Has the feedback sandwich passed its “eat-by date”? – Karly Neath

sandwichWho would dispute the idea that feedback is a good thing? Evidence from research, our personal experiences, and common sense make it clear: Formative assessment, consisting of lots of feedback and opportunities to use that feedback, enhances student performance and achievement.

A commonly used approach when delivering feedback is the “sandwich method”. You sandwich the negative feedback between the pieces of positive feedback. It has always been done this way, so it must work, right?

This traditional approach might work once, maybe twice. After that people recognize when a feedback sandwich is coming their way and it is the moment that they hear the positive praise.

In fact, we actually start to form a conditioned response (anchor) to positive feedback from an instructor followed by negative feedback. The negative feedback blasts the first positive comment out of the receiver’s brain. The receiver then thinks hard about the negative feedback which drives it into memory. The receiver is now on guard for more negative feedback and cannot hear the positive comments that end the cycle. The result is that what the student is doing well is not being reinforced. This is a good enough reason to search for alternative ways of delivering feedback.

An alternative method has been proposed by Marion Grobb Finkelstein, a member of the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers.

According to Marion, the key to success when structuring feedback is to only offer positive feedback. Here is her formula:

How to Give Feedback:

  1. “When you… (describe his/her behaviour)
  2. …consider doing this” (describe your suggested behaviour)
  3. This will help you get… (describe the benefit, the gain, what they will move towards)
  4. And it will help you avoid…” (describe what they will move away from)
  5. End with an authentic compliment and encouraging praise.

Here is the model put into action:

“Brenda, when writing up your experimental report, consider the idea of including a graphical display to represent your data. This will make your data clear to the reader and avoid the frustration of the time-pressed TA marking your report that would arise if they do not understand your results. Good job on the written component of the report! I look forward to seeing your final version.”

Instead of giving Brenda feedback using the typical sandwich – “Brenda, your report is good but it didn’t have graphs. Your written component was good.” – the new approach communicates the same information with a positive tone.

With this model comes the hope of keeping students engaged and motivated with the end goal of improving student learning. It may have a different flavour than the sandwich that you typically order. But that one is full of bologna anyways!

I encourage you to give this method a try and to research other ideas. Do not be afraid to challenge the traditional sandwich method!

Published by

Mark Morton

As Senior Instructional Developer, Mark Morton helps instructors implement new educational technologies such as clickers, wikis, concept mapping tools, question facilitation tools, screencasting, and more. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Mark taught for twelve years in the English Department at the University of Winnipeg. He received his PhD in 1992 from the University of Toronto, and is the author of four books: Cupboard Love; The End; The Lover's Tongue; and Cooking with Shakespeare.