Many people make a living offering advice on how teachers should give feedback to students or how administrators should give feedback to teachers. Unfortunately, a body of compelling theory and research raises troubling questions about much of this advice. It turns out that hearing how well we’ve done (usually from someone in a position of power) often doesn’t make us improve.
“Feedback” originally referred to a self-regulating system like a thermostat in which the output affects the input. So, in accordance with the mechanical analogy, when the word is applied to human communication, it should only refer to information: “Here is something you did that I noticed. …” When feedback is contaminated with evaluation (“Here is what I think of what you did…”), it tends to become not only less effective, but often downright damaging, both for future performance and for recipients. interest in everything they did.
For decades,that praising people when they succeed can be just as counterproductive as criticizing them when they fail. Nor is it helpful to simply change the wording or praise one thing over another (e.g. effort over ability) because the problem lies in the experience of being judged. In the 1980s, researcher Ruth Butler discovered that students often became more intrigued by a task when they received mere feedback about what they had done, while praise “didn’t even keep initial interest at its base level”. More recently, two Vanderbilt University researchers, Emily R. Fyfe and Bethany Rittle-Johnson, reported that students, especially those who were reasonably proficient, did worse in math if they had previously received praise for having successful.
What is true of the judgment inherent in praise is also true of the judgment inherent in grades. A series of meta-analyses published in 2020 by researchers at Duke University showed that substantial feedback without any grades attached was better for promoting both motivation and achievement. In fact, getting a grade was more detrimental to motivation than receiving no feedback, especially for struggling students.
If good grades are just as destructive as bad ones, it is perhaps because the most striking characteristic of a positive evaluation is not that it is positive but that it is ‘an evaluation. (One psychologist pointed out that children would eventually find even watching television distasteful if they were regularly assessed whether they were doing so.) But the central point here applies to adults as well as children, this is why teachers often bristle at having a seat administrator to judge them. What is remarkable is that some of these teachers do not hesitate to subject their students to a constant stream of assessments.
Why do ratings flip? First, because they, like other rewards, are generally perceived as controlling and people don’t like to be controlled. (Some early research has shown that praise is more likely to undermine interest when perceived as manipulation.) Second, receiving a pat on the head (an A or a “Good job!”) for doing well doing a task serves to devalue that task. ; it was reframed as a mere prerequisite for receiving a reward. Finally, evaluation creates pressure to keep up the good work, which in turn leads to risk avoidance. If the goal is to perform well, it is better to stick to what one is likely to achieve – a posture that is not exactly conducive to learning or growing.
Getting a grade was more detrimental to motivation than not receiving any feedback, especially for struggling students.
Feedback is better than evaluation, but that doesn’t mean it’s always constructive. In fact, the most comprehensive review of research, including over 600 experimental comparisons, has found that even pure feedback often has a negative effect on performance. And even when the effect is positive, its impact may be small and any resulting learning may be superficial.
So what determines if, and how useful, feedback will be?
- Hearing that you succeeded at a task, unsurprisingly, is more likely to build interest than hearing that you failed. (The supposed benefits of failure are vastly overstated.)
- Sometimes it’s obvious that your efforts have paid off: either the seed you planted germinated or it didn’t; either readers are surprised by your ending or they are not. Such feedback is less likely to reduce interest than when someone recount how well you did, which takes you away from the learning experience. Students are then less involved in What they do and more concerned about how well someone thinks they do.
- Comments are more likely to backfire when given publicly or in comparison to other people. Contrary to a popular American myth, competition tends to undermine intrinsic motivation and achievement for both winners and losers.
- Feedback works best when it is just one step in a learning process rather than a final judgement, although even the formative type is not always beneficial (particularly if based on a test).
- It matters not only how, but also why the feedback is given. If justification is experienced as manipulative (to meet someone else’s standards), it can be detrimental. The ideal scenario is for the information to be offered at the request of the recipient. In general, effective teachers and managers ask much more than they say, “How can I help?” “What do you need to know?”
One final caveat: Even research suggesting that some comments may be helpful turns out to be less reassuring than it seems due to questionable assumptions about what “helpful” means. As noted by Lorrie Shepard of the University of Coloradomost feedback studies” are based on behaviorist assumptions. Typically, outcome measures are narrowly defined [and] feedback consists of reporting the right and wrong answers. So even if feedback “works”, it can only do so on tasks of questionable value, such as storing forgettable facts in short-term memory.
With feedback, as with so much else in education, too much focus on refining a method keeps us from thinking about our purpose. And the focus should be on not only the quality of learning but also the learner experience. Hence educator Cris Tovani’s evocative confession: “I was focusing so hard on…trying to perfect the feedback… [that] I forgot to focus on the children.