Positive Feedback Only

In a stack of papers called Writing.

  • Apr
  • 30
  • 2013

What if you only gave students positive feedback on their writing? Could you leave a comment that begins with “I like” on every student’s paper? How would that change the way you evaluate writing? Would that impact scores or instruction? Might that make you dread evaluating writing just a leeeeeeeeettle bit less?

Think about how far negative/constructive comments have gotten you. All those times you pointed out subject-verb agreement errors, tense errors, then vs. than, fragments and run ons, error number five on your list of frequently displayed errors, writing infraction number seventeen. Do you see student writing improve because of that?

I haven’t.

Commenting Types

If you’re at all like me, you’ve gone through the various response styles: circling all occurrences, focusing on a single error type, correcting only the first page, highlighting nothing and letting the rubric scores do the talking, writing a summative note at the end, fitting notes into the margin, revising papers throughout the semester, and the list goes on. Have you seen the benefits? Do you note a drop in errors because of your diligent feedback? From even the most thoughtful input you’ve provided, do you witness an increase in “good stuff” as a result? Are you making fewer and fewer of those remarks on every paper throughout the year? By the final paper, are you faced with pieces of writing that no longer need the exact same comments you left on the first paper?

For me… nope.


In an ideal world, we’d deliver ongoing feedback as students write, helping them move through the various steps of the writing process in pursuit of an ever-improving final draft. There are lots of ways we’d improve the process of writing and evaluation. Step into most classrooms, though, and I bet you’ll see a model much like mine: working on defining the writing style, reading examples, practicing some of the genre techniques, peer editing, conferencing, then turning in a final draft for evaluation. It’s on to the next one after that. And I’m still struggling to get six pieces of formal writing assigned and graded each year.

If students look at comments and don’t take any action to improve those errors, think of all the time wasted. Let’s think of another way to approach our jobs during the evaluation, then.

“I like…”

Perhaps it’s better to let students come to you to find out what they did wrong rather than to find out what they did right. A paper full of the errors committed doesn’t give a writer much hope. Even if you’re there for a conference after school. Even if you have ton of things that you’re proud of in that writing and you’re ready to gush as soon as that writer comes to see you.

What if we let rubric scores tell them where they need to improve (if they are interested) and we just focus our comments on what they need to keep doing in the future? If I tell what I enjoy about the writing, even if it’s only a single sentence, would writers would be more likely to use feedback then? Could the next essay be an attempt to exhibit that same characteristic I pointed out? Would that writer view my class differently?

I set a goal to write at least one “I like” sentence and one mention of “your readers” on the last essay. Mission accomplished. And I managed to get all of those papers back to students within a week of the due date, another goal of mine for at least one paper this semester. One batch I returned the weekend after they handed it in: Thursday collection day, Monday distribution day. The grading went very quickly when I was only trying to put two sentences on each paper.

A victim of even the most modest habit, I then started to do the same thing on the paper I’m grading now without even thinking. It occurred to me that I enjoy reading papers more when I’m looking for what they’ve done well.

Negative observations are my tendency so I didn’t think I could keep this up. I see how things can be disastrous far more often than how they can be amazing. But I’ve quickly become good at pointing out something positive in even the worst piece of writing I come across. My mental bank of traits to discuss as defaults if nothing stands out is growing nearly every day. You can do this, too.


Want to turn this into a bit of research? Want to set up tests and controls next year? Want to give the same prompts to different groups and give different types of feedback to see what works, both in terms of students writing and teacher satisfaction?

Leave me a comment!


1. Tom says:

[5/4/2013 - 4:47 pm]

I’m curious how students who received low scores but only “I like” feedback responded. That’s one of the biggest hurdles I’ve faced in this — I tend to feel that my feedback must help explain my grade to students.

