I'm a CS professor who regularly gives feedback on 1st-semester student programming assignments around code styling issues (i.e., grammar, punctuation, spacing, etc.; following the format of our textbook). Frequently I find myself torn between two possible ways of phrasing the feedback. Moreover, I'm now currently developing a tool to help automate the process for my needs, and I'd like to make it as useful as possible.

I can see two different ways of phrasing the feedback:

  1. Say what went wrong. Example: "Missing blank line before comment." In some way, this seems most natural to me, as it resembles most software error messages, etc.
  2. Say what right would have looked like. Example: "Place a blank line before each comment." This is a little longer, perhaps not as direct, but in some way points in a more positive direction.

Since I usually have quite a number of these coming at some students in each assignment (maybe up to a dozen), I want them to be short, clear, and easy to parse (e.g., certainly don't do both, or a "feedback sandwich" triplet).

Is one of these approaches clearly better than the other (or maybe some other alternative)? The best response would address the issue of student understanding and responsiveness to the feedback -- with a research reference to back it up.

The issue is not solely for CS coding assignments, either. I think the same phrasing formulation should be applicable to essays in literature, philosophy, or history, thesis citation styles, etc.

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    I would feel silly answering a much more experienced educator than me, but saying what went wrong and not how to fix it seems more pedagogically useful for a non-trivial example, no? Aug 4, 2021 at 19:21
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    First of all, I never had my professors correct my code formatting and stylistic issues, and I really wish they did. Your students will be glad you're doing this. I know I would be. Secondly, it's harder to come to a conclusion with your given example (the two are very similar). If you can give an example that better highlights the difference between the two approaches, it would be more useful.
    – justauser
    Nov 27, 2021 at 18:29

1 Answer 1


Philosophically, I'd think the first is better, though it seems immaterial in the example you give.

But (a) engaging the student and (b) giving minimal hints should be the goal. The first choice is better at (a), but both of them fail a bit at (b). For the example at hand, an overall comment that the code is too dense and line spacing improves readability might be better.

But the habit of "minimal hints" is worth acquiring in general. Not just for coding. Get them to look critically at their own work. Even creative writing benefits.

  • Unfortunately, most of my starting community-college students are so weak they simply cannot reason from general principles to specific use-cases. E.g., this whole issue is because even after giving general (and precise) rules, these problems are still occurring. Most can only respond after being pointed to specific examples; hence the brief-linter-like tool I developed to automate the feedback. Nov 28, 2021 at 13:58
  • It is subtle and you need to think about it, but "precision" can actually impede comprehension. Examples are good, of course, but being given answers is much less good.
    – Buffy
    Nov 28, 2021 at 14:09
  • To be clear: This won't be the selected answer, because it doesn't clearly answer the given question, and it doesn't help in the case at hand. Nov 28, 2021 at 14:20

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