Directness in Feedback

I’m a big fan of giving detailed constructive feedback on students’ work. As far as I’m concerned, feedback, both positive and negative, is essential for learning to happen. I try to think carefully about how I phrase my feedback to students so that they are encouraged to improve further, and can use it to move forward and progress in their learning. Occasionally, though, I read a piece of work that generates such a strong reaction in me that I simply write down my undiluted opinion. Of course, if the reaction was positive, this means the student is showered with undiluted praise. But sometimes the reaction is negative and I write things like this:


I actually sent this picture to a colleague and asked, “too harsh?”  It made me stop and think.

As teachers, we all know that feedback should be clear, specific, and honest. I’m a proficient user of the ‘feedback sandwich’. Usually.  But in the case above, it seems that “being clear and honest” means that there is no ‘bread’ in my ‘sandwich’. It is very direct. I wonder how the student will react?

From previous chats with students and a few informal surveys, I’ve noticed that students often actually prefer to have feedback worded rather directly, and they are not put off by what some of us might perceive as pretty harsh directness.  Especially for EFL students, beating about the bush, and phrasing things cautiously and politely actually confuses the message. In fact, some students have reported extreme misunderstandings where their teacher had expressed criticism so politely and gently that the student actually perceived it as praise! I showed the photo above to friends of mine who are also students and non-native English speakers, and their response also echoed that of my own students:

If it’s the truth, it has to be said, and it’s better to be direct so that the message cannot be misunderstood.

Still, I started thinking about how I would feel. Depending on how much effort I had actually put in to the piece of work, I’d probably be quite upset to receive feedback like in the photo. Not just because it’s negative, but rather because it only describes the problem and doesn’t really encourage me to work on improving. It might give me the feeling that there’s no hope of ever passing this class, and so I might as well give up now. And that is NOT how I would like my students to feel!

So what am I going to change when giving feedback? How about some tips for us all…

1) Be clear and direct so that praise and constructive criticism are perceived as such.

2) Be generous (but not over-generous) with praise, even for small improvements or minor elements that have been done well.

3) Be specific with explanations of the problems, and prioritise these.

4) Give specific advice for how these problems can be improved.

5) Encourage some response from students regarding the feedback they’ve been given. This will (hopefully!) encourage them to engage with the feedback, and also give an indication of how it has been perceived and used.

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