The Ghosts of Feedback Past

We’ve all met learners who are amazing to watch in their learning process.

Learners who exhibit what Annie Murphy Paul calls a high “learning quotient” or highly effective learning approaches tend to do things like:

  • Seek effective feedback
  • Persevere through challenging tasks
  • Self-regulate, self monitor and self modify based on feedback
  • Embrace challenging tasks
  • Engage more
  • More at this blog by

Growth mindset is an oft-quoted goal at schools and education systems worldwide.

For someone who thinks of the learning process as a spectator sport as well as an occupation, it’s interesting to observe young learners who seem to have deep beliefs and assumptions that intelligence is a fixed thing. Assumptions and beliefs are the storylines underpinning behavior, and learners who have a fixed or entity theory of learning show their beliefs in many ways.

For instance, it’s puzzling how many students claim that they have “learned this skill [insert the number of years ago]” and yet show little evidence of application and/or mastery of the skill. It’s puzzling because if they have a new teacher or a new skill and the teacher asks what they know of it, there is the claim of “been there, done that” and the work shows no evidence. Where did their beliefs and high efficacy come from?

It’s also bewildering to observe learners who think intelligence is fixed find their benchmark for ‘excellence’ in the past. Another interesting conversation overheard is between a teacher and a grade 12 student who, when asked why he avoids math class, launches into a story of how he was an excellent math student in third grade. How does a person base his success in the IB Diploma programme on third grade math performance?

Dweck and colleagues (2011) published three studies about entity theory and effects on learners called “It’s ok –Not everyone can be good at math”: Instructors with an entity theory comfort (and demotivate) students.” In the article, the authors describe a type of feedback to students from adults who believe that the student has low ability in something and then “console them for this lack of aptitude” (p.731). Perhaps this comfort feedback comes from a positive intention; the student’s struggle is visible and the adult wants to provide an easy way out for the student so that he or she does not suffer any more. But Dweck states, “comforting statements communicate that students have a stable low ability…and relegate them to a future of low achievement” (p. 731).

There are invisible ghosts haunting some learners years after the fact, and their name is comfort feedback.

What is comfort feedback?

Here is a story. Once and only once since, I was at the post office sending something to someone halfway across the world. The clerk misspelled the recipient’s name the first time she prepared the documentation, so I corrected the name on the order form, handed it back to her and politely asked if she could correct the recipient’s name so that the recipient would actually receive the package. She made some keystrokes and glanced back and forth between the sheet with the correction and the computer screen. Pressed print and handed me the second iteration. Which had two misspelled errors. Different letters. I took a Sharpie out of my bag and wrote the name in large letters across the document, handed it to her, and said, “Please be more precise. Or, I could type it for you.” The clerk looked at me and said, “I can’t let you in here. I’ll do it again.”

By this time my friend who had been waiting was becoming impatient, and came over to ask what was going on. I said, “The clerk has misspelled the name twice and is now trying a third time.”

My friend let out a loud sigh and said, “Really? How hard can it be to copy a pair of five-letter names?”

At which time a lady who had been waiting behind me said with a scowl to my friend, “Take it easy on her. Not everyone is good at spelling.”

That is comfort feedback. It’s when a person tells another person it’s OK to do something sub-standard because that’s the way the student is.

Comfort feedback could also be positive praise for instance what Dweck calls the “gifted curse”. “You’re so smart” is an example. Mueller and Dweck (1998) in a pivotal study on mindsets found that fifth graders who were repeatedly praised for intelligence cared more for grades than for the learning process. These children “displayed less task persistence, less task enjoyment, more low-ability attributions, and worse task performance than children praised for effort” (APA abstract).

Comfort feedback is the ghost that keeps haunting a learner because repeated comfort feedback results in demotivated learners who find it challenging to see learning as a process, as an improvement continuum. These learners appear to be stuck on the past instead of maximizing approaches to learning in the present; resist instruction that might present challenges or a new zone of proximal development; and may be risk-averse intellectually; possess a high sense of efficacy and low sense of craftsmanship, a situation also known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Comfort feedback endangers a learner who is headed for a high-responsibility program such as the IB Diploma. When confronted with clear descriptions of what success looks like and a two-year formative experience, it might be frustrating to have to improve performance and sustain it over time. When asked to be responsible for process during the Extended Essay or CAS, it might be overwhelming to the fixed mindset to self-assess and evaluate what’s working in their own process and no one providing praise for something they believe is already pre-ordained. We could go on and on here; a fixed theory of learning is not compatible with being part of a system that asks for responsibility and accountability.

We need to be careful with our feedback practices. They come back to haunt.




Photo credit: Broken Gingerbread House with vintage lamp on wooden table by © Oanea Vasile. Used with permission.

Mueller, C. M., & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(1), 33-52.

Rattan, A., & Good, C., & Dweck, C. S. (2012). “It’s ok—Not everyone can be good at math” : Instructors with an entity theory comfort (and demotivate) students. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 731-737.

Author: alavina

Cognitive Coach and author. I simplify personal power so you can use mental resources and find pathways to your goals, be more productive and feel in control every day.

2 thoughts

  1. Hadn’t seen the term “comfort feedback”, but agree this is a trap good hearted people fall into and need to become more aware of the impact it has on our students. Thanks, Aloha!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.