Giving “Negative” Feedback to Students

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I was talking with a group of Trainees recently about the inadvertent and (sometimes) destructive effects we can have on our students if we’re not careful. The most obvious one is terror of using the language — which is usually due to terror of making mistakes.

The example I was using revolved around giving “negative feedback” to a student. Not disciplining a student. Nor writing comments on the end of term report. But day-to-day comments in the classroom which help students organise their own “interlanguage” theory of how the language works. Basically, saying “No, sorry, your answer is wrong” in a way that’s both sensitive and useful to the student.

Now, the concept of “interlanguage,” how it works, the implications for language teachers, etc. is an expansive topic that I don’t want to go into here. Suffice to say that learners have various theories of how the target language system works and they require feedback on their attempts at using that system, both positive and negative.

Now, making mistakes is considered by most people to be BAD. Bad, bad, bad, bad, bad! (And not in the “red-leather-suit-moonwalkin’-up-down-yo-ass” sense, either.)

This is hardly a revelation. We see it every day in the classroom. Children and adults alike who are terrified of making one mistaken move on the preposition precipice.

Have you ever wondered: Are YOU behaving like Dr Bunsen Honeydew?

You see, it’s actually TEACHERS who create this problem in the first place.

Some of it’s cultural, sure. Large enough numbers of people from certain countries have demonstrated a near-obsession with “The Right Answer Or Nothing, Dammit!” over the years for me to say that there is a clear pattern (without mentioning any particular nationalities or groups here. You know what I’m talking about.). So some of it is socioculturally-based.

But mostly it’s just inconsiderate and overly demanding teachers who make their students feel stupid from a young age simply because they’ve made a mistake.

A Trip Down Memory Lane

Think back to your own schooldays: How many teachers were you afraid to ask questions of lest they make fun of you or talk down to you? Or who did nothing to reprimand the other kids who laughed or teased when you asked that “dumb question”?

Of course, if you were the kind of kid who didn’t care a hoot and asked anyway, that’s awesome, but you should realise that you’re in an overwhelming minority. A HUGE number of kids go through school and then into adult life with a crushing, sinking feeling that someday (maybe TODAY!) they’ll be “found out.” That they’ll be shown up for the dunce they’ve always know themselves to be.

This is a self-image of “thickyness” perpetrated and then reinforced by teachers who have no business in education and, frankly, should be ashamed of themselves.

I actually had a buddy at high school with whom I studied Physics and Chemistry and Engineering Science. We had the same teacher for both Physics and Chemistry.

I remember we were studying for some exam together one night and he was often asking me questions (Note: Not, not, not a stoopid dude! Very smart guy. He’s a high school science teacher himself these days! :grin: ) and I didn’t mind bouncing ideas or answering his questions (if I knew the answer myself!

But one night I said, “Man, there’s no problem asking these things of me… but why don’t you just ask [name of Teacher here]?”

And my friend said something that I will NEVER forget. He said “Because he makes me feel stupid when I ask questions.”

That was one of those “lightning bolt” moments in my life, I gotta tell ya. Teachers never did this with me at school. Or… if they did, I was totally unruffled by it because I wanted to know and no one was going to get in my way and stop me asking!

Now, do I like to look like a fool in front of my peers? Of course not! Who does? But there is a serious problem when a teacher, someone whose job it is to help people understand and learn stuff is making students feel inadequate or stupid for doing what helps us overcome our roadblocks to learning, i.e. asking questions! :evil:

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Appropriate Negative Feedback

Okay, back to our context of teaching foreign languages…

When you’re eliciting the answers to, say, a grammar practice activity and a student gives you the wrong answer, you have to be mindful of how you’re responding to that.

Most likely, you monitor the words that come out of your mouth; Not responding, thus, for example: “Uhhhh, no, butt-head, totally wrong! What’ve you been doing for the last 30 minutes? Removing earwax with a pencil or something? Sheesh! Next person! What’s the CORRECT answer?”


