Weaknesses, Challenges, Barriers and Hurdles

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away1, I used to teach classes using Problem-Based Learning and an important part of my role was to guide students through self- and peer-evaluation of group work.  We used a format called “SIR” where you identified a Strength of the student’s performance, something they needed to Improve and a suggested Remediation to make that improvement. Often, students (and teachers) would call the “area for improvement” a “weakness.” At first, I struggled to come up with what I thought were the students “weaknesses” – it just seemed so negative and judgmental.  But then one day while talking to one of my colleagues, she said that she didn’t think of the “area for improvement” as a weakness at all – it was a way to challenge yourself. An opportunity to get better at doing something.  Maybe you were functioning in a group in a certain way and it was not working – it wasn’t a “weakness,” it was an experiment and next time you’d experiment in a different way.  Maybe you’d been focusing on one aspect of group process – like sharing information that you had – but next time you want to challenge yourself to work on a different area – like drawing connections between the information that others were sharing to better inform your approach to the problem the group was tackling.  This small shift in thinking about “areas for improvement” was a monumental shift for me – it made providing feedback a much more positive experience and I had so many more possibilities on which to draw when providing feedback to groups of students!

Today I had a similar experience, where a small shift in thinking – in this case, substituting one word for another – has really opened my eyes. I was interviewing someone for an evaluation I’m working on and after asking her what her group’s strengths in working towards a certain goal were, I asked her what she saw as the barriers to achieving that goal.  In her answer, she described the “hurdles” that her team had faced.  Not barriers. Hurdles.  And it struck me that though this was just a small word change, there was a subtle, but important, distinction. Barriers keep people from progressing, but hurdles, well, you can overcome hurdles. Using the word “barrier” gives the sense that you aren’t going to get past it, while “hurdle” suggests that even though it will take work, there still an assumption you can get over the hurdle.

Just like I now think of “strengths” and “opportunities to improve” instead of “strengths” and “weaknesses,” from now on in my evaluations I’m going to ask people to talk about the things that help them progress and the hurdles – not barriers – they have faced.

  1. by which I mean, at UBC []