There is no failure, only feedback

Theodora Papapanagiotouby Theodora Papapanagiotou

If we lived according to the dictionary, feedback would be “helpful information or criticism that is given to someone to say what can be done to improve a performance…” In reality, what we do is grade our students’ tests and exercises and point out what was wrong, mark their essays, and write correct answers. That’s what we often call and consider to be feedback. It looks like we use this F-word in a wrong and utterly inappropriate way…

I am afraid that in the majority of school systems the notion of feedback has a lot to do with grades. If the grades are good, the student is doing well. But is this always the case? Does a grade actually show the ability of a student? We realize that each student is different, and their unique personalities have varied interests, likes, dislikes, and ambitions, which all have an impact on students’ learning that we put to test. How can a limited set of grades clearly and extensively determine their abilities? More than that, if grades are the only feedback we give our students, can we ever be sure they benefit from it?

Feedback should not be about how we control the students, nor should the students perceive grades as feedback. It is crucial, at least in my own humble opinion, to monitor our students both for their general performance and results in specific tasks, to praise them for their hard work and effort and, ultimately, scaffold them to new extremes. And then turn to them – do they actually understand our praise, our criticism, our support, our positive and negative feelings?

If we want change, it’s important to involve our learners more actively, make them think critically about their learning and take part in the feedback process. For example, when we tell them how we assess their performance, the students themselves have to realize what’s in it for THEM. Why do they have to learn? Why do they have to do the tasks they do? How do they benefit from these tasks? The answers to these questions might give a bigger picture of learning for both students and the teacher.

A simple and effective way to involve students in their own learning is through working with a KWL chart. I have recently been doing that with my students and trainees and found this technique engaging and beneficial. The chart asks to think and note down answers to three simple questions:

What I Know

What I Want to know (to be answered before the session)

What I Learned (to be answered after the session)

By using this chart, from the very beginning we can activate and assess their schematic knowledge on a subject, not to mention enthuse them and get them curious, motivated and encouraged to learn something new. By the end of an activity or a session we can get students to analyze their learning experience themselves, match their objectives with the results, and in this way give self-assessment.

I believe our feedback to students must be:

  • descriptive – describe the problem, do not accuse them of making errors but instead provide with strategies that will enable them to improve and avoid such errors in the future;
  • in-time – students need to know how they have done on a task almost immediately! Assess the occasion and decide when would be the most appropriate time to do give feedback. Don’t wait too long!
  • sensitive don’t discourage your students by being overly critical, praise them for their effort instead.


It is our job as teachers to educate our learners on how to evaluate themselves and encourage peer assessment. It is our job to offer opportunities to give each other feedback in group and pair activities. We should teach students how to receive, ponder on and apply the constructive criticism which they are exposed to.  We should encourage them to use this technique in all aspects of their lives. Most importantly, don’t forget:

Keep improving – Κeep learning – Κeep moving!

Group Feedback Sessions: Beliefs and Techniques

Zhenya PolosatovaBy Zhenya Polosatova

For the last 10 years I have been working as a teacher trainer on short-term intensive pre-service and in-service courses in various parts of the world. These courses vary in length (from two to six weeks) and in main focus (TESOL, TEFL, teaching Young Learners, etc.), but they all have a practical component where the course participants teach lessons to the learners of English, taking turns to lead a part of the lesson, observe each other doing it, and then sit down together for group feedback sessions. In this post I would like to share some beliefs and rationale for making choices and decisions during such sessions as a trainer.

First of all, in the life outside our classroom feedback can be defined as ‘information about the results of a process’. If we agree that a lesson is a process, then feedback is an appropriate professional development tool for us teachers to grow. Here are some reasons (the Why) for having feedback sessions on an intensive training course, listed in my subjective order of priority:

  •  helping the teachers develop their reflective competence as a skill that they can continue using after the course ends
  • modeling a (possible) teacher development tool they will experience in the future career (giving and receiving feedback from peers)
  • facilitating professional relationship (again, for the actual/potential workplace)
  • inspiring positive attitude towards giving and receiving feedback from others
  • helping the individual teachers meet the standards and receive the certificate

A typical feedback session on courses I run ‘covers’ these aspects (the What):

  1. discussing whether the lesson objective/aim was achieved, and the evidence for that;
  2. discussing the strengths of the lesson — the aspects, techniques, and tasks that helped student learning and facilitated their achievement of the lesson objective (in planning or delivering the lesson);
  3. discussing the areas that might be improved for better facilitating student learning (again, in planning or delivering the lesson).
Taking teachers through the reflective process. A slide from the presentation Teacher Change Beyond Borders: Regional Impact of Experiential Professional Development by Josephine Kennedy, Kevin Giddens and Helena Simas, with World Learning and AMIDEAST, TESOL Convention 2016
Taking teachers through the reflective process. A slide from the presentation Teacher Change Beyond Borders: Regional Impact of Experiential Professional Development by Josephine Kennedy, Kevin Giddens and Helena Simas, with World Learning and AMIDEAST, TESOL Convention 2016


Now, since we talk about group feedback session, we can think Who can be the source, or provider of the ‘information’ to the participant who was observed (I will call him/her ‘Teacher’ below). The options are obvious: the trainer and/or the peers from the group.

