Giving students feedback


How do you give feedback that challenges students to do and be their best while also boosting, not undermining, their self-confidence and motivation? Experienced teachers have lots of strategies that they use. But underneath all the techniques lies a critical factor: The relational ways teachers interact with students.

Several years ago, a team of researchers led by David Scott Yeager conducted an experiment in a middle school that highlighted the importance of trust. First, the social studies teachers assigned students to write an essay about a personal hero. When they turned it in, the teachers gave their regular, high-quality feedback.

Then the researchers randomly placed one of two notes (written by the teacher) on each essay. One gave an encouraging message: “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations, and I know that you can reach them.” The other had a neutral message: “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper.”

The essays were then given back to students, and they were given the option of revising their essay based on the feedback. Students who received the “high expectations” note were significantly more likely to revise their essays than those who received the neutral note. (And remember, the notes were randomly assigned.)

This experiment underscored the importance of high trust and expectations in teacher-student relationships as foundational to how students receive feedback.

Insights from Research

Giving effective feedback that pushes students to learn and grow has been the subject of research for many years. Recently, for example, scholars such as Carol Dweck have helpfully emphasized effective strategies for praising students by emphasizing effort more than performance.

Perhaps more challenging is to know what to do when students’ work or behavior is below expectations. Some educators, parents and others have resorted to praising mediocre work in an effort to boost self-esteem. Yet that approach often backfires; students see through it, and it even reinforces their preconceptions that they cannot excel.

These research insights offer starting points for challenging students to reach toward their aspirations through feedback that grows out of strong teacher-student relationships.

When Teachers Give Feedback, Are Students Listening?

Giving feedback is clearly important for learning and achieving goals. But students have to use the feedback in order for it to help them learn and grow. Researchers have identified three key factors that make it more likely that students will internalize feedback:

  1. Students view the source of feedback as trustworthy and credible. Teachers with experience in the content matter, for instance, might be viewed as a more credible source of feedback on a research paper than peers. However, if they are unfair or inconsistent in their feedback, that would undermine their trustworthiness.
  2. Students believe they have a voice and power. If a teacher holds most of the power in relationships with students, the process of receiving feedback becomes a passive act, and students don’t fully engage.
  3. Students are more likely to use feedback if teachers convey positivity and acceptance. Students need to know that the feedback is offered because the teacher believes in them and cares about them. Neutral or negative dynamics undermine any desire to pay attention to the feedback.

Matching Feedback to Students’ Progress

Feedback works best when it is clear and fits with students’ own progress. It must be clear on the goals of the task, what progress has been made so far, and what students need to do to next. For example, just asking students to “do more” or “do better” does little to guide students to identify the next steps they need to take to learn and improve.

Teachers can strengthen the effectiveness of their feedback in a variety of ways:

  • Use assessments as feedback for your teaching practice. Do students’ answers show that the concept needs to be re-taught? (Too often, assessments are designed as a snapshot in time and do not provide effective feedback for improvement.)
  • Create a classroom environment that encourages students to share their mistakes and seek feedback.
  • Match feedback to the ways students receive it best. For example, do your students receive feedback better when it is publicly or privately given?
  • Provide feedback that shows what students can do to improve.

Trust: The Foundation of Effective Feedback

The level of trust between students and teachers plays a critical role in student motivation and learning. If students trust the person offering critical feedback, they’re more likely to view the feedback as motivated by a desire to help them improve. If they don’t trust the source, they will view it very differently and dismiss it as biased.

This dynamic is more complicated when students are already mistrustful based on past experience. If they are subject to stereotypes based on their race, gender or other personal quality, they may mistrust the intent of the person giving feedback based on past experiences and norms in the school or community.

For example, African American students may wonder, researchers suggest, if a teacher’s feedback is “genuine desire to help or a bias against their racial or ethnic group.” If past experience suggests that criticism is unfair or based on bias, students may infer negative motives behind ambiguous feedback.

Similarly, students who have experienced hostile feedback in the past will likely have their guard up about the motives behind what they see as hostile criticism. As researchers conclude, “Mistrust can lead people to view critical feedback as a sign of the evaluator’s indifference, antipathy or bias, leading them to dismiss rather than accept it.”

Overcoming these challenges requires the following when offering critical feedback:

  1. Emphasize that the feedback is based on the teacher’s high standards.
  2. Demonstrate that the teacher believes the student can reach those standards.
  3. Provide substantive feedback that guides the student toward reaching the standard or expectation.
  4. Emphasize the effort that drove the improvement when providing later feedback. When students have these positive experiences of improving after receiving critical feedback, they can begin changing how they will interpret future feedback, based on the trust that is formed through these intentional practices.

Learning from Athletes

The way athletes learn from their mistakes and improve has implications for the classroom as well. When athletes work to improve their abilities, they encounter setbacks and failures. Coaches encourage athletes to learn from these mistakes while they practice. If an athlete misses the mark, they understand it is a natural step in improvement.

Both negative and positive experiences provide opportunities for growth in students, too. Students need encouragement that failures are not meant to be the end of the learning process. Instead, they are important lessons on changing course for improvement. Students should reflect on mistakes and successes like athletes, understanding that both outcomes give feedback on what can be practiced next.



Four Strategies to Guide Student Learning

Guiding students in their own learning involves shifting responsibility for learning to the student while also providing the scaffolding needed to notice mistakes and probe for learning. After observing how effective teachers guided students’ learning, researchers identified a sequence of four strategies to guide student learning that are “fairly systematic, yet not scripted”:

1. Ask Questions to Check for Understanding:

  • Use who, what, when, where, why and how questions to tap previously taught concepts or skills to address misconceptions.
  • Probe with follow-up and clarifying questions which help students elaborate on their answers.
  • Challenge students to bring together information from different places (such as past and present) to create new understanding.
  • Ask students to formulate a problem-solving technique or rule of thumb based on what they know.
  • Invite students to use what they’ve learned to speculate or create a new insight.

2. Prompt When Students Are Confused

  • • Prompt for background knowledge that students may not think about immediately.
  • Prompt for process or procedural knowledge, such as reminding students of a checklist.
  • Prompt for models, templates or frames, such as sharing a sample text to understand an author’s writing style.
  • Reflective prompts that get students thinking about their own thinking processes. For example: What am I trying to accomplish? What strategies am I using? How well am I using the strategies? What else could I do?

3. Cue Students When They Miss Something

  • Draw students’ attention to visual cues (such as illustrations, photographs, bold-faced words, diagrams or blinking icons) that prompt them to rethink their answers.
  • Offer verbal cues, such as: “Watch out! This is a tricky word. Pay attention to all the parts.”
  • Making gestures that focus students’ attention (such as pointing to a map).
  • Give physical cues, such as touching a student’s shoulder to shift the student’s gaze.
  • Create environmental cues, such as displays that remind students of key information.

4. Model and Give Direct Explanations

Sometimes the other strategies don’t lead to student understanding. In those cases, teachers shift to sharing their knowledge in these ways to ensure understanding:

  • Model how the task could be completed or the strategy could be applied.
  • Use “think-alouds” to reveal how the teacher thinks about the topic.


Jostens partnered with Search Institute to provide research-based data and advice for dealing with common school challenges. Over the past 30 years, Search Institute has studied the strengths and difficulties in the lives of more than five million middle and high school youth across the country and around the world to understand what kids need in order to succeed. Like Jostens Renaissance, Search Institute focuses on young people’s strengths, rather than emphasizing their problems or deficiencies. Visit to learn more.

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