Sometimes teachers are reluctant to give honest feedback to students who are struggling—or students who are members of underserved groups. But research has shown that certain kinds of honest feedback are critical for promoting students’ learning.
It’s very important to be sensitive while at the same giving feedback with very specific suggestions about how to improve going forward. This kind of feedback should be done in a way that shows the student you’re on their side, that you are invested in their success, and that you are a collaborator in their learning. We call this feedback for growth.
Feedback for growth is a core part of teaching—how else are students supposed to learn? But most teachers have had experiences where critical feedback did not go as well as it could have. Perhaps a student became defensive or discouraged, feeling they were being judged. This section discusses strategies for giving feedback in a way that inspires students to improve.
- Explain That You Give Critical Feedback so That Students Grow as Thinkers. When sharing critical feedback, it is important not to leave the reason for your criticism to the student’s imagination. Explain to students the reason why you are giving critical feedback is because you care about and believe in their growth as learners. For example, prior to offering more substantive feedback, a teacher might say, “I made a lot of comments on this essay because I expect you to make great strides this year as a writer, and I know that you are capable of that if we work together” (1, 2).
- Make it Specific and Actionable. The best critiques are those that are specific and actionable. Students can learn a great deal more from hearing, “this sentence does not support your thesis because…” , or “I see you subtracted X from both sides correctly, but then you forgot to…” than they can from just hearing, “this paragraph is not organized well” or “that’s not the right answer.” For more recommendations on making feedback specific, check out the Rethinking Feedback toolkit.
- Use the Power of “Yet.” Language can convey powerful expectations. One example of this is the word, “yet.” From a student’s point of view, there is a vast difference between hearing, “these problems aren’t done correctly” and hearing, “these problems aren’t done correctly, yet.” The first critique holds summative meaning, whereas the second sounds like a formative critique. Incorporating words like “yet” and “so far” into your feedback to students can be a simple way to remind them (and maybe to remind yourself) that your feedback is for growth—it is not a statement about their potential to learn.
1. Yeager, D. S., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., Brzustocki, P., Master, A., Hessert, W. T., Williams, M. E., & Cohen, G. L. (2014). Breaking the cycle of mistrust: Wise interventions to provide critical feedback across the racial divide. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 143(2), 804-824.
2. Cohen, G. L., Steele, C. M., & Ross, L. D. (1999). The mentor’s dilemma: Providing critical feedback across the racial divide. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25(10), 1302–1318.