August 26th, 2010

Feedback: Negative, Positive or Both?


“Feedback by nature must be negative to an extent if it is to be helpful in improving performance. Much of the feedback that instructors give on assignments is to specifically point out the shortcomings of a student’s work and motivate the student toward improvement. Such feedback is intended to be received as ‘constructive criticism.’ However, although students may say they value feedback in general, when it is about their own performance and by extension themselves, the impact on self-esteem may provoke a negative reaction.” (p. 174)

This quote appears in a study that explored how much feedback instructors should give students and whether giving too much might be deleterious.

I do take issue with the quote. Students, teachers, indeed anyone can improve with positive feedback, too. Positive feedback tells you what you are doing right or what works. If you know that, you can do more of it. It is true that you won’t improve as much if you only get positive feedback. You also need to know what isn’t working or could be done more effectively.

It seems to me what works best for students (and teachers, for that matter) is a balance of positive and negative feedback. First and foremost that balance ought to reflect the overall quality of the performance, presentation, or whatever has been completed. If the work was mostly not very good, the feedback should reflect that. But very few things are completely wrong or without anything worthy of a positive comment, although I have read some student papers that come pretty close.

The balance of feedback also needs to respond to what the teacher knows of the learning needs of the student. Does he need a sharp stick? Can he handle it? Does she need encouragement? What two or three things most need work?

Some instructors do err on the side of providing too much negative feedback. They don’t seem to think they’ve done a good job grading if they haven’t pointed out everything that is wrong with the completed work. And sometimes the feedback isn’t always framed as constructively as it might be—it’s excessively judgmental and focuses on the person rather than the performance. So, negative feedback can discourage a student, engender anger, and not produce the desired results. But these aren’t inherent flaws that should prevent instructors from providing feedback about the problems.

Providing feedback that promotes learning is a time-consuming and intellectually challenging task. But it doesn’t have to be only negative if students are to improve. Negative feedback, when balanced with positive input, can be delivered without injury to self-esteem.

Reference: Ackerman, D. S. and Gross, B. L. (2010). Instructor feedback: How much to students really want? Journal of Marketing Education, 32 (2), 172-181.

  • Elizabeth Templeton

    Thanks for this important post.

    MANY years ago I was a writing volunteer in my town's high school English department. The story of writing volunteers is too long, but our job was to review and comment on not-yet-seen-by-the-teacher student writing. We were trained, and the first training principle was "FIRST, find three good things to say". With some 8th grade writers, that was darned hard, but we did it. That activity, done first, put us in a better place when it came to the "negative feedback". That training principle was "SECOND, focus on the three most important improvements." Improvements, not errors.

    My current job involves supervising and supporting adjunct faculty in two online master's programs. The two training principles I learned have stood the test of time. They work just as well for papers submitted by adult learners as those submitted by teenagers. They've helped some adjuncts temper their tendencies to make papers "bleed red ink". It's helped some adjuncts realize that, for the really good writers, suggestions for improvement don't need to have a negative tone.

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