Constructive feedback (whether formative or summative) is an important part of development, throughout different levels of education and into careers and even general life and social skills.

As a teacher, being able to provide constructive criticism is a very beneficial skill and can be very important in improving learning outcomes.

However, giving constructive criticism is not easy and if you get it wrong, it can have negative consequences to a student’s learning.

Some interesting research on student engagement and the role of feedback in learning details the importance of understanding what good quality feedback looks like.

Good quality external feedback is information that helps students troubleshoot their own performance and self-correct; that is, it helps students take action to reduce the discrepancy between their intentions and the resulting effects.

This research outlined a number of key areas to incorporate when teachers provide feedback:

  • Make feedback relevant to the criteria
  • Provide it so students can act on it
  • Provide corrective advice, not just strengths and weaknesses
  • Limit feedback to what can be used and prioritise areas for improvement

How to provide constructive criticism

An article published in The Guardian listed some tips on ways to give better feedback to students, including:

  • Not going overboard
  • Corrections should be done quietly
  • Avoid making comparisons between students
  • Be specific
  • Use open and closed questions
  • Finish with clear correction points

By adopting these methods teachers are able to drive better learning outcomes, as this is what most students will respond well to.

All students react in different ways to feedback, some more confident students might need you to be very direct with them, whilst less confident students may struggle to deal with what they see as criticism. With these types of students particularly, it is important to deliver the feedback as positively as possible.

Feedback Sandwich

One method of doing this is referred to as using the Feedback Sandwich (although it does have a less polite name as well!). This entails using a positive, followed by an improvement and ending on a positive. For example, if you were providing feedback regarding the quality of a student’s handwriting, you might deliver in the following way:

Positive: Your latest essay was really good, it showed you really understood the topic and I really liked how you presented your argument.

Improvement: The only problem is that I couldn’t read your handwriting in places, so always make sure that your handwriting looks clear enough for someone else to read. You might need to slow down a bit when you’re writing to concentrate better.

Positive: But really well done on the essay, if you can just get your handwriting a bit clearer you’ll be getting even higher marks. Keep up the great work.

So, by keeping it as positive as possible but giving a clear action to take away and work on, with a defined link to what it will help them to achieve, works well.

There is a range of other techniques for delivering constructive criticism to improve learning outcomes and you should be able to find the different approaches that work for different types of students as you get more experienced in using the techniques.