Her wobbly confidence is almost certainly connected with her dyslexia too.
She appeared for a session with her dyslexia tutor on the Monday after Freshers Week (unheard of before this) and has never missed an appointment since. After the first month, she broke down and cried, and it all came out – but the dyslexia tutor couldn’t get permission from Tracey to talk to academic staff so her hands are tied. However, she knows that the Unconditional Positive Regard (Rogers, 1959) she gives Tracey counts for something, and she works hard with Tracey on organisation, reading, written work and, importantly, listens to her anxieties and xxxxx her frail self-esteem to see that Tracey does as well as she can and is free from anxiety at least some of the time. But Tracey is never going to get the First that her father demands.
Two years later
Tracey got a 2:1 and was devastated. Her dyslexia tutor went along to the Private View of her show, where she found one of the sisters being, she felt, rather patronising and Tracey looking miserable. The tutor made it clear to the parents (keeping eye contact with father throughout) that their daughter was a remarkable person who had worked harder, she felt, than any student she had ever seen before; they must be very, very proud of her. This was repeated until the tutor was sure father’d got it – she was pleased to see the patronising sister looking discomforted, not to say slightly anxious.
‘Not so cocky, now, little sister,’ she said to herself callously.
Carroll, J. and Iles, J. (2006) ‘An assessment of anxiety levels in dyslexic students in higher education’ in: British Journal of Educational Psychology, 76, 651-662
Houghton, N. (2020) Assessment (online lecture, UCA, 4 March 2020)
Jones, A. (2019) ‘The voices of university students with dyslexia and their experiences of anxiety and coping’ in: Patoss Bulletin 32(2), 10-29
Rogers, C. (1959) ‘A theory of therapy, personality, and interpersonal relationships as developed in the client-centred framework’ in: Koch, S. (ed) Psychology: a study of Science Vol. 3 Formulation of the Personality and the Social Context. New York: McGraw Hill: 184-256
Vasquez, M. (2019) ‘Pressure comes from within for first generation college students’ in The Blue and Gray Press 25 April 2019
FOCUS ON COLLEGES, UNIVERSITIES, AND SCHOOLS VOLUME 6, NUMBER 1, 2012 1 The Influence of Parents on the Persistence Decisions of First-Generation College Students Steven B. Westbrook, EdD Vice President for University Affairs Stephen F. Austin State University Nacogdoches, TX Joyce A. Scott, PhD Associate Professor of Higher Education Department of Educational Leadership College of Education and Human Services Texas A&M University-Commerce Commerce, TX