The power of positive meaningful feedback on student success

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Receiving feedback is an integral part of learning. Constructive feedback helps students learn from their mistakes. Errors should be embraced, not feared. However, I think we should not forget the power of positive meaningful feedback. Students should not only hear about errors, they need to know where they stand regarding their knowledge on concepts, whether there were improvements in their effort and where they stand in terms of the goals for that topic or assignment. Generic comments such as "great work" or "keep up the hard work" are positive, but not meaningful. Positive feedback helps students build their confidence and improves their positive self-talk. Meaningful feedback provides building blocks to help students become self-regulated learners and builds their confidence. Below, you will find some ideas for students of various ages. 

Elementary school - positivity journals.

In young children, I have seen first hand how receiving positive feedback can improve their confidence. With younger students, feedback might not solely focus on academics. At such a young age, we want to build their academic confidence and motivation to learn. You can give them feedback on your observations of their effort, persistence, self-efficacy, helpfulness, independence, curiosity, intrigue, enthusiasm, positive attitude etc. I had the pleasure of working with a young girl who was struggling to pass grade 2. Her parents had been told that she needed to repeat her grade. She had received many hours of tutoring in all subjects but to no avail. After meeting her during a private Curious Neuron session, it was clear to me that she had not only lost all motivation with regards to school (her parents struggled greatly to get her to do her homework) but that her academic confidence had diminished. All she spoke of was the negative feedback she was getting throughout her day from both home and school... "why didn't you do well on this exam, you know this material!" or "you need to focus and stop giving up".

I had her start a "positivity journal" which required her to write or draw something positive about herself every day (for instance, whether she had been kind to a friend that day, helped someone out, perhaps did she not give up at a task at home or school etc.). I wanted her to see that there she had many positive qualities. Her parents also wrote in this journal every night.

More importantly, her teacher started a positivity journal for her as well and almost each afternoon, her teacher wrote a small phrase of meaningful encouragement/feedback about her day such as:

  1. I was very proud of you for helping a student out when they didn't understand.

  2. You were very focused in class this morning!

  3. You tried very hard on today's assessment and you didn't give up even if it was challenging!

  4. You improved your writing skills, you no longer forget your accent on the word _____.

  5. You had all your materials ready today without me having to ask you many times.

Within only 2 weeks this students attitude towards school improved. The school was no longer "against her" as she worded it to me. This feeling went away merely because of the time her teacher took to give her positive meaningful feedback about her day.  Although she was still struggling with academics, she was trying harder and no longer giving up quickly. Homework was no longer a struggle. Interestingly, as the weeks went by, her grades began to improve! Not only did she pass grade 2, she now shows interest, motivation, confidence and has a positive attitude towards school!!  

High school and university - feedback on assignments and exams.

With older students teacher's are more likely to use assignments and exams to deliver their feedback. Feedback, is also be given orally throughout the school day, however, some studies have suggested that "64% of students prefer to be praised quietly and privately", which is why assignments and tests can be a better choice for feedback (Hattie and Timperley). 

Some suggest that feedback should not focus on acknowledging achievements, but rather on "recognizing the effort invested, regardless of the outcome" (Lizzio and Wilson. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 2008). Another group of authors (Hattie and Timperley. Review of Educational Research, 2007) defined feedback as "information provided by an agent (e.g., teacher, peer, parent) regarding aspects of one’s performance or understanding". These authors stress that "a critical aspect of feedback is the information given to students about the attainment of learning goals related to the task or performance". A framework proposed by these authors suggests that effective feedback must answer where they stand in terms of the goals the student is trying to attain, what progress is being made toward the goal and what activities need to be undertaken to make better progress. 

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Positive feedback can have a huge impact on a students perception of themselves and can consequently influence their effort and grades. A study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology (Mega et al 2014), highlighted the strong influence of emotions on both a student's motivation and self-regulated learning. Interestingly, the more often a student felt "joy", "enjoyment" and "pride" in the academic setting, the more likely they were to take better notes, adequately plan their study time, to set challenging goals and the greater their confidence became in their own intelligence.

Final thoughts...

During school workshops, teachers will often ask me how to motivate students. We talk about the importance of intrinsic motivation, where a student motivates themselves to do well on an exam rather than looking for an external incentive (a star or reward from parents). It is incumbent on teachers, parents and anyone of authority that is part of a students environment to help the student build this motivation and this can be done, in part, through positive meaningful feedback. Focus on the goals of a unit, the students knowledge, understanding and effort. It is clear that this can't be done for each student every day, however, keep an eye out for the student who seems to be struggling, yet your gut tells you they know their material well. Perhaps this student is being limited by their negative self-talk during exams and needs to boost their academic confidence. 

As a parent of a toddler, I often keep this in mind as well. We are quick to tell our children what not to do and often forget to praise them for the little accomplishments. While my daughter is drawing, I avoid comments such as "good job" and comment on her choice of color or improvements on her shapes due to practice for instance. Positive meaningful feedback is what builds their confidence. Even as adults, these small comments, as I am sure you have also experienced in your life, can have huge impacts on how we think of ourselves. 

Please share your experiences with us along with any tips to help out other teachers! Comment section is below. 

Stay Curious!

Cindy Hovington, PhD

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