I also disagree with the premise that positive feedback is better than negative. I’ve learned far more from negative feedback than from positive over the years, even when it’s been vague. I remember distinctly handing in my first draft of a thesis (of poetry) to a professor who said only, “I’m sorry, what you’ve written is not poetry. I know you can write poetry, but this is not poetry.” Did I revise like hell? You bet I did. The book of poetry I ended up with won the prize for best humanities thesis of the year. Would I have done the same if he had pointed out the few things he could have found to like? I doubt it.

2. Todd says:

[5/5/2013 - 9:21 pm]

Tom, thanks for the thoughts. Since you were writing a book of poetry and turning in a thesis, however, you had far more motivation to create a superb product than most of my students.

I’ve felt like the feedback needs to explain the grade, too. I simply do not see students pouring over my feedback as a way to explain their grade or help them improve the next one. Shoot, even when I do allow for a revision it doesn’t seem to take my comments into consideration beyond simply fixing the surface-level errors. At the end of the day, I’ve spent a good 5 minutes per paper or often more (multiplied by about 150) and students only want to know the bottom line: what’s my grade?

The difficulty here for me is the purpose of the feedback. Most high school students are not at a point in their writing where they want to “revise like hell.” For those students, I’ll gleefully give the feedback they are looking for during a conference after school — and I’ve done that for 2 students on this paper already. But I’m not sure the comparison between you in college working on your thesis and students in high school working on an English paper fits, as much as I wish it did!

And those students who got a low score? They responded the same way they always do, the same way they did when I circled their errors, the same way they did when I wrote a summative comment at the end about what I enjoyed and what needs improvement. They looked at their paper, shrugged, and said, “Oh.” That’s about the extent of it. And that’s why I’m looking at the time I spent on commenting as a total waste.

My hope is that it’s easier to know what to keep on doing rather than being told what to avoid. We’ll see if that pans out. I’ll probably find some happy medium at some point. The pendulum is always swinging.

And that’s awesome that your professor’s feedback helped you create such an incredible finished product! Do you think that might have been because you were so invested in the product? What if you weren’t given a chance for revision? Would you have cared about the comments? That might be another piece of this puzzle to look at.

3. Jen says:

[5/10/2013 - 6:40 am]

Ahh, the wonderful world of grading. I think that your idea has merit-positive comments give students a direction, where negative comments may shut students down. However, grading doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If you build a community with your students, where they clearly understand what you expect from their writing, then whatever way you grade can work. Problems occur in the disconnect between expectations and results. I tend to express to students one thing that I am specifically looking for in their writing (usually something I have recently taught). It could be transitions or conciseness. It provides focus for the students, allows them to practice a new skill, and reduces the amount of response I give to each piece of writing.

4. Anna M. says:

[5/15/2013 - 11:15 am]

Correct me if I’m wrong, but you’re an English teacher, right? Then please, tell me this is a joke.

I’m Central-European, and went to a so-called “elite” high school (starting at age 11 to age 18, 30 students in every class), so that must have given me a different perspective, but I still find this absolutely ridiculous.

To make things simple, let’s stick to the native language classes (in your case, English). Our first rule was and will always be, that in the 21th century, not knowing your mother language properly is embarrassing and shameful.

By the age of 12, any student who got his or her paper back all red with an ugly big 1 written on it for the grammar was the laughingstock of the class. (Our grading goes from 1 to 5, 1 meaning unsatisfactory, 5 meaning excellent.) Our education system supports competition between the students, and the classmates stay the same for the whole time under a specific homeroom teacher. After a while, the different subgroups within the class – those who were good at History-Literature, Arts, Maths-Physics, Biology-Chemistry, etc. – would be recognized and the more subject-specific competition would be localized. In the last two years, no one gave a damn if a Science student had no knack for poetry and scraped by with a grade 2 (=passable, satisfactory) in Literature, so long as s,he made an effort. Still, there are things you have to know right. They are not an option.

One of these is the Native Language. And you can probably never get a kid with horrifying grammar to feel remorse and try to learn the proper grammar by writing “You get a D– because I like your handwriting, you could spell your name correctly and got the date right, but you should work on your grammar” on their papers. They’ll never see past the D and probably never feel the impulse to improve, because “You like…” No matter what it is you like, they feel like they did well, and what they did was enough.

