Wise criticism

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Telling students “I have high standards, and I know you can meet them” builds their trust and helps them excel. Students may not know how to interpret criticism of their work. African-American students in particular may fear negative feedback reflects negative stereotypes. When teachers clarify why they are giving feedback, students can feel more trusting, focus on their work, and get better grades. (SPARQ, 2014) Consider, also, providing opportunities for values affirmation.


Yeager, D. S., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., Brzustoski, P., Master, A., Hessert, W., Williams, M. & Cohen, G. L. (2014). Breaking the Cycle of Mistrust: Wise Interventions to Provide Critical Feedback Across the Racial Divide. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143, 804-824.

Three double-blind randomized field experiments examined the effects of a strategy to restore trust on minority adolescents’ responses to critical feedback. In Studies 1 and 2, 7th-grade students received critical feedback from their teacher that, in the treatment condition, was designed to assuage mistrust by emphasizing the teacher’s high standards and belief that the student was capable of meeting those standards—a strategy known as wise feedback. Wise feedback increased students’ likelihood of submitting a revision of an essay (Study 1) and improved the quality of their final drafts (Study 2). Effects were generally stronger among African American students than among White students, and particularly strong among African Americans who felt more mistrusting of school. Indeed, among this latter group of students, the 2-year decline in trust evident in the control condition was, in the wise feedback condition, halted. Study 3, undertaken in a low-income public high school, used attributional retraining to teach students to attribute critical feedback in school to their teachers’ high standards and belief in their potential. It raised African Americans’ grades, reducing the achievement gap. Discussion centers on the roles of trust and recursive social processes in adolescent development.


Geoffrey L. Cohen, Claude M. Steele and Lee D. Ross The Mentor's Dilemma: Providing Critical Feedback Across the Racial Divide, Pers Soc Psychol Bull, 1999 25: 1302

Two studies examined the response of Black and White students to critical feedback presented either alone or buffered with additional information to ameliorate its negative effects. Black students who received unbuffered critical feedback responded less favorably than White students both in ratings of the evaluator’s bias and in measures of task motivation. By contrast, when the feedback was accompanied both by an invocation of high standards and by an assurance of the student’s capacity to reach those standards, Black students responded as positively as White students and both groups reported enhanced identification with relevant skills and careers. This “wise,” two-faceted intervention proved more effective than buffering criticism either with performance praise (Study 1) or with an invocation of high standards alone (Study 2). The role of stigma in mediating responses to critical feedback, and the implications of our results for mentoring and other teacher-student interactions, are explored.


Yeager, D. S., Paunesku, D., Walton, G. M. & Dweck, C. S. (2013). How Can We Instill Productive Mindsets at Scale? A Review of the Evidence and an Initial R&D Agenda

This survey includes results of a randomized experiment testing the full-scale implementation of a web-based growth mindset intervention at a large four-year university in Texas.