The Power of the Positive Comment: A Challenge
A true story: by the time I’d reached the ninth grade, I had a well-earned reputation as a jerk, albeit one with good grades. I was a jerk to my friends, a jerk to my teachers, a jerk in class, a jerk in the cafeteria. I was probably a jerk when I slept, I was just that good at being a jerk. That year, though, I had a number of extremely good teachers, including one French instructor who saw enough in me that, on my final report card, he included the words: “A fine young man.”
Another true story: I spent my junior year of college overseas at a wonderful university in the UK. Halfway through the year, I received a paper back from one of my professors. Below the lowest grade I’d ever received was a comment that began: “This paper is not a success.”
The latter comment made an impression on me at the time.
But the former comment changed my life.
I’ve been an academic long enough to know that one of the prominent attributes of our particular breed is the ability—indeed, even the compulsion—to critique. No surprise here. Academics are, if nothing else, critical thinkers: we don’t just encounter the world, we question it, seeking to make sense of it. Why does X happen? How do we reconcile Y with Z? Can we make R more effective?
All of which is good, of course. Or can be, in the right context. What happens, though, when we turn that critical eye on our students? Vicki Spandel and Rick Stiggins were telling us as far back as 1990, and it’s not good. When faced with critiques on their writing as mild as “Be more specific,” students respond negatively: “You be more specific.” When comments shifted into more negative territory—“Try harder!”—student responses bordered on apoplectic. “Baloney! You don’t know how hard I tried” is one example. “You’re a stupid jerk” is another (quoted in Bean, 2011, pp. 318–319).
Analyzing these responses, John Bean uses neuroscientist James Zull to point to the amygdala—that part of the brain we tend to associate with fight, flight, or freeze—to explain these responses: “Fear, anxiety, or anger block meaningful learning” (Bean, 2011, p. 320). In short, when we critique our students, they can get defensive. When they get defensive, learning is less likely to happen.
But we can’t help ourselves. Sometimes we’re critical—and even overly critical—because we’re tired. Sometimes because, damn it, this is the sixth paper in a row that made this mistake! Or the sixth exam. Or the sixth presentation. Or the 26th. Teaching can be frustrating and exhausting. And when we’re tired, our filters turn off. When our filters turn off, we start to “Awk” and “No!” and “Try harder!” all over the page.
There’s a lot going on here, of course. I’m not a neuroscientist (and I’ve never played one on TV), but even I know that emotionally charged moments stay with us for a long time—and that our capacity for negative bias causes us to dwell on unpleasant experiences for a longer time. I’m also aware that context and assumptions can play a role in the outsized responses students might have to our comments. Trained by any number of negative schooling experiences, many of them may come into higher ed assuming an adversarial relationship with their professors.
With all this in mind, I’d like to propose an interesting experiment: next time you’re responding to a paper (or an oral presentation, or an academic poster) and jotting ideas to help students get better, include only positive comments.
I know, I know, this sounds impossible. But it’s really not. Yes, there will be errors or “areas for improvement” in every student artifact. I’m not suggesting we pretend they’re not there. Instead, what I’m suggesting is that we only address them by speaking about the positive aspects of the work:
- “I really appreciated how you broke down the complexity of the data on page four, drawing out some of the nuances. Where else in the report might that strategy really pay off?”
- “Your thesis is wonderfully complex, highlighting some applications for this theory that I hadn’t considered before. You do a great job of covering facets A, B, and C. How might you provide the same level of detail for D and E? What might be some useful examples?”
- “Your analysis of the rise of the middle class demonstrates a rich understanding of the ways assumptions about gender were being manipulated; how might the manipulation of cultural assumptions of education have had a similar impact?”
- “Early on in your group’s presentation, I could see you bouncing ideas off each other, anticipating each other’s perspectives. Why do you think you were so well prepared for that section? How could you bring those same impactful approaches into play in the later section of your collaboration?”
This idea comes from the work of Ylvisaker and Feeney (1998), who refer to it as “errorless learning.” At the risk of oversimplifying extremely complex research, my understanding of the logic is as follows: any time we emphasize a mistake in student learning (or student writing, or student work generally), we run the risk of strengthening the neuronal networks upon which that error is based. Indeed, the more attention we pay an error, the more that neuronal network fires. The more that network fires, the stronger it becomes and the more easily the erroneous idea or information or habit of mind is recalled.
By focusing purely on the positive, the unintended consequence of strengthening the network associated with the incorrect information or unproductive practice is avoided—or at least diminished. What’s more, you’ll notice that nearly all the comments listed above have a forward, future-leaning quality to them: How might you? How could you? How would you? We already know that, unless we’re requiring revisions of their papers, generally only the best students carry our comments forward to their later work (Bean, 2011). While the forward-looking nature of these comments won’t necessarily resolve that, certainly tapping into the portions of the frontal lobe involved in planning can’t hurt.
“Can’t hurt”? That’s a sketchy way to conclude an essay on university teaching. But I’m sticking with it. Because in 1981, a French teacher named Mr. Wakeman showed me a self I didn’t realize I was capable of. And I’ve never been the same since.
Bean, J. (2011). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. Jossey-Bass.
Spandel, V., & Stiggins, R. J. Creating writers: Linking assessment and writing instruction. Longman, 1990.
Paul Hanstedt, PhD, is the founding director of the Harte Center for Teaching and Learning at Washington and Lee University and the author of General Education Essentials: A Guide for College Faculty (about to come out in a second edition) and Creating Wicked Students: Designing Courses for a Complex World.