Giving feedback for learning

Turning feedback into a process for improvement is the goal for giving the feedback.

What a learner does with feedback is key to the role of that information in the process of learning. If the goal of giving feedback is to help learners use it to improve, what types of feedback might create the motivation to use it in a process of improvement? And how useful is each type?

The common ways learners receive feedback can give some insight into how each type may or may not result in feeding forward toward learning.

Comfort feedback

Comfort feedback is a term that describes a response like “Good job.” The definitive quality that makes this type of response comforting is when the response includes an assumption about the learner’s intelligence or ability.

An example of comfort feedback might happen when a student has struggled with a problem and has met a lower level of achievement, and the response is “That’s OK. Math is difficult for many people.”

The problem with comfort feedback is that it assumes (1) the process stops at the current struggle or failure and (2) that the failure is due to an implied inner quality of being ‘bad at something.’

The limitations that comfort feedback teaches can provoke a fixed mindset. The learner is taught that she is no good at this process, and that is OK because many people aren’t. Comfort feedback is likely to inhibit learning.

The opportunity teachers have for turning this around is to stop giving comfort feedback.

Evaluative feedback

Evaluative feedback is a judgment and can be either negative or positive. This type of feedback is similar to “Good job” and uses adjectives in the response.

  • “Super”
  • “Excellent”
  • “Great”
  • “Wonderful”
  • “Brilliant”
  • “Outstanding”
  • “Exceptional”
  • “Superb”
  • “Admirable”

Similarly, negative judgments might also contain adjectives like “Poor,” “Unremarkable,” “Unoriginal,” “Ordinary” and “Average.”

These pronouncements are examples responses, which do not contain information on how to learn. When a learner receives evaluative responses to a product or process, the lack of specific information works against the learner.

Dweck (2007), in her discussions on growth mindset, suggests that evaluative responses hold learners to what she calls a ‘tyranny of now’ in which the learner seems stuck in a process. Evaluative feedback implies that the process of production is over; that the learner has done all he could; and that there is nothing more to do. In a study, Dweck reports that learners who received evaluative feedback resolved to address future challenges through:

This effect of shutting down a learner’s motivation and perseverance with difficult tasks puts evaluation in a hotseat. In grading practices, summative performance evaluations seem to be a built-in limitation, since summative tasks are used to arrive at final grades.

The opportunity in the assessment cycles schools have is to delay evaluation. Cult of Pedagogy suggests that delaying grades by building in comments-only feedback into the production cycle of performances allows for feedback to be non-evaluative, and in turn the information in the comments feed forward into action for improvement.

There is still the matter of the language used in that feedback, which brings us to the next type of feedback.


Opinion is personal. When feedback to performance consists of a personal opinion, that response may inhibit learning.

Examples of opinion responses might be something like “I really like your essay. It makes me want to read that book.”

The limitation of opinion is that it presents a narrow context, and it does not hold information that can potentially become a source of specific learning pathways. When a learner hears that something is liked by someone else and that it has resulted in a thought like “want to read a book,” that information does not provide guidance in how the work might be improved, how the producer of that work might target skills, understanding, knowledge, or dispositions and improve those.

Descriptive feedback

Descriptive feedback holds opportunity for learning. This is a type of response which may contain any or all of the following:

Descriptions of product using its specifications referencing previously-agreed upon quality criteria

Descriptions of process using its specifications referencing previously-agreed upon quality criteria

Descriptions of manifestations of skills used in production, which have previously been understood

An example might be:

“The essay states a thesis and the topics of each section correspond to the thesis that is stated.”

What we understand from this description is that:

  • The essay has a stated thesis
  • There is coherence between the stated thesis and the topics of each section in the essay

These might have been expectations previously discussed as task specific clarifications, and validate the production of expected quality.

Another example might be:

“The second body paragraph names two examples of its topic. One example is elaborated on in 3 consecutive sentences. Another example is stated and has not been elaborated.”

The opportunity in the second example is that the response describes what is missing. It signals to the learner that she might check the task specific clarifications or the task’s criterion descriptors to see if ‘elaborating examples’ is a success target for this task.

The opportunity present in descriptive feedback is the continuation of learning and the chance to make the product better. This promotes growth within the process, and suggests that learning is not over but continues, with the learner’s persistence.

Reflective questions

In coaching literature, reflective questions are also called ‘mediative’ questions because these types of questions mediate thinking. A learner who receives a mediative or reflective question receives a prompt to think further about his or her own process.

Reflective questions prompt a mindset for improvement, and are opportunities to nudge a learner’s cognitive resources toward increased craftsmanship and confidence in the task at hand.

For example, suppose the descriptive feedback in the second example for that section is paired with a reflective question:

“The second body paragraph names two examples of its topic. One example is elaborated on in 3 consecutive sentences. Another example is stated and has not been elaborated.” A follow up reflective question might be, What might be some next steps for you in the writing process?

The reflective question puts the learner at the seat of choices and agency in their learning process. Reflective questions bring the learner to a deliberate arena of efficacy in their own learning because the reflective questions prompt further thinking (Costa, Garmston, Hayes and Ellison, 2016) on specific ways to improve. This type of feedback brings learners into the cyclical process of learning and promotes personal, iterative pathways inside their learning cycle.

Feedback can hinder or help learning. The ways that learners receive feedback can be intentionally designed into the learning process, so that the feedback results in persistence, motivation, and similar dispositions, and ultimately, the mindset and resourcefulness that learners need to face challenges.


Featured Photo “Sunrise, Schwäbische Alb, germany” by Lanju Fotografie on Unsplash

Blackwell, L. S. Dweck, C. S., & Trzesniewski, K. (2002). Theories of intelligence and the adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Costa, A. L., Garmston, R. J., Hayes, C., & Ellison, J. (2016). Cognitive coaching: Developing self-directed leaders and learners. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Hong, Y. Y., Chiu, C., Dweck, C. S., Lin, D., & Wan, W. (1999) Implicit theories, attributions, and coping: A meaning system approach. journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 588-

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.

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.

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