We never got explanation written on our papers. Most of the errors were self explanatory, and we could inquire about the ones we couldn’t understand or found unjust. Honest, negative feedback never hurt anyone. If they are doing something right, then tell them, but not this “I like” when they don’t deserve it. Don’t encourage bad grammar. Set a standard and stick to it, and discourage anyone who didn’t made the least effort to reach it.

Now that I think back, that’s what it boils down to: making the necessary effort. Every subject is manageable, if you have a force (positive and negative feedback mixed, both at its respectable place and time) driving you forth. That’s the positive side of our competition based system: everyone tries to give it his or her best, to move up in the food chain or try to stay on top. And the funny thing is, after 8 years spent together, the malice and the rivalry wore away.

I heard Americans complain that the competition system, the “everyone for his or her own gain” was harmful, but after eight years, when the best students were awarded, everyone was genuinely happy for them. We threw them a party, together, because we were like a big family and we were proud of them. We were proud of everyone, because even the worst student found his “calling”, and made the effort.

Because in the world, you can never achieve anything without working hard for it.

This might only work for the kind of High School i come from, I’m not sure, but I know close to nothing about American High Schools, and what I know, well, I sincerely hope they are only urban myths or outright jokes.

I’m currently a university freshman, studying to become a teacher, so I didn’t learn much of Theory of Pedagogy yet, but I’d like to hear your opinion. Like teacher to gonna be teacher.

5. Todd says:

[5/16/2013 - 5:10 pm]

Jen, you’re right about the community aspect determining the impact of a grading system. I keep thinking that I need to continue my bouncing around with comment styles, sometimes one way and other times another way. I’ve thought of giving students the option of the kind of feedback they want on a particular draft or assignment. File that into the “maybe next year” category. And yes, I like the idea of focused feedback on one particular thing, especially if it’s what’s been the subject of mini lessons and workshops. Add to that the idea that this particular skill is the only thing upon which you comment (though you are still grading other traits of their writing) and that’s a great way to set things up.

Anna, this is not a joke. And I am an English teacher. I don’t feel comfortable using shame to teach. That anyone was a laughing stock suggests to me a classroom climate that I do not want to engender.

I do think that the different systems, though, have us looking at this issue from distinctly different angles. You should keep that in mind going forward because anything called an “elite” high school will be a departure from the average American comprehensive high school.

I have written negative feedback in the past, lots of it. I’ve spent as much as 10 minutes per paper commenting (multiply that by 165 and then 5 or 6 times a year and you have a sense of how much of my time I give over to this feat)… and it’s never fixed the problems. I have never, ever had a student realize what a subject-verb error is because I commented on it or had them correct their paragraphs or circled every transgression of the rule on their paper, in red or any other color. The next paper is full of the same problems and all that time I spent commenting did nothing, at least in the short term. I’m just not seeing a return on investment for all of my indications of where the papers have gone wrong. So if it’s not working and few of my colleagues see it working on a regular basis, why are we still doing it?

You seem to think I’m giving a comment about what I like even when I do not like something. I assure you that’s not the case. I do set standards and I do stick to them. The grade on the paper doesn’t change just because I only leave positive feedback. If the grammar is horrible, the grade reflects that. If the sentence variety is that of a sixth grader, the rubric score points that out. My comments, however, focus on the things they should do again in future writing. I let the rubric and any discussion we have indicate what they need to avoid.

6. Anna M. says:

[5/17/2013 - 11:39 am]

I think I owe you an apology. I had a debate this week, a clash of different teaching methods, and my opponent kept pulling up your words, but twisting them to back up his own view – that we should let our standards down and praise the students for gracing us with their presence, because there are many things a teen would rather do than go to school.

I read what you wrote right after that, out of curiosity, but in that state of mind, I couldn’t quite distinguish what YOU wanted to say and what HE said with your words. I should have taken a day or two to cool off and read it with fresh eyes. I apologize, because my words came through a lot harsher than what I’d usually say.

