Every day I deliver a great amount of information to students and in every lesson I offer many messages of feedback. All of us get feedback from various sources and at the end of my work day, I think the art of my craft is to provide a positive learning environment enriched with motivational and quality comments to students. Over the years, as both a teacher and coach, I have spent much time studying, reflecting, and modifying how I deliver criticism to the students regarding their learning. What I’ve learned is that the best practices of feedback in any learning environment can be used to foster what is referred to in psychology circles as a growth mindset.
According to Stanford professor Dr. Carol Dweck, “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment”. Furthermore, her research tells us to avoid feedback related to intelligence as that promotes a fixed mindset that intelligence is static and cannot be enhanced over time.
In my classroom, this means I avoid comments that refer to their intelligence such as “smart question” and instead I focus on the process of learning such as, “That was a great question because you were creative and you thought beyond the presented information.” In other words, I try to provide feedback about how to think about learning not just about the learner. Honestly, I routinely think to myself “elaborate your feedback” when I respond to questions.
There are many parallels between effective goal setting and providing proper feedback. For instance, just like quality goals, the feedback should always be specific. Feedback such as, “Great job, Bobby Jo” is specific to that person, but doesn’t really help them learn. There must be specific, constructive details included for learning to occur. Instead, I should say, “Great job, Bobby Jo as you fully explained your thinking on that problem and argued your stance clearly and concisely.” I actually think of this type of feedback quite a bit when I coach. It is so tempting to simply say, “great throw” however, I have to provide specific examples to my athletes as to why it was good so that they can duplicate this action in the future.
Next, as mentioned earlier Dr. Carol Dweck, feedback to students should be process oriented not product oriented, however, I’ve learned that this feedback shouldn’t necessarily be effort based. Just this week I went back and crossed out a comment I wrote at the top of a near perfect test stating, “Outstanding effort and achievement.” The problem with that is that I have no idea, in reality, how much effort that particular student gave to prepare for that test. If they gave very little effort to prepare I didn’t want to confirm that that minimal effort was the right quantity. It may not be in the future. Instead I want to provide feedback related to the knowns not the unknowns. What I did know is that they were able to apply economic concepts consistently through the test. I avoid comments related to working harder as smarter studying is different than more studying.
Another great lesson regarding feedback came from a learning and the brain expert, Dr.JoAnn Deak. Years ago, I heard her speak and she discussed the importance of righting the wrong of feedback that may have hurt others. I’m far from perfect, and sometimes even the best feedback can hurt a student’s feelings. Her advice, related to our brain chemistry, is that if/when we hurt others, we have to “circle back” as quickly as possible (that day) to right our wrongs. For instance, if I sense a student turned off their learning based on something I said, I must find time to connect with that student to make sure they know I care for them and that they understood what I meant. Circling back really helps and shows my students I care about them and their feelings.
This connects to another idea regarding feedback, it must be timely. Just like circling back requires a timely response, feedback also has to be performed in an adequate window of time. If my students take a test or complete a project I have to return that learning exercise with comments in a reasonable time. Ideally, I let students grade quizzes immediately in class so that they get that feedback. I figure they are most motivated at that time and they can best explain their thinking regarding questions they got wrong.
As stated, feedback has to foster a growth mindset, must be process oriented, non-harmful, specific, and timely, but the most meaningful feedback comes from those that we know care about us. I can create wonderful moments of learning, but if my students doubt I care about them as individuals I’ll never achieve my teaching objectives. Outside of the classroom, I think the lessons regarding feedback are the same. I hope this insight into my thinking as a teacher helps you provide better feedback in what you do as well. If not, I’m always open to your feedback.