What Kind of Feedback Is Most Helpful to Students?

(David Streight) April 2020

Whether we’re face to face in the classroom or working remotely with a digital connection, teachers are giving students feedback. In our view at Heart of Character, the best feedback we can give is feedback that a) helps them improve their performance and b) motivates them to want even better performance going forward.

We know that the best motivation is the kind that feels as if it comes from inside, thus we want to foster our students’ sense of autonomy. And a major focus of our teaching is fostering their competence. Given this, feedback is best when:

  • it feels like information, rather than a mandate: information to help us become more competent and more confident. This is in contrast to feedback that feels as if someone is trying to push us toward something for their own purposes rather than ours; and
  • it focuses on the positive aspects of performance rather than the negative.

We know from research that a focus on what went wrong is less motivating than feedback that focuses on what went well. Yes, sometimes what went wrong needs to be mentioned in order to clarify a point. So be it. But after making that point, the most motivating feedback will offer information on what went right (and perhaps why it went right, if appropriate).

The most powerful component of effective feedback, however, is that unspoken element that guides how a student perceives what lies behind the feedback. Feedback that is perceived by a student as “My teacher is telling me this because she wants to help me become more competent in this area” is powerful and motivating. Feedback that is perceived as “My teacher is telling me what to do (or how to do something) for reasons I don’t understand other than that he wants me to do it his way,” does not support the student’s autonomy, and thus it does not motivate a child to want a better performance in the future.

One kind of feedback takes just the same amount of time as the other. But what a difference each makes!

Categories: self-determination