…are you, say, paying attention to your tone of voice?

What about your facial expressions?

The way you’re standing?

Do you turn to address the student personally when responding? Or do you (figuratively) just brush right on over them?

Do you make that student feel like a failure and a moron for their heinous conjugation error?

Or do you give the negative feedback appropriately?

We teach paralinguistic features of communication to our students all the time (intonation, facial expression, body language, etc.) and the importance of these elements is obvious.

What’s less obvious, perhaps, is that in a our context where there is usually a significant power-imbalance (real or defacto), failing to consciously control these factors in that sensitive moment of providing negative feedback can actually have rather long-term consequences.

Especially if it’s a pattern that’s played out again and again and again, day after day in your classroom.

It’s a little hard to demonstrate in print examples of what I feel is “appropriate negative feedback.” So if you’d like me to make an audio or a video, please comment below and I’ll see what I can rustle up when I have time.

On a Related Note…

Also, I read an excellent (although kinda depressing) article about the direct influence of primary/elementary school teachers on the attitudes of very young students, in particular young girls, towards mathematics.

Okay, we’re not Math teachers on this site (for the most part, I imagine!), but it’s definitely worth reading in my opinion. It not only echoes what I’ve been raving on about here, it also substantiates the thesis with research data. (The researchers weren’t investigating the point I‘ve been dealing, but I can’t imagine the data being much different.)

Here it is:

Math Anxiety in Girls

You might be surprised by the cause.

Let me know what you think by leaving a comment below.

Best regards,

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8 Responses to “Giving “Negative” Feedback to Students”

  1. irena irena says:

    Interesting points. I would certainly like a demonstration of “appropriate negative feedback”. I try to be aware of how I give feedback and I know I’ve made many mistakes (as a beginner teacher I try to learn on mistakes), but what bothers me most is that I don’t know how to rectify the bad feedbacks I gave. the obvious is of course to make it better next time, but with young learners for who I am the first English teacher it seems so fatal. They start hating English and then they learn so much less. :sad:
    In relation to the article about Math Anxiety in girls I wonder if you ever heard of a study analyzing the differences in how boys and girls take criticism, in learning foreign language specifically. Especially in young learners up to 11 years old I notice big differences in how they react to corrections.
    Thanks and keep on the good work.

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    •  Leslie says:

      Hi, Irena, and thank you for the comment.

      It sounds like maybe you’re being a little harsh on yourself. From your comment I get the feeling that you are mindful of your need to be sensitive and offer feedback in an appropriate way.

      Alas, that doesn’t always happen. Like anything else in our craft, it is a skill that you acquire with practice.

      what bothers me most is that I don’t know how to rectify the bad feedbacks I gave

      The only advice I can give here — and I’m sorry if it sounds a little too obvious — is two-fold:

      First, when you think you’ve not given feedback in a way that’s useful, apologise. Yep, that’s right, apologise and nurture that child’s feelings.

      As adults we’re not used to apologising to children, but if we’re in the wrong, we’re in the wrong. Simple as that. It also models the kind of behaviour that we want to encourage in our kids, does it not?

      For example, if you’re a bit too harsh or snappy with a kid and you let your frustration show, just say to them (in L1 if possible), “Hold on… I’m sorry, Andjelka. I’m sorry for my answer just now. I can see that this is difficult for you and some other students. So I shouldn’t say things like that. You’re very, very good at [something true here] and I know that you’ll get this one too with a bit more practice. [smile] How about I ask you again tomorrow. I bet you’ll know the answer. I bet you won’t have forgotten. What do you think?”

      Or something like that. I’m sure you can see what I’m doing here. The point is to simply be adult enough and humble enough to admit (yeah, even to kids!) that you were out of order.

