Wise feedback

Offer wise feedback to build trust across identity differences.

When giving students feedback, educators need to be mindful of how that feedback will be perceived. Students may not know how to interpret criticism of their work, and Black students and others from underrepresented identities in economics may suspect that the negative feedback reflects negative stereotypes. Telling students “I have high standards, and I know you can meet them”—a strategy known as wise feedback—builds trust and helps them excel.

  • Tell students “I have high standards, and I know you can meet them” to clarify the meaning of and motivation for the critical feedback you give on student work, especially for students for whom the feedback is most attributionally ambiguous.
  • Try asking a student what they feel they did wrong, what they think affected their performance, and how they’d like to improve. By bringing them into the discussion, they may feel more heard and you may learn something.
  • Provide feedback that focuses on process rather than on ability. Share a growth mindset.
  • Provide students opportunities for values affirmation.
  • Read Claude M. Steele on diversity and trust on college campuses.

Related: stereotype threat / social-psychological interventions


Experiments by Cohen, Steele, and Ross (1999) examined the response of Black and White college 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 or with an invocation of high standards alone.”

Building on the idea that “trust is the crucial component for successfully delivering critical feedback,” Yeager et al. (2014) examined the ability of wise feedback to restore trust in a series of double-blind randomized field experiments involving for minority adolescents. Wise feedback increased students’ likelihood of submitting a revision of an essay and improved the quality of their final drafts. “Effects were generally stronger among African American students than among White students, and particularly strong among African Americans who felt more distrusting 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.”

Effects of social-psychological interventions in education

Recent randomized experiments have found that seemingly “small” social-psychological interventions in education—that is, brief exercises that target students’ thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in and about school—can lead to large gains in student achievement and sharply reduce achievement gaps even months and years later…How then do psychological interventions generate long-lasting benefits? They do so by setting into motion recursive social, psychological, and intellectual processes in school. As students study and learn and build academic skills and knowledge, they are better prepared to learn and perform well in the future. As students feel more secure in their belonging in school and form better relationships with peers and teachers, these become sources of support that promote feelings of belonging and academic success later. When students achieve success beyond what they thought possible, their beliefs about their potential may change, leading them to invest themselves more in school, further improving performance and reinforcing their belief in their potential for growth. As students do well, they are placed in higher level classes—gateways that raise expectations, expose them to high-achieving peers, and improve subsequent academic opportunities. Through these recursive processes, students gain momentum and achieve better academic outcomes over time—or they do not. A well-timed, well-targeted psychological intervention taps into these recursive processes and thus changes the trajectory of students’ experiences and outcomes in school (see Cohen et al., 2009).

Yeager, D. S., & Walton, G. M. (2011). Social-psychological interventions in education: They’re not magic. Review of educational Research, 81(2), 267-301.
cited Works

Cohen, G. L., Garcia, J., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Apfel, N., & Brzustoski, P. (2009). Recursive processes in self-affirmation: Intervening to close the minority achievement gap. Science, 324(5925), 400-403.

Cohen, G. L., Steele, C. M., & Ross, L. D. (1999). The mentor’s dilemma: Providing critical feedback across the racial divide. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 25(10), 1302-1318.

Yeager, D. S., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., Brzustoski, P., Master, A., … & 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(2), 804.