Positive Feedback: Encouraging Mistakes

Students in my class recently took an evaluation of me as a teacher, run by our principal, and one interesting feedback I received went as follows:

Sometimes overly gratuitous, although a necessary by-product of higher involvement.

think I know what the student is trying to say here: he/she/it is saying that I’m overly positive or too eager to give praise.  I also think that they see that as essential for having an engaged and “involved” class.  Or maybe that’s me as a teacher thinking about it from an analytical teacher perspective.

Too Much Praise

So is there such a thing as too much praise?

If I were a parent, I could be worried about “you participated–let’s give you an award” problem that many parents have.  But can that problem occur in class?  I suppose if the praise isn’t merited or deserved then your praise would become commonplace and useless.

One Positive + Negative

When I do have to give criticism or negative feedback to students’ suggestions, I find that I often try to focus on pointing out any possible positives as well as making sure they know they are wrong.

“Oh, I can see exactly why you might think that–it’s a good idea, but I think you made one little mistake.”

“Ooh, that’s a great point!  We hadn’t discussed drawing force diagrams yet, so great job being creative!  But does anyone see a possible problem with that?”

This kind of talking reminds me of one of my graduate school classes in education where a professor talked about writing “Lincoln Letters” any time you needed to write to a parent, or even an administrator or fellow colleague.  A “Lincoln Letter” is a letter where you are trying to say or ask something difficult from someone, but you couch the criticism or negative stuff inside of a lot of positive language.  I’ve used this kind of thinking when writing e-mails to parents with children who do little to no work in class, or who speak out:

“Yes, so-and-so has great social skills!  I just wish that they directed those social skills outside of my class and focused more on their math rather than what happened over the weekend.”

Encouraging Mistakes

I think the biggest reason I’ve been focused on adding something positive in class when students make mistakes is that I want to encourage students to be risk-takers in class.  Okay, so I suppose I’m not encouraging mistakes, I’m encouraging them taking risks and admitting the possibility that they will make mistakes.

When I ask them, students will tell me that (outside of assessments) mistakes are a good thing to make, recognize, and learn from.  However, when I ask a question, many students are still hesitant to look “foolish” in front of their peers by making a mistake.

It’s so easy to blame their education up til now, and I am mostly thinking of seniors in HS when I have this problem (seniors who had me last year… oops), so I’m working against 15 or so years where mistakes may have been more frowned upon than what I’m doing, but I can and should continue to look for ways to help them become intellectual risk-takers.

And I’m definitely starting some, if not all, of my classes with the marshmallow challenge.



Filed under Teaching

2 responses to “Positive Feedback: Encouraging Mistakes

  1. “I can and should continue to look for ways to help them become intellectual risk-takers.”

    That says is all. Thanks for sharing 🙂

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