November 29, 2014

As we approach the end of another semester, it is common for students to turn in drafts of papers, projects, and assignments for some kind of review before the final product is due. It would be typical for a blog, then, to note something like the top 10 or top 5 ways to promote student development through feedback that both instructs and motivates. However, I have recently read an interesting study that has reduced the top 10 or 5 list to only 1 piece of feedback just 19 words long: “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.”

What was studied? While the study was conducted in a middle-school setting, the effects are described as “magical” – particularly on students from underrepresented groups. It’s not too much of a stretch to think there will be a similar effect on our Berkeley students – see, for example, work done by our own Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost, Claude Steele (19971995) and Psychology professor, Rudy Mendoza-Denton (2002). In short, teachers provided written feedback as they normally would. This, of course, includes suggestions for improvement and any words of encouragement. Here’s how the study authors described the next phase of the research:

Once teachers wrote criticism on students’ first drafts, they provided the essays to the researchers. To deliver the experimental manipulation, the researchers appended a note to each essay. The teachers were not present for this stage of the study. Students were randomly assigned to receive one of two  notes on their essay.The wise feedback treatment note stated, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you  can reach them.” By contrast, the placebo control note stated, “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper.” In all other  respects, the notes were identical. (Yeager, et al., 2014)

The results? An overwhelming number of students who received the wise feedback, particularly students from underrepresented groups, revised their essays with substantial effort. Far fewer students reacted the same way when receiving the placebo control note.

What’s the takeaway? We need to think about feedback as more than a transactional way to tell our students what is correct vs. incorrect, and what needs work vs. what is done well. Instead, feedback is a tool that can be used to instruct and motivate our students. When done well, it has the capacity to transform the way in which a student engages with a course and discipline. Going beyond the prescriptive note highlighted in the study, we should strive to provide feedback to students that conveys high expectations, that we believe those expectations can be achieved by the student, and that each student is included as part of the classroom culture in which we all hold each other accountable to those high expectations.

References

Yeager, D. S., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., Brzustoski, P., Master, A., ... & Cohen, G. L. (2014). Breaking the cycle of mistrust: Wise interventions to provide critical feedback across the racial divide. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General143(2), 804.