Feedback is an essential component to a student’s progress. Properly done, feedback tells a student what parts of the assignment were done properly, and what parts still need to be improved in what ways (Ginsberg & Wlodkowski, 2009). Improper feedback, on the other hand, can be deleterious, resulting in confusion and a loss of competence and motivation.
Verbal feedback can be tricky. Consideration needs to be given to the student’s preferences and background (Laureate Education, 2011, Ginsberg & Wlodkowski, 2009). In some cultures, public praise creates an awkward situation for the recipient. I ran into this when I was teaching. In most of my teaching career, I worked in low socio-economic status areas. Because of racial tension caused in part by gang involvement, behavior problems were pervasive. The entire staff took part in a behavior management training seminar in which we were encouraged to actively find ways to compliment and reward students who did the right thing. This was meant to curtail inappropriate behaviors and encourage better choices.
The school developed an explicit plan including classroom and school-wide reward systems, and these were implemented immediately with disastrous results. Severe behavior issues increased rather than decreased. Students who were praised or rewarded publicly for doing something would moments later hit someone or holler obscenities at the teacher. There seemed to be a correlation between the amount of positive feedback and the severity of the resulting action. Teachers abandoned the program and the situation returned to what had been normal.
The principal contacted the program instructors and reported the results. The program instructor came back out and observed in a few classrooms before coming up with a theory: The students who were praised publicly were left in an awkward position of being viewed by their peers as a teacher’s pet. Since most students were from various minorities and most teachers were white, the praised students were being chastised by others as “race traitors.” The instructor suggested we try praising and rewarding the students privately. Whisper a compliment or leave a folded slip of paper on their desk. We were also told to use the same strategies for some corrections now and then so no one would know if the secret message were a correction or a praise. We tried that and it seemed to work at least for some students.
From that, I gained that sometimes private feedback is better than public feedback, depending on whether the student would be embarrassed by public praise or correction.
Communicating by writing can be difficult. People lose the benefit of all the proxemic and kinetic clues we give off when we speak. Humor in particular can be treacherous territory. Some jokes come off as snide comments and others are perceived as offensive. As a result, we need to be particularly careful when giving written feedback.
Our feedback needs to be worded in simple, direct terminology. This is not the time for jokes or figurative language. The need for simplicity and clarity is even more important when dealing with students whose native language is different from our own (Laureate Education, 2011, Ginsberg & Wlodkowski, 2009). Idiomatic expressions do not translate well.
As a writer, I have been involved in multiple critique groups. In a critique group, writers exchange stories and give each other feedback. At one point, I had a critique partner in Great Britain. I thought that since we both spoke English as our primary language, communication would be no problem.
What did not occur to me until later was the difference between US and UK English. There is more than just the occasional spelling quirk. I received one chapter with some rather harsh language. Since the rest of his book was a PG rating, I suggested he tone the expletives down a bit. He did not understand my concern, but fortunately, we were both even-tempered and through a series of emails sorted out the details and why the words he was using in that context were much harsher in the United States than they were in Great Britain.
From that, I gained that written communication across cultures needs to be done with care. Misunderstandings need to be solved patiently.
Difference Between Written and Verbal Feedback
Written and verbal feedback have common features such as the need for clarity, specificity, and timeliness (Ginsberg & Wlodkowski, 2009). However, frequency can be a major difference. With written feedback, constructive criticism should be given often and point out the strengths and weaknesses of the work.
Verbal feedback, however, may need to be done a little more sparingly. Ginsberg and Wlodkowski (2009) cite concerns that frequent verbal feedback, especially during a class discussion, might stifle participation because students get the idea that the instructor’s imprimatur is necessary for all opinions.
Reasons for Improper Feedback
Speaking from my own experience, I have found that giving appropriate feedback has been difficult sometimes. In addition to the examples above, I have run into other pitfalls.
When I first started teaching, I simply did not know how to give proper feedback. None of my teacher prep courses included anything useful about how to give students constructive criticism, so at first, my feedback consisted of fairly useless commentary like “Good job!” and “Try again.” I even had nifty little stamps that I could use so I did not have to write out the words.
As I gained experience, I started writing out more detailed notes to students, giving explicit advice on how to improve their work as well as highlighting examples of things done well. This led to two other problems.
First, I had parents getting irate with me because if a student mastered the fourth grade material, I would start pointing out areas to improve on the next year’s skills. Some parents believed that if their child mastered the fourth grade work, the child should then be allowed to just coast the rest of the year. My principal, however, told me to keep pushing them. This resulted in tension that I could not satisfactorily resolve.
Secondly, giving detailed feedback on each graded assignment took a lot of time. I often stayed up until two in the morning scoring papers and giving feedback, and I was not scoring every assignment the kids did. In spite of the feedback I was giving, assignments did not improve. An administrator told to stop giving detailed feedback. The students were ignoring it anyway.
So, ultimately, I think some educators give little to no useful feedback because they have not been taught how or why to do so. Others might give good feedback for a while and then stop because they are not seeing any improvement or because they encounter resistance.
Feedback is important, but it must be given with care and the student needs to be willing to receive and respond to it.
Ginsberg, M. B., & Wlodkowski, R. J. (2009). Diversity & motivation: Culturally responsive teaching in college (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (2011). Engendering Competence [Video webcast]. Retrieved from https://class.waldenu.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_4065756_1&content_id=_13502902_1#_13502965_1&courseTocLabel=Access%20Resources