Bouncing Back: 3 Key Tips to Understand and use Feedback to your Advantage

On 12 May 2016, La Trobe Law School ran the fourth 101 Law Skills Workshop of 2016. Organised throughout the semester, these workshops aim to sharpen your legal and professional skills and provide you with some handy tips for your law school career.

1. Is understanding feedback a legal skill?

Understanding feedback is a skill that is really crucial to your success and your wellbeing at law school, but it’s not something that we usually talk about as a legal skill. Law school can be (and can feel like) a competitive place – there is a lot of pressure to do well, and as typically high-achieving students, law students tend to put a lot of pressure on themselves. In those circumstances, feedback can feel like a ‘verdict’ being delivered by the judge. Being able to understand feedback and use it as a tool to improve your skills will be enormously helpful – not just during law school, but also in your later legal career.

2. It’s not you.

Feedback from a teacher can seem impersonal, when you might have the feeling that your effort was personal, and meaningful. Submitting your work for assessment can feel like you are making yourself vulnerable, without having this reciprocated by your teacher – they just sit with a red pen, dispensing grades and comments. Their ego or self-worth isn’t on the line like yours is. That can contribute to feedback being hurtful or feeling unfair.

A common way of perceiving feedback is as a measure of intelligence or innate capacity – in other words, feedback is expected as a measurement of some innate, fixed, and internal quality that is personal and impossible to change. This attitude is more likely to make feedback feel like something soul-destroying, rather than useful. An alternative view is that feedback is an indicator of effort, and a tool for developing a learned skill. Skills and abilities are built up and improved over time.

3. Check your goals; make feedback useful.

Even after you leave law school, your legal skills will keep evolving as you start work and you sharpen your abilities in different environments. It is easy to become extrinsically motivated while studying at university – being more concerned about marks and grades, and losing sight of the bigger picture. But try to keep in mind why you’re at law school in the first place, and the larger goals you are aiming to achieve. From this bigger view, feedback (even the negative kind) can be useful, because it helps you to know how you are going on the path to building your legal skills for the future.

In terms of practical advice, one important way of making feedback meaningful – understanding it and using it – is to really pay attention to examples of how a particular kind of assessment can be done well. This can equip you to look critically at your own work (where do your strengths lie? What are your weaknesses?), and give you a goal to work towards. If your teacher doesn’t already provide such samples, be proactive and ask for them.

It’s important to see feedback as an ongoing conversation between students and teachers, and that, if provided and received in the right ways, it can be immensely helpful. It may be tempting to put feedback behind you – to dismiss it as ‘unlucky’ and hope for a different outcome next time. But you can only learn, develop and grow throughout law school by taking on the feedback given to you, understanding its purpose and using it to improve your skills for your next assessment, and beyond.

As Confucius said, our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall. Although he never went to law school, this could be a good motto for law students to keep in mind throughout their law school career.

La Trobe