The Feedback Sandwich: A Bad Recipe for Motivating Students’ Learning

This past year, I’ve been participating in the hiring process for clinical professor positions at our law school. I’ve observed job talks and engaged with candidates about how they provide supervision. Because I believe that giving students feedback is, perhaps, the hardest part of being a clinical professor, I tend to ask lots of questions about how candidates would, ideally, provide feedback in an academic or practice setting.

I’ve been surprised by how many candidates still ascribe to the “feedback sandwich” as a model for delivering feedback and by how many clinical professors claim they use the model in their teaching. The feedback sandwich is a feedback delivery method that uses a compliment, criticism, compliment format. It’s meant to soften the blow of critical feedback and increase the likelihood that the recipient will actually listen to the “meat” of the sandwich – the corrective measures. But the feedback sandwich has been widely criticized.

Feedback is the backbone of clinical education. One of the greatest benefits of experiential learning is the opportunity to give and receive constant feedback. Feedback helps students develop their skills and their professional identities. Well-designed feedback can lead to increased motivation and learning. But ill-designed feedback can lead to decreased motivation, low performance and disengagement.

No doubt, most feedback is well-intentioned whatever form it takes. The feedback sandwich certainly seems well-intentioned too. Professors often use it to remind students that they can and have done some things well. But danger lurks in the good intentions of comforting feedback.

Researchers have demonstrated that giving students comforting feedback significantly decreases their motivation to learn.  Comforting feedback communicates low expectations. For example, telling a student that plenty of people have difficulty with this skill but may be good at others doesn’t empower students to improve. In fact, it may even suggest that the professor doesn’t think the student can improve.

On the other hand, controllable feedback increases students’ motivation and effort to learn. Controllable feedback gives students the specific strategies they need to improve. For example, suggesting a student talk through strategies used to complete a task, and together develop specific ways that the approach can be improved offers students a pathway to increase their learning.

Don’t let your feedback get hijacked by the sandwich myth. Research shows that when we hide feedback that is critical for learning, students tend to remember the compliments and forget critical aspects that will lead to real struggle and learning. And, importantly, students interpret comforting feedback to mean that they may not be able to improve their performance in this particular skill. Compliments and comforting feedback may help students feel better in the short term, but it doesn’t help them address their deficits.

If you are uncomfortable giving critical feedback, consider the learning culture you foster. The type of feedback one gives reflects one’s mindset. Instructors with a growth mindset foster a belief that students’ intelligence or aptitude can grow with effort and good strategies. Those with a fixed mindset believe that one’s intelligence or ability is mostly fixed, and one can’t significantly change their natural abilities. Researchers have shown that instructors with a fixed mindset give significantly more comforting feedback than instructors with a growth mindset. This makes sense because if we believe a student may not be able to greatly improve their performance despite their best efforts, we seek ways to make them feel better about themselves.

A growth-minded culture allows for feedback to be taken in the spirit it was intended – to provide students with an honest assessment of their performance and concrete ways to improve it. It’s essential for clinical professors to provide growth-minded and controllable feedback. That’s because students can detect instructors’ mindsets. They see through the comforting feedback and come to believe they aren’t capable of significantly upping their game. Only controllable feedback provides a path for sustained improvement and growth. Law students will need to learn to receive and give this kind of feedback as they enter the legal profession, and law schools can play a role helping them manage this process.

2 Responses

  1. Great post with important points for all faculty to think about. This post was particularly timely and salient for me as I grade and return my civil procedure mid-terms. Thanks!

  2. Complimentary feedback to soften the blow of criticism may not be useful but identifying what worked and why it worked is as useful to learners as identifying what didn’t work and why. Students often stumble on “successful” and may not know how or when to repeat what worked in this setting. Having students leave a session or follow up with their own set of “lessons learned” from positive and negative feedback results in a better chance of learning and follow through. I would often asked students to list these in reflections on the feedback that they would submit with next work product.

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