Education Opinion

Give Students Honest Feedback

By Walt Gardner — July 10, 2013 2 min read
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Whatever discomfort teachers experience in handing out grades will likely be exacerbated by the results of a study titled “Tell Me What I Did Wrong: Experts Seek and Respond to Negative Feedback” (“You’ve Been Doing a Fantastic Job. Just One Thing ...” The New York Times, Apr. 6). Researchers found that beginning and advanced learners react differently to negative comments.

One experiment, for example, showed that students in beginning French classes preferred positive comments, while those in advanced French classes wanted unvarnished comments. The difference is not surprising since advanced students have more confidence in their abilities and are able to handle undiluted feedback. Novice students, in contrast, are hungry for encouragement to confirm their ability.

Yet when teachers tell unvarnished truths at any stage, they are accused of damaging the self-esteem of their students. I think teachers who sidestep their responsibility shortchange students. I’m not suggesting that teachers adopt the methods of Marine drill instructors. Those tactics work well in the military, but they are counterproductive in public schools. However, what exists now all too often is the failure of teachers to give students any grade below an “A,” or at worst a “B,” out of fear of destroying their students’ delicate egos.

The result is that students are given a false sense of their abilities. When they leave school, reality quickly sets in. Is it any wonder that they become angry or bitter? After all, they’ve been told all along that their work is first rate. They point to their grades as evidence, which leads to a feeling of entitlement. One writer went so far as to argue for the abolition of the honor roll, since he asserted it “just adds aggressive official insult to the injuries of social life” (“How the Honor Roll Cheats Students and Divides Schools, The Nation, Apr. 24).

When I taught English, I tried to be fair in my comments and my grading. But despite my best efforts, from time to time I faced irate parents who couldn’t understand why their children didn’t get an “A.” They pointed to other teachers as evidence that I was wrong. No matter how hard I tried to explain the basis for the grade, they were not satisfied. Some parents went over my head to the principal. The best principals listened to their complaints, but refused to overrule their faculty. I always viewed this decision as the acid test of a stand-up principal who understood the best interests of young people.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.