Secret Number 4: Use Positive, Specific Feedback

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management).

Illustrated by Tikumporn Boonchuaylue and Sutthiya Lertyongphati

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I was fortunate enough to go to a great university to do my bachelor’s degree, and the lecturers were absolutely brilliant. They cared about their students, fundamentally.

However, I look back with mixed emotions on my overall education as I was growing up.

Primary school – not so good (I’m sorry to say)

Secondary school – brilliant overall (but it was hard at first, especially because I was bullied – but that’s another story for another blog post)

University – loved it, but I found it a real challenge to live on my own and be independent

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Online learning with the Open University, and later with HKU – just brilliant. Hard work, but brilliant. If you’ve never done a distance learning course, then now is the best time to start as technology has come a long way with MOOCs and online learning platforms. Check out edX for amazing online learning courses (very highly recommended, and affordable).

Why were the best, the best?

There’s a number of reasons why some of my educational experiences were better than others – the quality of teaching, the social setting, my personal maturity, etc. Bangor University stands out as being one of the best educational experiences I had, however, because my lecturers always took the time to give me high-quality feedback in a timely manner.

I commend them for that, because that’s not always easy to do.

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“An AMAZING book!”

There was that time, for example, when I printed out pictures of molecular models using an old-style Kodak digital photo printer, and glued them onto my assignment. My professor wrote ‘Wow!’ next to the picture with a big, specific explanation of why he liked my essay.

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Then there was that time when I and my friend just wanted to sit and chat with another professor in his office. Bangor’s lecturers were like that – approachable and happy to chat with students. I could tell he was busy, but he made us both a cup of tea and chatted with us about a range of different scientific issues. Shortly after the meeting has finished, I got an e-mail from him in which read ‘I really appreciate your enthusiasm, Richard. I really enjoyed our discussion about molecular chirality’.

That was powerful.

Then, there was a time when I had a dispute with the answer to one of my questions on a test – I had named a chemical wrong. I asked my professor about it, and he said he liked my answer because (and then proceeded to tell me why), and then he told me why my answer was wrong.

I left feeling dignified and educated.

Specific praise is powerful praise

Last week I wrote about the importance of positivity and praise, and the role that sincerity and collectivism plays in that dynamic. Those are important foundational principles, but in order to ‘turbo-charge’ our praise we must make it as specific as possible.

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But what does ‘specific’ mean?

I used to think that ‘specific’ praise meant highlighting the positive areas of a student’s work by using subject-specific language.

That’s important, but I’ve since learnt that it’s not enough.

When we praise our students, we need to make it emotional. It needs to stir up thoughts and feelings of achievement and empowerment. To do that, we must acknowledge:

1. The effort that’s gone into the work:

“When I was reading this homework, I could tell that you’d put a lot of time and effort into it, Richard. Well done”

“I really like how you’ve written both the word and symbol equations. That must have taken a lot of time, Well done for having such a good learning attitude”

2. Novel creativity that’s evident: To do this we must give our students the opportunity to be creative, and design tasks which naturally extract creativity from our students.

“You’ve designed the perfect predator here! Just brilliant! I love the sharp teeth and large wings!”

“I love this model of the atom that you’ve build. What a great idea to use different-colored bottle caps to represent the protons and neutrons”

3. The skills used to generate the output: this requires good task-design too, and we must try to capitalize on our students’ interpersonal, problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

“You guys worked together as a great team. John delegated well as a good leader, and I think he made sure that everyone knew what they were doing. Stacey made sure that all of the slides were really clear and presentable, and I know that everyone in the class could read the information properly. And Joe – good use of diagrams to show the processes of crystallization, distillation and filtration”

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Oh come on, that’ll take ages

You don’t have to write all of this feedback, and you should only give specific praise if a student has earned it.

Consider delineating your praise in the following ways:

  • Written comments
  • Verbally – very memorable and effective
  • Via e-mail
  • Through technology such as VLEs and MOOCs
  • By asking other teachers to also praise the student (collective praise)
  • Certificates and awards
  • Assemblies
  • Merits and points (but make sure the associated reason is made clear to the student)
  • Phone calls and letters/e-mails to parents
  • A discussion with a colleague in front of a student (e.g. when waiting in the lunch queue or if a student walks into the staff room or your office)
  • Showcasing work (e.g. on a noticeboard or just by holding it up to show other students)

Another point of happiness in my childhood was when my karate sensei told my dad, in front of me, that I had a ‘good attitude’. How come I can remember that when it happened 20 years ago? Because it made me feel good.

It made me feel proud.

Emotion goes hand-in-hand with praise, and that’s why all praise must be sincere.

Further reading

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Secret Number 3: Praise is Power

The Four Rules of Praise

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Author:

High School Science and Mathematics Teacher, Author and Blogger. Graduated from Bangor University with a BSc (Hons) degree in Molecular Biology and a PGCE in Secondary Science Education. Richard also holds the coveted Certificate in Mathematics from the Open University (UK).

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