Negative Feedback

In one of my courses last year we were prepping for the state exam, which is the exam the students must pass to complete their university careers without tears and a lot of explanations to their parents.

One day I had the students do mock oral exams, in which the students gave other students questions and follow ups. At the end of each student’s turn I had instructed them to give feedback. The first student finished, and he was rather excellent. His English is better than mine, he was thoughtful and concise, and even used some of the strategies we had discussed.

When the students gave him feedback I quickly became aware of the fact that it was all negative. Mind you, it wasn’t aggressive or mean-spirited, it was just focused on the few things he didn’t do very well. He took it in stride and got up to leave and I said, “Any positive feedback?”

“Oh,” one of them said. “Yeah, your English is incredible. And you hit all of the points you were supposed to and you used lots of the tactics we talked about in class.” The second student on the board got involved as well and focused on his lovely use of stress and intonation to convey emphasis. He left and he was smiling as he did so.

I was reflecting on that morning class from last May last week while talking about feedback with a colleague. It seems he had done a presentation for some visiting students last month and had not received any feedback. He spoke to the administrator in charge who mumbled that they had loved it.

“Loved it?” he asked.

“Yeah, they were very happy with it. They liked you very much.”

“Oh. Nobody told me.”


Hm. Down the rabbit hole of past feedbacks I went. It occurred to me that this was exemplary of my time as a teacher or, really, a working adult. Negative feedback is what you hear about, not positive feedback. I can’t remember the last time I got an email from a person who just wanted to tell me what a great job I was doing. I have never been called into the office “to talk” because my boss wanted to hand me a box of chocolates and award me a ribbon for the most positive feedbacks of the month.

Unfortunately, it just doesn’t usually happen like that, doesn’t it? The most positive feedback we often get is nothing – not a word. If things are going smoothly, then you are left to do your job and that is our positive feedback. In fact, I have found that the positive feedback for doing a job well done is a big juicy ball of ironic “thank you for doing a great job” pile of more work. Yes, nothing better than being punished for being hardworking, reliable, and conscientious.

There’s no doubt that negative feedback is a must at times, we need to know what we’re doing that isn’t working in order to fix it. However, let us not forget to give positive feedback too. And forget business, too. I mean telling people you interact with on a daily basis that you think they are doing a great job. You can even be specific. You never know, it might brighten someone’s day and make them feel more appreciated.

And just to get the ball rolling – you guys rock! Thank you for being great readers.

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