      Then reaffirm their talents (Andjelka really may NOT have a talent for languages, y’know, but it’s unlikely that she’s a bonehead across the board). Then reitterate that it’s just a matter of looking at it in a different way, perhaps. Or, needing a little more time to think about it clearly. Or whatever. Not everyone learns at the same pace, as you no doubt know. :smile:

      Secondly, when you go back to the staffroom, write down what you said and why you think it was no good. And then give your brain the little mental task of thinking of two ways you could phrase it better next time (or alter your tone of voice, or position your body, or control your facial expressions, or whatever the problem was)… BUT…

      don’t write those solutions down!

      Let your brain “stew on it” overnight. Next morning, when you come in to work, you’ll have even better solutions than you would have had if you’d just written the first two things that came to mind! :wink:

      All the best with it!

      a study analyzing the differences in how boys and girls take criticism

      No, I haven’t. But if any reader has, we’d all be really grateful, I’m sure, for a link or a summary.

      Also, Irena, we’d love to hear your observations. What differences, if any, have you noticed?

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  2. Cary Cary says:

    Hello, Leslie!
    I couldn’t agree more! My Chemistry teacher was sucha mean brute! He didn’t help me with my difficulties - just made me stand on a lab stool and repeat “I am a fool, I am a fool” in front of the class many, many times. Result: I failed Chemistry ‘O’ Level and thus ultimately eliminated any chance of going to university to study my favourite subject, Geology. I became a language teacher, and think of this man before every class I teach, with a silent imprecation “May God strike me down and burn me to a cinder if EVER I should teach or behave like Mr. Xxxx”.

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    •  Leslie says:

      Cary, that story about the stool just beggers belief! :evil: Un-freakin-believable. That twats like that are allowed to continue being responsible for running classes totally boggles my brain. :cry:

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  3. Cary Cary says:

    NEGATIVE FEEDBACK. MY TWO CENTS - To avoid the damaging consequences of condemning a student to catatonia or total unwillingness to produce anything, I use these tricks:

    1. Clearly stating that EFFORT is very important. The classroom is a place where everybody learns, including the teacher (the teacher ISN’T God!). We learn by trying again after something wasn’t successful, or by doing something again that succeeded, as a reinforcement, in a fun, egalitarian and meaningful way. Each success should be celebrated, to boost confidence and pride in their own achievements.

    2. Stressing the need for productive skills and attempting ANYTHING. Underlining the importance of the “LEARNING experience”, using examples from everyday life, such as learning to walk, drive or cook. Mozart wasn’t born playing a piano… The old adage “Practice makes perfect”. DOING is critically important. Nobody passed a driving test just by reading books or watching others drive.

    3. Clear models, demonstrations and identifying and showing the basic tools for the job, talking about and looking at the end product - in other words, goal-setting. This includes what a colleague of mine at Durham University calls “FEEDFORWARD” - as much guidance, channelling and help beforehand as possible, often based on previous performance and the teacher’s insight into students’ (group or individual) strengths and weaknesses. Neither the teachers nor the students can wave a magic wand and produce something out of thin air.

    4. Collaborative work, sharing among students. They can often help each other and “correct” any errors, before handing anything in or after receiving marked work.

    5. Frequently reminding the students of the goals of any particular exercise, e.g. are we aiming at communication, or accuracy based on grammatical rules (with all those exceptions and traps)?

    6. Using a simple correction guide, using underlines, and error codes, e.g. WW is Wrong Word, P is preposition. The students should be required to improve their own work, with guidance and models.

    7. Spending time with handing back homework. If you have read it and found faults, look at them first in a plenary group and check BEFORE giving back their work (otherwise they focus only on their work and los esight of the important areas you ae working on with them). Again, get students to share, for example by switching papers. FEAR of errors is something we have to eliminate, so sharing the fact that even the best student is not perfect is a salutary lesson.