Now that I managed to look at it objectively and forget for a moment that it’s an American idea, I see that the it has it’s merit, though teachers here prefer to give a mixed feedback of positive and negative comments. You see, it’s customary to give a short verbal comment on the work when the teacher hands the papers out which usually focuses on the personal development of the student. It’s face to face, which might be a bit more personal. Alas, our classes usually consist of 30 students, and a teacher usually doesn’t teach in more than four or five classes, so that might be a factor in it.

I should have taken the culture difference into consideration as well, because we know close to nothing about American hight schools, and it’s a widespread stereotype here that American public high schools produce stupid, uneducated people. No offence meant, but my experience with the twenty or so American exchange students I’ve the chance to know fit into this prejudice. They were rather well-off in financial terms, all of them came from private hight schools and each and every one of them was painfully lacking in almost every subject.

I mean, I’m more science orientated and struggled with history, but to put WWI and WWII (Modern History) and the Hundred Years’ War (Medieval History) into the same century is a worrying sign of ignorance. And that’s only one example.

I’m not sure if they were only separated cases of “I have money, I don’t need brains” or a more widespread phenomena, but I’d like to read or hear about American Hight Schools, if you could suggest a reliable source. The sources I know are heavily biased in favour of the European system.

Thank you in advance, and I sincerely apologize for the harsh words once again.

7. Anna M. says:

[5/17/2013 - 11:50 am]

And I should probably turn off the word processor in my browser, because I’ve just discovered a few typos which were not part of what I originally wrote (I usually write in a doc because it shows the structure of the paragraphs better and then copy-paste it into the comment box). Sorry for the grammatical errors, I’m not a native speaker.

*…it has its merit…*
*…I had the chance…*

And high schools almost always transformed into hight schools. Embarrassing.

8. Todd says:

[5/19/2013 - 1:38 pm]

Hey, thanks for the followup, Anna! Context is everything, so I appreciate you providing some background to your response. That does help your comments make more sense, given that they were a response to a conversation I was not part of.

I think your characterization of Americans, though, is quite offensive. Speaking specifically of your experiences, as unfortunate as they sound, is one thing and that can certainly provide an interesting view of things. You make the suggestion, though, that all Americans fit this mold, that the stereotype is correct. That’s where you venture into the offensive. You’re also incorrect in that suggestion.

As for a source on American high schools, nearly everything you’ll find is written from some vantage point or another so you’ll get a skewed version of the truth. You really need to get inside the system and see it for yourself. There have been a few documentaries about American public education that you might want to watch, most recently Waiting for Superman on one side and Race to Nowhere on the other. I’d suggest getting sources that promote the two ends of extremity and finding the middle ground. That’s likely more accurate than any single source. Take a look at the Common Core standards and keep your eyes trained on the testing measures of those standards. That should give you at least an idea of the direction public education is headed in America. There is, of course, discussion about whether or not that direction is the correct one, but I’ll leave that for a later date!

9. shericka says:

[9/29/2013 - 4:48 pm]

I believe feedback responses are very important as a child needs to know the outcome of the work they have done however Writing good feedback requires an understanding that language does more than describe our world; it helps us construct our world. Consider the worldview implicit in this comment: “What did you think about when you chose that topic? What were you trying to accomplish?” It implies the student is someone who thinks and that the choice the student made had purpose. It invites the student to discuss the choice and presumably go on to discuss whether the paper can accomplish what was intended. It positions the student as the chooser and as someone who can have a conversation with the teacher.A teachers feedback on student schoolwork can be a powerful force for learning if it contains a helpful message and is delivered with certain considerations in mind. But what kind of content makes a feedback message helpful to a student? And what kinds of strategies work best for delivering feedback?
This article was very helpful and honest in dealing with teachers feedback i enjoyed it and it gave me a opportunity to do some research on my own and look in to a few other things.

