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?
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:
- 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".
- Emphasize both the good and the suboptimal parts of their work. It is important to balance both positive and negative feedback.
- 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.
- 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! :)
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.