Accepting Learner Feedback or Criticisms:Things You Never Want to Hear from Adult Learners

Stock xchng - penywiseNever is a strong word.  If you’ve been teaching adults for any significant length of time, you will probably hear a few of these criticisms and comments (lovingly known as feedback) over the course of your career.  And, while you may never want to hear critical learner feedback about your teaching style, the reality is that this feedback could teach you a thing or two about adult learning, the subject you are teaching and how you can improve your teaching style.

In fact, if you are not getting at least some negative feedback it could be that learners did not feel comfortable giving honest feedback.  For example, if the evaluation form was not collected confidentially and they suspect a consequence to their grade, reputation or to the teacher from negative feedback learners could hold comments back.  Fix this by collecting evaluations confidentially.  Also, keep an open mind when reading evaluations or chatting with adult learners and you may just learn a thing or two that can help you improve as a trainer.




Adults typically will tell you if you are off course or incorrect about something (even when you are correct) as many don’t feel intimidated to challenge you.  This is especially true if you are new to teaching adults and are younger than the average age in your classroom.  So, it is important when you teach adults to expect to be challenged and understand how to rise to the challenge.

Examples of Criticisms from Adult Learners

  1. “It is your entire fault that I am failing this course!”
  2. “Your wrong, according to [credible or rubish source],…”
  3. “I tried what you recommended in the course and it ruined my life.”
  4. “But you said that [insert the opposite of what you said if they weren’t listening or what you said if they were listening] and it was wrong.”
  5. “But doesn’t that contradict what you said last Tuesday about [insert last Tuesday’s topic]?”

Blaming you, correcting you, challenging your qualifications and knowledge are just some of the ways that adult learners may criticize you.  It is really important though to stay professional and try to find the truth in what they are saying and learn from it.  Certainly there are adult learners out there who will not accept responsibility for their actions and others who have nasty intentions or who love drama but there are others with valid concerns and feedback that need to be heard.

How to Respond to Critical Feedback from an Adult Learner

  1. Resist the urge to get defensive – stay calm
  2. Go into discovery – ask questions
  3. Find a point of agreement – there is always some truth
  4. Apologize – accept responsibility with grace and see your part in any problem
  5. Make amends – and spell out what you plan to do as prevention or cure

But you say, “I am not always the one at fault here.  Sometimes my students are clearly off base.  Why should I always be the one to apologize and make amends?”.  My simple answer (in a tough love sort of way) is because you are the professional and you are open to feedback and because you are a bigger person.  Is it better to be right or professional?  Is it better to gain the trust and respect from a learner or be the authority?

Caution, the answer is the trust and respect thing, just in case you thought it was authority.  Why?  Because authority tends to be fleeting on most subjects unless you are absolutely 100% on top of any new developments and emerging trends in the topic, I’d suggest you be open to learning from fresh new perspectives, trends and developments. Eat some humble pie if you need to.  Certainly you need to be knowledgeable about the subject you are teaching to be credible but there is a difference between confidence and arrogance.

Hopefully criticisms will be few and far between and you’ll mostly see positive feedback.  Don’t let a few negative comments overshadow many, many more positive comments.  You can’t please everyone but at the same time you can be open to improvements to become the best teacher you can be.  Happy teaching!

Copyright © 2013 Joni Rose of Career Minded Consulting Services. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized use will constitute an infringement of copyright. Please contact Joni Rose for reprint permission. 

Have you experienced other criticisms that were tough to handle?  Do you have other suggestions for how best to receive feedback?  Please add your comments below.

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