More than twenty years after Dr. Carol Dweck initiated her groundbreaking research on the power of mindsets, her findings have influenced a growing conversation about resilience, perseverance, and grit as determinants of student success. Her derivatives of attribution theory, growth mindset versus fixed mindset, have been used to emphasize the potency of words both in their intent as well as their consequences. Educators today commonly acknowledge the advisability of praising students for efforts and choices (things they can control) rather than for innate intelligence or talent (things they cannot control).
Cognizant of the importance of the kind of feedback they give to students, educators often voice concern about what constitutes an appropriate response. Teachers tell me, “I know I should be concentrating on my students’ efforts and their choices, but I am running out of different ways to praise just those two things. I can’t think of enough ways to applaud their strategies, their sustained efforts, and the selections they make.” My answer is pretty simple: “Stop applauding.”
I don’t mean that as a flippant answer to a serious question, but I worry that we have gone overboard with the stars, stickers, certificates, and affirmations that are bestowed on learners for the most inconsequential achievements. I am afraid that many students are more concerned with obtaining the teacher’s approving praise than on the significance of learning a new skill or making incremental progress towards a goal. Often the term feedback is used to describe scores, value judgments, or labels rather than something that actually helps the student get better.
Rather than allowing time for student reflection, well-meaning adults often fill the moments with unnecessary and sometimes counterproductive words. The best opportunity for improvement usually occurs when a student is guided through an introspective examination of how and why a particular endeavor was successful or not. So I advise adults who want to help students develop a growth mindset to think about these alternatives to acclamation.
Three Keys to Effective Feedback:
1. Give the students undivided, focused attention.
Students are starved for the thoughtful interest of the adults who are important to them. A half-hearted, “Yeah, that’s fine,” or “Okay, I’ll watch in a minute,” do not fire internal motivation. Adults at school owe students not only their physical attendance but also their emotional, psychological, and intellectual presence. Taking the time to thoroughly examine student work products and offering appropriate encouragement helps students feel valued. Regular purposeful attention, even for short periods of time, sends a convincing message to students that they have an adult committed to helping them improve. When a student asks, “Why are you taking all this time with me?” the wise teacher answers simply, “Because you’re worth it.”
2. Talk less, listen more.
Many times adults rattle off a litany of positive statements in order to show they are interested in and approve of the student’s work. However, insightful questioning is often the better choice for not only demonstrating interest, but also for encouraging active reflection from the learner. Rather than offering a list of value judgments about the accomplishment, ask the student questions about her work. Encourage her to consider all that she has learned. Ask questions such as:
- What worked for you and what did not?
- Tell me something you learned from your work.
- If you were to start over, what would you do differently?
- Is there additional information you require? Where’s the best place for you to find what you need?
- Tell me about your thought process on this.
- What are you most proud of about your work?
3. Maintain the concept of “a work in progress.”
Educators need to make excellent use of words and phrases such as “yet,” “for now,” and “so far” in order to heighten student awareness that achievement, or lack of it, is not permanent. If a student laments, “I just can’t do this,” a good response from the teacher is, “Yet. You can’t do this yet. Let’s see where you are and go from there.” The best teachers determine where students are and incrementally raise the bar so that a student is steadily challenged while seeing that she has a reasonable chance to succeed.
Rather than focusing on a single score or percentile ranking, teachers of both struggling and high achieving students should concentrate on inspiring their learners to perform better over time. Simply stating what was accomplished and engaging students in the process of reaching further is an effective form of feedback.
In general educators agree that fostering tenacity, perseverance, and resilience in students is a laudable ambition, but many have to wrestle with the competing demands of standardized test results and value-added teacher evaluations. Effective feedback takes skill, time, and patience, but its positive results are undeniable. Perhaps it’s time to shift the focus from pacing guides and scripted curriculums to the long-term goal of fostering students who are empowered to keep learning long after the test scores are in.
Dweck, C.S. (2006), Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House, Inc.
Silver, D. (2012), Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8: Teaching Kids to Succeed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, Inc.