    8. Sometimes when returning homework, lining up the model on an overhead and comparing it with their own productions (in pairs or groups) can be useful. Let the students develop self-correcting techniques. The improved work can then be put on posters round the room. You can use it to recap, as a warmer, or to memory-check (remove the posters and then get them to write down what they remember).

    9. Cutting down on teacher talking. Invite students to ask about, comment on and change things. Show them, let them try.

    10. Referring them to websites for certain kinds of follow-up and further practice. Even the “good” students can do this.

    11. In extreme cases, setting up tutorials (or group tutorials) to put things right. In large classes, those with LESS than the required level can be given differentiated work as a group, while others do different work. Those with BETTER than the required level can also be separated and given further practice, slightly more difficult tasks or more autonomy. After all, why should those with a certain DIFFICULTY always be singled out?

    12. This may be obvious: tracking students’ progress in terms of improvements in achieving goals (this is where I insist on stapled exercise books, as a record of work. In my estimation, looseleaf systems either just fall apart or the students dog-ear, fold, scrawl on or lose their notes.) Rewards should be given for better production and help should be offered if something still isn’t being managed properly.

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    •  Leslie says:

      Hi, again, Cary :wink:

      This is a really good list with some really solid places to start helping students break the shackles put there by the the fear of mistakes demons. (And by that, I mean, folks like your Chemistry teacher, obviously.)

      There are a couple of things I do differently and I’ll get around to writing a response to Points #6 & #7 some time.

      Point #2 is a great one: Ya gotta do. And fail. Coz ya will. And that’s okay. So then you get up. And ya go again. Until ya get there. How is that different from anyone. Ever? Did Tiger Woods shoot 15 under par the first or second time he got on a golf course?

      Your example about not learning to drive by reading or watching people is similar to one I’ve used for years, too. I like it.

      However, the “problem,” if you will, is that this approach attempts to appeal to students’ rational awareness, or cognition, whereas the debilitating fear of error is entirely an emotional one.

      So we, as teachers, not only have to give (albeit, excellent!) examples such as the learning to drive example, we also need to get students to [Warning! Warning! I'm about to go all woo-woo on ya!] “feel it, man.” (I’m picturing Hunter S Thompson’s attorney in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”! :lol: )

      Now, I’m not suggesting you don’t do that, Cary. I’m just riffin’ on it and adding that appealing to rational-brain is never gonna cut it in the long-run. And possibly not even in the short-term, either.

      As I said, we need to construct and lead our lessons in such a way that students get that (very important, as you, indeed, mentioned!) experiential sense of “failing” or “lack of perfection” or whatever you want to call it and realising that it’s okay because they actually met whatever the more important goal was.

      For example, if the task was to write a letter to a pen-friend or e-pal in an L2-speaking-country, then really the most important goal or aim is for that letter/email to be comprehensible. Thus, if the pen-friend or e-pal replies with answers to the questions… mission accomplished!

      It’s at THIS point you roll out the following (kinda “tired old”) reel in your Teaching Kit (LOL!) and say:

      “Now, how many people got answers to their questions? Or, at least, MOST of their questions? [show of hands] Well! How about that? EVERYONE! Pretty good stuff, huh?

      Let’s just go over this again for a moment… [switch to L1]…

      …you all wrote a letter in [English / L2] to your e-pal. Was it easy? ["No!"] Did I push you and make you work hard? ["Yes!"] Did you hate me for it? {smile} ["Yes! {smile}"]

      Oh well, too bad huh. Now, was your letter perfect? Was the grammar and vocabulary and spelling and everything… was it all perfect? Yes or no? ["No..."] No, no, it wasn’t. Is that bad?

      [deliberately leave a pregnant pause here]

      Well, is it? [confused murmur... This is, after all, a VERY loaded question given the context and the usual dynamic and expectations of teachers]

      Let’s think about that… So, to do that, let’s go back to my first question: Who got answers to all or most of their questions? [show of hands] Right! Everyone. {smile}

      So… {affect a pantomime “cunning smile” here}… if your work wasn’t perfect [English] but you got replies to your questions, do you think your e-pal understood your letter?


