Feedback can be a difficult business. When it is used in the right way, it can be one of the most effective strategies to improve learning, according to The Sutton Trust. But research also suggests that, if handled badly, it can do more harm than good.
We all want our feedback to be encouraging and constructive, yet it can be misinterpreted as judgement and criticism. So how you save yourself – and your students – from potentially damaging comments?
Don’t go overboard
When a student has repeatedly struggled, it is tempting – and natural – to want to heap lots of praise on them when they achieve some level of success, no matter how small it is. But this can actually do more harm than good. For starters, insincere praise is easy to detect and can be massively off-putting. What’s more, too much praise can convey a sense of low expectation and, as a result, can be demotivating.
Teenagers care a lot about what their peers think of them. Constructive feedback given in front of others, even if it is well-intended, can be read as a public attack on them and their ability. This can lead to students developing a fear of failureand putting up a front.
One way to overcome this is what author Doug Lemov calls private individual correction. This limits the attention drawn to the feedback while getting the message across clearly. This is similar to the technique he calls the whisper correction – the feedback technically takes place in public, but the pitch and tone of voice is designed to be heard only by the individual receiving it.
It is far better to focus your feedback on a student’s individual development and improvement rather than comparing them to their classmates (or anyone else, for that matter). A recent study found that being positively compared to others can lead to narcissistic behaviour. This sort of comparison can also reduce motivation and result in lower confidence, emotional control, academic performance and increased anxiety.
When we say something is “good”, we often assume that people will know exactly what about it was good. This is not always the case – especially when you’re talking to teenagers, who, as a result of their brain restructuring, can find it harder to understand other people’s perspectives and thought processes. The more detailed and specific your feedback is, the better, to remove any ambiguity. Rather than “good work”, say “The way you did X was really good.”
Focus on process, not natural ability
Praising effort instead of intelligence increases intrinsic motivation and provides a template for students to follow next time. Researchers have found that the type of praise children receive drives the type of feedback they seek out themselves. In this study, 86% of children who had been praised for their natural ability asked for information about how their peers did on the same task. Only 23% of children who had been praised for effort asked for this type of feedback, with the vast majority of them asking for feedback about how they could do better.
Combine open and closed questions
The problem with closed questions – “Were you nervous before the exam?” – is that if the answer is no, the conversation can grind to a halt. You may find out that the student wasn’t nervous, but you won’t find out what they were actually feeling (sad, angry, not bothered, tired and so on). Open questions – “How were you feeling in the morning of the exam?” – encourage pupils to tell their stories and develop ownership of the situation.
But you should aim for a combination of open and closed questions in your feedback, along with statements. Closed statements are useful for conveying key information and keeping the conversation focused.
End with clear action points
This is one of the key points from the What Makes Great Teaching report. Any feedback that doesn’t lead to a change in behaviour change is redundant – there must be a point to it. What do you want them to do differently? What are they going to do after the conversation to improve? The more detailed and specific the action points, the better.
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