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One of the students whose work I'm grading has just handed in a piece of work which is much better than what I've come to expect of them after several classes. I was just about to write some rather positive comment on their work, along the lines of "Good job! You're doing much better than you used to.", when it struck me that perhaps this is not such a great idea after all.

The problem is that, even after the jump in performance, the student is by far not the brightest in the group (not that they're not bright; the group is simply very strong overall). This leaves me with a couple of possible concerns. Maybe that would be somewhat unfair to the other students, who usually perform at a consistent level. More importantly, this might come across as a backhanded compliment. Something along the lines of "Well done, you are now about average, which is very high, judging by your abilities." (which of course is very far from what I mean to convey). Are these legitimate concerns?

On the other hand, it feels slightly wrong not to acknowledge improvement. And I usually try to leave some kind word next to a particularly good solutions of people at the top of the group.

So, is it a good idea to comment on the fact that student is doing better? If so, how do I make sure I will not be misunderstood?

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    "You are now about average", that line there made me shoot coffee out of my mouth all over my keyboard . – Damian Nikodem Mar 4 '15 at 5:36
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    "Good job! You're doing much better than you used to." — I think this is perfectly fine. You are honestly praising their improvement, but you are not promising a good grade. – JeffE Mar 4 '15 at 9:45
  • I'm disappointed in myself - It's more likely they just found a better way to approach your material but you say there is a sudden jump in performance for a particular student and my mind goes to, "Did they cheat?" – DoubleDouble Mar 4 '15 at 18:35
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Just personal opinion + some experience.

First, if it's graded and the grade shows a large jump, then I'd just leave it as is.

Second, perhaps the first homework was not a true reflection of the student's ability (sickness, etc.) Just be mindful but I trust that you have gotten a clear impression of the class by now.

I feel that it's okay to remark on the improvement if the last homework was apparently bad (say, like a fail or near-fail.) Otherwise the student may not even realize it was bad all along, and this "better" comment can be a harsh blow of reality.

My desire to remark will grow stronger if I have written some suggested improvements in the last assignment or highlighted the common errors in class and the students actually followed my advices. My rule is to pair each good remark with a reason, and each bad remark with a suggestion. So, rather than "good job!" I'd suggest "good job on [whatever done right]" in order to reinforce such positive behaviors.

And lastly, just my thought and I expect not everyone would agree with me: I don't think giving customized remark or suggestion is a sign of being unfair. If someone struggles and wants to put in the effort to perform better, I wouldn't mind giving more detailed guidance in my feedback. The important thing I always remind myself is while past records are important, we should be prepared to evaluate our students with fresh eyes as well whenever possible. Don't give the impression that we had already given the final grades in our head after the first couple classes.

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    +1 for giving a reason or suggestion and not just good/bad. If you just write "well done" the student might associate it with the wrong attribute of his homework (happened to me in creative writing). – Sumyrda - Reinstate Monica Mar 4 '15 at 6:18
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Try something along the lines of: Keep up the good work!

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There's a fundamental philosophical issue in education about how much "talent" or "ability" matters compared with "effort" and how this interacts with grading specific pieces of student work.

Students are easily demoralized if they believe (or if they're convinced that their teachers believe) that all that matters is native ability. If you reinforce the idea that students can learn and be successful if they make a sustained effort, then this can help to motivate students. However, saying "you worked hard, Good job!" when the resulting work is really not good enough is dishonest and students are likely to see through the lie.

Thus,

  1. You should honestly praise students' effort, particularly when they really are putting in a lot of effort. You should also connect this effort to their successes. e.g. "I see you've been visiting the tutoring sessions three or four times a week. I think that this has helped to improve your homework grades."

  2. You should discuss the students' work objectively and honestly, focus on what could be done to improve it, and do this in a way that makes the student feel that they have a path to follow to be more successful. It's important to offer specific actionable suggestions on how to improve.

It sounds in this case as though you feel that this particular student's work has improved dramatically but that the student still has much further to improve.

Don't just say "Good job", because that reinforces the notion that good work is the result of talent or luck and doesn't offer the student any suggestion of how to do better.

Rather, say something like "This is a substantial improvement on your earlier homework. In particular, I think you've improved a lot in your use of quantifiers in your proofs. However, you're still having trouble constructing proofs by contradiction as in problem 5 of the latest homework. Please review the discussion of this in section 3.3 and then stop by my office some time so that we can discuss this further."

  • Don't just say "Good job", because that reinforces the notion that good work is the result of talent — Huh? I don't understand this at all. Isn't "job" a synonym for "work"? – JeffE Mar 4 '15 at 9:43
  • By leaving it at "Good job" you've done nothing to dispel the false belief that the good work was the result of "talent." – Brian Borchers Mar 4 '15 at 14:15
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    While I too find "Good job" pretty unobjectionable, the suggested alternative is clearly a quantum leap from it. I think the key idea in this answer -- namely, spend your time describing contentfully what has improved and where room for further improvement lies rather than making it about "good or bad" performance in either an absolute or relative sense -- is really an excellent one. – Pete L. Clark Mar 4 '15 at 14:43
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I think it is generally good life advice to be generous with compliments. In cases like yours I would usually say something like "Well done, I very much like the direction of your grades". This would seem uncontroversial to the good students in the group, and not explicitly reference the worse grades he's had in the past.

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