Imagine you’re a student. You study hard, work to put new knowledge into practice, and submit your assignment for review. Then, after anxiously awaiting feedback from your instructor, you get short comments like “needs work,” “way to go,” or “I wish you’d done this differently.”
Even worse, maybe you don’t get any feedback—only a letter grade that doesn’t tell you what you did well or where you need to improve. Now imagine this is your experience with as many as six different professors each semester for four years. Are you feeling discouraged yet?
Understanding the power of positive feedback for student success, Dr. Debra Lively, Professor of Teacher Education at Saginaw Valley State University, suggests a way to give feedback that helps students grow in their field or discipline, and even feel uplifted in the process.
According to Dr. Lively, being an effective teacher means challenging students and asking them to stretch in ways they aren’t used to. But asking a student to stretch can be interpreted as criticism and might even stunt potential growth. So how can you give feedback in a positive way and still help students improve?
It begins with identifying judgmental versus non-judgmental statements and questions—or praise versus encouragement.
Dr. Lively explains, “Encouragement is a form of praise, but it’s really being more thoughtful. For example, praise, in my opinion, can be more general. It’s more evaluative. It’s comparing, and oftentimes, it can attribute success to just luck or ease of the task. It also focuses on what the evaluator thinks. It’s often paired with judgment. It becomes expected, and the student is then performing what you want. But encouragement, on the other hand, tends to be more non-judgmental. It helps the teacher become more self-motivated and helps me develop a relationship with them, because for them to really think critically, they have to develop trust and they have to be able to bond with me.”
As an instructor, you’re not required to offer a “good job” or “way to go” after every assignment. It’s more effective to use encouragement as a way to empower students to critically reflect on their own performance. Think about the questions you pose to students. Dr. Lively says the most impactful questions are:
When you speak with students about their performance, Dr. Lively suggests you avoid asking, “Why did you do it that way?” and instead rephrase the question to ask, “I wonder what you might do differently next time?”
This kind of phrasing avoids judgment while challenging the student to dig deeper into their own habits and empowering them to try something new. Using questions like these can also help instructors earn the trust of their students and create a bond that improves learning outcomes.
Beyond using the right language and asking the right questions when giving feedback to students, it’s also important to use tools that encourage reflective practice. One of the most effective tools for feedback and self-reflection is video assessment software.
At SVSU, Dr. Lively and her colleagues in the College of Education use GoReact. Describing its effectiveness in helping students see and reflect on their own performance, she shared the story of a student who excelled in methods courses but was falling flat during student teaching:
“I was in the classroom observing her, and I’m watching her read a story out loud to these little kids, and it was horrible. I mean, she was reading without inflection, she didn’t really have good rhythm … and the kids weren’t paying attention. When she was done, we went out in a little area where we could look at the video, and I said to her, ‘OK, as you look at your video, just tell me what you see.’ It wasn’t even 10 or 15 seconds into the video that she said ‘Is that me? Is that how I look? I have no expression. No wonder the kids’ attention is so poor.’ She made that discovery on her own and started practicing lessons in the mirror. Now, did she go from here to way over there? No. But did she make progress? Absolutely. And she made the progress based on her own thinking, not because I told her something.”
Even if you need to give negative feedback, you can frame it in a positive way to help students get the most from your guidance and coaching. And, with video, you can amplify reflective practice by giving every student an opportunity to see and evaluate their own performance.