Bradley Busch is an HCPC registered Psychologist and a partner at InnerDrive, developing student mindsets in schools and designing and delivering teacher CPD. Bradley has become one of the leading experts on how psychological research can best help students and teachers. He writes regularly for The Guardian and works with athletes from Team GB.
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. 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 failure and putting up a front.
So how can you save yourself – and your students – from potentially damaging comments?
1. 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.
2. Teach students how to ask for and receive feedback better
Good feedback is not just about the person giving it. We can teach students how to ask for feedback better (not waiting to the last minute and asking closed questions for example), as well as how to receive it better (i.e. paying full attention and asking good questions to find out more information). By sharing the responsibility of feedback, we can help develop more independent learners.
3. Don’t compare
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.
4. Be specific
When we say something is “good”, we often assume that people will know exactly what about it was good. 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.”
5. Focus on process, not natural ability
Praising effort instead of intelligence can help students develop a growth mindset 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.
6. End with clear action points
This is one of the key points from The Sutton Trust's 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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