      Really, tell me. If your e-pal hadn’t understood your letter, would he or she have been able to write answers to your questions? Yes or no? ["No"] {big, jubilant smile} CORRECT!

      So… what does that tell you about needing every teeny-tiny little thing to be correct before you can communicate effectively?

      [Even kids can connect the dots here given the stupendously obvious set-up!]

      Which means… EVERYONE did an excellent job! {big smile and class clap}

      Did you do a good job? [silence] Well, did you? Or not? Did you do a good job? ["Yes"] What? All that hard work and you send an email to another country and someone there reads it and understands it and responds to you… did you do a good job? ["YES!"]

      You betcha! Was everything perfect? ["No!"]

      Did you make mistakes? ["Yes!"]

      Was that a massive problem? ["No!"]

      Would it be better without the mistakes? ["Yes!"]

      Do you need to pay attention to that stuff? Is it important? [mixed answer: "Yes/No"]

      Well, yes, you do, but… did it cause a problem for communication? ["No!"]

      {switch back to L2}

      Great. So let’s take a look at these letters…

      Now, I’m sorry if that sounds a little bit like a freakin’ Anthony Robbins auditorium life-change workshop or something. :razz: And it might be even a bit long for my liking, but this really is the kind of thing that I’ve done with hundreds and hundreds of classes.

      It’s one thing to TELL them all this stuff; it’s quite another for them to viscerally believe it.

      It’s not a magic firewalking cure or anything. But this kind of thing is what eventually banishes the fear of making mistakes demons.

      “Eventually” being the operative word. You have to do this stuff regularly and be judicious against undermining yourself with the sort of stuff I wrote about in the main article, above.

      It needs to be tempered by the good spirit of accuracy, of course, which is why you throw that into the schpiel, but what really makes the difference is emphasising that they DID something, it wasn’t perfect (what is?), they got the desired result. Sure they can do better. Next time. For now, they achieved their goal. The end.


      Okay, tangent over [What, who me? Well, I never... :razz: ]

      Great comment, Cary.

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  4. Phaedra Phaedra says:

    Hi Leslie,
    I appreciate you drawing attention to this very important aspect of teaching ESL. As an elementary school teacher I well know the crushing effects of a poorly worded or casually stated negative response to a wrong answer. Many (but not all) students can have their attitude toward learning forever altered by a thoughtless response.

    In one of my Jr. High School classes here in Japan I have a student who is reluctant to answer any question and it is reportedly the result of a thoughtless teacher several years ago.

    We all get “high” on those power moments when we know we have made a positive difference in a students learning, but we need to be equally (if not more) aware of the power we have to damage the students desire to learn.

    Finding an appropriate way of correcting mistakes is difficult since every child is different and what works for some will not work for all. It is just another example of how we all need to stay focussed on why we are doing what we are doing - it’s clearly not for the money! The more “in the moment” we can keep ourselves as teachers the more likely we are to be sensitive to the needs of each student - whether ESL or not.

    Thanks for all the thoughtfulness, time and energy you put into your articles Leslie. I don’t always have the time to respond but I do enjoy reading them!

    Take care,

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    •  Leslie says:

      Hi, Phaedra

      We all get “high” on those power moments when we know we have made a positive difference in a students learning, but we need to be equally (if not more) aware of the power we have to damage the students desire to learn.

      What an excellent comment. One worth highlighting in case anyone missed it.


      be sensitive to the needs of each student - whether ESL or not.

      … an expression that passes my lips very frequently. Along with “Teachers need to respond to learners as learners, but also as human beings” (in fact, I used that one for umpteenth time this morning now that I think about it.)

      And thank you for your very kind comments regarding the articles. I greatly appreciate it, Phaedra. Thank you.

      I don’t always have the time to write them, but I enjoy it when I do!

      Take care,

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