If we put together the Why, the What and the Who, we will see two main approaches to group feedback sessions, or the How:

individual (one by one, participant by participant): the trainer is asking questions (largely based on the What above), and the Teacher is answering; other participants might, or might not be involved in the conversation; the trainer might then give a brief summary of their own thoughts on the lesson.

interactive (in small groups): participants are working in groups, the Teacher works with the participants who observed it, and they discuss the questions; the trainer might give a brief summary of their own thoughts on the lesson — group by group, or to the whole group after everyone is finished.

I have experienced both of the approaches, as a trainer and as a course participant, so I can see advantages and disadvantages to either way. For example, discussing the lesson and sharing trainer comments in one large group means that everyone gets exactly the same ‘information’ about learning and teaching strategies, techniques and practices. A disadvantage, however, might be that there is much less ‘depth’ in such discussion as the time is limited and the trainer has to ‘go through’ all the teachers who taught on that day.

On the other hand, letting participants work in small(er) groups or pairs takes away some control from the trainer, allows them to be more independent and talk about the areas they feel are important for the lessons they taught or observed on that day. It does mean that each group might spend the time discussing various aspects, and not all group members are on the same page.

As you might have already guessed, I personally prefer running feedback sessions in small groups. To solve the problem of not having the trainer next to each participant during the whole session, I monitor closely moving from group to group and leave some ‘trainer time’ at the end of feedback. I also vary tasks, or specific questions to guide the discussion, if needed, and use interactive techniques to keep the conversation going. Some examples of such techniques include the following:

  • the teachers who observed the lesson (let’s call them Observers) become ‘trainers’ and ask guiding questions to the Teacher;
  • everyone writes down ‘memorable moments’ of the lesson (taught or observed), after which the Teacher picks the ones s/he would like to focus on. Depending on the available resources, the ‘moments’ can be written on small cards, posters, or boards;
  • the Observers create a poster for the Teacher which displays metaphors, learnings, questions, concerns. The Teacher then decides what s/he would like to have feedback on, and the conversation begins;
  • the trainer records and collects teaching beliefs brought up during the conversations in pairs, participants then decide if they agree or disagree with them.

[Note: as a trainer, I observe the lesson closely taking a lot of written notes, both on the lesson plan and on the lesson ‘flow’ as it is happening, so each Teacher receives a detailed written feedback after the feedback session finishes.]

You might have noticed that the techniques above are largely ‘borrowed’ from interactive speaking or writing lessons/input sessions, and they don’t feel like feedback to the Teachers receiving it. Feedback session on a course is a process, not just the fact of obtaining information, and oftentimes the conversation brings new depths and insights to the trainer. This could be part of the reason why I prefer to refer to such sessions as Guided Reflection Sessions as opposed to Feedback in my training courses.

Finally, by letting the participants be in charge of the depth and quality of feedback for each other we trainers model how learner autonomy can be encouraged, and how the principle of ‘meeting learners where they are’ works in action. In a way, that helps to make a bridge between teacher autonomy and student autonomy, and lead to more independent and productive learning. Do you share the same belief?

TESL Student Feedback

PatricePalmerBy Patrice Palmer

In my role as a TESL trainer, I believe that the most important aspect of practicum observation is for students to mentally prepare themselves for feedback. I tell students BEFORE they start teaching that my feedback is given in the spirit of professionalism with the goal to help them develop their teaching skills. I also make sure that they understand that feedback is based on their teaching skills only and is not a reflection of them as people. These are two very different things.

In my experience, the majority of teacher-trainees have responded well to feedback and are actually grateful for advice on how to improve their teaching skills. Unfortunately, a small number have viewed feedback as negative and/or as criticism.

Here are two good examples from former TESL students enrolled in the same course:

Student A 

“I feel there is so much to remember in a lesson in terms of how to organize, what questions to ask, when to ask, etc….I feel jumbled. I appreciate your feedback – it is so sensible and valuable. I know I have great deal to learn and trust it will come more naturally in a real-life setting and in time. I value your insight as you have practical and beneficial comments that promote positive change. Thank you again for all your efforts to help me improve”.

 Student B

“Your criticism of my teaching seems to be negative and critical. I am just about the finish my TESL program and I don’t feel ready”.

So how can two people have very different views on their feedback? It should also be noted that Student A did not perform better than Student B. I believe it could relate to having either a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. Let me explain.

For the past twenty years, Dr. Carol Dweck (listen to her TEDtalk Developing a Growth Mindset here) and her colleagues at Stanford University have been conducting research in the area of student success related to their beliefs regarding qualities, abilities and intelligence. As a side note, I’d like to say that my own views on teaching and learning have been greatly influenced by Dr. Carol Dweck and her book, Mindsets, but that is another blog post. In any case, in relation to learning the theory of mindsets focuses on areas such as how students face challenges and obstacles, their effort, and feedback. A person with a fixed mindset would respond poorly and see feedback as criticism, whereas a person with a growth mindset would learn from feedback and suggestions, embrace the strategies suggested as a way to improve, and act on the feedback from the instructor.

Dr. Dweck recently spoke at the Leaders to Learn from Conference Education Week in the United States. In her talk she suggested that teachers should not “use mindsets to label students.“ She also pointed out that “there’s a misconception that every student and teacher can be put into one of two categories: those with growth mindsets and those with fixed mindsets, but in reality, everyone “has a little bit of both.”

As I prepare for the end of course practicums, I am mindful of how my feedback is perceived, and of the fact that I want to encourage new teachers, not demoralize them. It is a fine balance and I am still walking that tightrope.

mindset References:

Blad, E. (March 2016). Leaders to Learn from Conference – