I realize that I have some difficulty giving feedback to students when they have expected to have a good grade and/or they have invested a lot of time. My impression is that there is a trade-off between clearly pointing out the weaknesses of the students' paper and, on the other hand, motivating them to continue and making it clear that such feedback is part of the normal learning process. How can oral feedback be structured to ensure that both are possible?

  • For the purposes of constraining answers to this question and making them more useful, please tell us in what setting are you giving oral feedback. Is it a one-on-one? Is it student-initiated? What prompts this feedback? Is it at the end of the semester (where they have essentially no chance to improve), or somewhere in the middle (where your feedback is directly actionable)? Commented May 1, 2021 at 10:37
  • I didn't want to make the question too specific so that it could be applied to other settings. In this case, the students hand in a first draft of their paper, and they get a grade and feedback for this first draft, oral and one-on-one.
    – sophar
    Commented May 1, 2021 at 12:40

2 Answers 2


From my perspective as a PHD student (the other side of the spectrum) I feel that there are some crucial aspects to giving helpful and encouraging feedback:

  1. Give the student constructive criticism. Give them the feeling that you are supportive of what they did (regardless of quality) and that you are giving feedback to improve their work in the future. Make them feel safe. Speak about what could be done better in the future and not about what went wrong or what they "should have done".
  2. Emphasize both the good and the suboptimal parts of their work. It is important to balance both positive and negative feedback.
  3. Avoid words like "however" and "but". It is almost always discouraging to hear positive feedback followed by a "however". It (in my opinion) completely devalues what was said beforehand.
  4. Check in if they understood your criticisms correctly to avoid misunderstandings.

I hope my answer is at least somewhat helpful to you, if not, you now have the possibility to practice and give me your feedback! :)

  • Thanks! I like the focus on future behaviour/improvements. I'm afraid that speaking about "good" vs "suboptimal" is not enough for the student to understand the bad grade. Imagine you invested a lot of time, you think you did a good job, but the teacher is not clear about your paper's negative aspects. Does this change anything from your point of view?
    – sophar
    Commented Apr 30, 2021 at 11:20
  • 1
    I understand your problem. It is always extremely difficult to criticize and to convey this in such a way that the other person can understand and that it does not sound discouraging. I believe it is important in this case to be as transparent as humanly possible as to where the bad grade is coming from. It might be a useful in this case to take the time and give the student a well-intentioned, personal "speech of advice" on how to proceed and improve. Depending on what kind of student you are dealing with, this may well be perceived as very positive and instructive.
    – pbaer
    Commented Apr 30, 2021 at 13:12
  • @sophar One thing that might help is just stating "I can tell you put a lot of work into this", that reassures the student that their effort isn't just being ignored and that, even if they didn't get things correct, the work they put in is noticeable. Commented May 1, 2021 at 4:34
  • What if the "However, ..." is positive? :) Commented May 1, 2021 at 4:37
  • @Ulhaq Then it is a great use of the word, I suppose :)
    – pbaer
    Commented May 1, 2021 at 5:36

Giving feedback only after the mark is closing the stable doors after the horse has bolted.

I focus instead on the unsaid part of this question:

Make a point of giving the students feedback long before the mark, and as early as possible. Adjust their expectation early and the relation between their effort, performance and what they can expect at the end. Show them how to adjust their efforts as to approach their expectations.

In many cases, the efforts will then be reflected in the outcome, and students won't be surprised when it is not good. In some happy cases, their expectations may even be exceeded.

Sadly, there is the case of high effort and still disappointing results; these are comparatively rare, but the most difficult to deal with and it's probably these that your question ultimately needs to focus on. Here the question is: did they make progress at all? If they did, I channel here the other response; encourage them to continue along this path and push further. Clearly things take longer for them, but have an effect.

If they didn't make progress at all, then there may be many reasons for that, temporary or long-term personal or health problems, or simply lacking of aptness for the topic. However, dealing with this is outside of your remit. The best you can do is giving them general advice for improvement in an empathetic way, or suggest whether there is some way they can continue their study without being held back by their deficits in the particular topic.

  • 1
    Good answer. Just to help with finding more resources, the key phrase for giving feedback before the high stakes grade is formative feedback. Building in opportunities for formative feedback before turning in a complete project provides more opportunities for constructive criticism that students will actually read and use. In contrast, students tend to skim summative feedback but focus more on the grade than the explanation. Commented Apr 30, 2021 at 15:28
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    I wish these were always possible, but often it is not. Firstly, students rarely put the same amount of effort into work that doesn't carry a consequential grade. Secondly, we rarely get enough opportunities to interact with undergrads to provide formative feedback that is useful. Finally, because not all teaching staff will have the same time available for feedback, we are generally limited by rules on how much feedback we can provide prior to submission of a graded piece of work, so ensure all students get equal support. Commented Apr 30, 2021 at 15:41
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    @IanSudbery There are a number of tricks you can use. You can pick snippets of student solutions from practicals and discuss things all around (I ask for permission, of course). You can explain common mistakes, you can ask questions during lectures and work yourself with the class towards the right answer (yes, this works if done properly!). People need to know where their deficits are, where their potential for improvement is, and that they actually can improve. Commented Apr 30, 2021 at 16:03
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    @TaliesinMerlin Purely from the point of view of quality pedagogy, you are, of course, correct. However, at one remove from pedagogic purism, I'm sad to say that in my experience, teaching-focused universities' performance-measurement and workload-allocation models strongly disincentivize staff from spending time on providing useful formative feedback. And at two removes, it's somewhat understandable that university managers build the models that way, because quality formative feedback is not something they can easily market to prospective students, nor to compilers of league tables. Commented Apr 30, 2021 at 16:34
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    We 3 sorts of modules - lecture modules (100% essay based exam), dissertation (100% on a single piece of coursework) and skills modules where assessment is mixed. In lecture modules I always offer to students to provide feedback on specimen questions. On average I get about 2 people take me up on this from a class of 40. Similar with test-yourself questions I provide. The best opportunities for feedback are the skills modules, which include learning essay writing. But even the essay they write in the first week of term is credit baring - although it pedagogical function is formative. Commented May 1, 2021 at 8:18

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