What is good feedback?

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We suck at giving constructive feedback. People tend to either believe constructive means “fixing mistakes” only or only giving nice compliments. Good feedback is neither, good feedback helps people to develop independent processes to improve, it helps them find themselves and understand how to work with their own strengths and weaknesses. Good feedback is not about the structure, a compliment sandwich is useless if it looks like this:

You tried really hard!

But your grammar is bad.

You are nice.

Or this

You are good writer

You should add more commas somewhere

This is fun to read

None of that is specific and useful and while I simplified this I’ve seen feedback that looks that way and I’ve also seen feedback that is nitpicky, overly critical or vague.

We have a tendency to also think that the positive part is only for self esteem boosts but good positive feedback illuminates and teaches. People, for example, rarely give me good positive feedback because they assume I already know or don’t need to hear it. That’s not the case. I’ve learned more from the positive feedback I’ve been given that’s useful because I’m far more likely to be able to see my errors than I am to see my positives. Some people are trained to see the reverse and neither is truly helpful because we all are complete beings with both. Overly critical and nitpicky feedback also causes the person to be focused only on the negatives of their work and that’s not always helpful. Good feedback should teach them to enhance their strengths, mitigate their weaknesses and hide the work that goes into writing. The following formula works for me in most cases, unless I’m dealing with an arrogant student who has never gotten any critical feedback and needs it (or else they don’t learn anything! It’s a simple way to differentiate, give even to your brightest students feedback).

1) overarching comments about the voice and style

2) positive feedback that explains how the positive technique is used to the author’s advantage

3) negative feedback and how to move forward in improving it

4) explanation for the grade given or for my overarching thoughts

Giving good feedback up front can save you a lot of work in the long run because your students will begin to see these things for themselves and won’t need you because you have illuminated their process for them. It’s a simple way to make sure that everyone gets what they need without doing things like having leveled readings or making your slower students feel bad or your smarter students feel embarrassed. These interactions matter far more, than whether or not your classroom is pretty or whether or not you name the objective everyday. It is through this sort of dialogue that people process and grow.


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