10. Jardine Morgan says:

[11/8/2013 - 4:31 am]

In reference to the blog, “Positive and Negative Criticism” an important part of a teacher’s responsibility is to deliver feedback to students on their performance on any given assignment or school work. Feedback helps to improve students’ performance and ensure that they are fulfilling the requirements of the learning objectives. Feedback comes in two forms; positive and negative. Positive feedback works on premise of building students’ strengths by informing the students that he or she is doing well and praising their efforts. Negative feedback on the other hand, is pointing out what students are doing wrong and how to modify it. It is the responsibility of the teacher to know their students and to be aware of which one works best for them.
Some students by nature accept negative criticism as it motivate or propel them to improve in their short-comings while other students may be dampen or de-motivated by it. Positive criticisms conversely, will boost or inspire students to continue working hard or either causes them to become comfortable. This might lead to students under-performing. In essence, whether or not we critique students’ work positively or negatively, it should be intended to be a constructive one.
Both positive and negative criticisms have its advantages and disadvantages. As it relates to the positive feedback where students are being awarded for their achievement, it is more than likely, that the behavior will be repeated. The disadvantage on the other hand , may be that they are too ‘laid back’ and as such do not perform at their utmost best. Negative feedback can de-motivate students, especially those who may be suffering from low self-esteem. Students may also use it at their advantage and capitalize on where they went wrong.
Teachers should create a balance of positive and negative feedback in an effort to respond according to the needs of their students. The balance should reflect the overall quality of the performance, presentation or whatever has been completed. At times in the rush to complete correcting assignments or a set of papers, we make offhand judgments without recognizing students’ true potential. Students can easily misinterpret the comments and loose motivation according to our judgments. I am not implying that all feedback should be positive as students also want to hear what they are doing wrong so they can learn to be better. The major objective of learning is permanent change in behavior, therefore, how we criticize students work have a significant impact on whether or not learning will be achieved.

11. lisa says:

[12/5/2013 - 7:37 am]

Feedback is an important part of effective learning. It helps students to comprehend the subject being studied and it also so gives them clear guidance on how to improve their learning. Bellon (1991) states that ‘academic feedback is more strongly and consistently related to achievement than any other teaching behaviour. This relationship is consistent regardless of grade, socioeconomic status, race, or school setting.’ Feedback can improve a student’s confidence, self-awareness and enthusiasm for learning.
As a teacher I realize that the classroom is diverse in that students have different learning styles, therefore students will perform differently in their writing. As a result of this they will not be able to receive the same comments. There is a possibility that a student may write a perfect paper; however in most cases there are corrections to be made. It is important to make necessary corrections on students’ writing papers so that they know where they need to improve. In spite of this feedback should not only be negative but positive. The teacher can start by highlighting the positive there must be something good about the particular paper comment on the positive then the negative eg. good try Dino but here are few suggestions that will help you write a better paper. In this case the student will be able to accept his or her weakness without feeling belittled.

12. Todd says:

[12/5/2013 - 7:42 pm]

lisa, I see what you’re saying, but I just am not seeing that kind of application of feedback in student work. I’m not seeing a student move from making errors, seeing what I have to say that could improve the work, and making that improvement on the next piece of writing. The idea that corrections show students “where they need to improve” is fantastic in theory. I’m simply not seeing that idea play out in reality. If I did, it would be well worth my time. That’s largely my point in this entry. Read my original post and see how those ideas sit with you.

And I’m not sure who Bellon (1991) is, but I’d say that data from 1991 is probably worth updating. There are more differences than similarities between writing instruction and students in 1991 and writing instruction and students in 2013, I think. But as far as improving confidence, awareness, and enthusiasm, well that’s yet another point of my initial post, that my positive comments might lead to students who are more excited about writing even if they perform poorly. I completely agree with your final sentences and, once more, find that you’re saying exactly what I said originally.

Soooooo… did you read my original post before you commented or is that comment based just on the title of this post? And do you think that excluding negative comments from written feedback is worth trying? Care to work this into an experiment with control groups and everything?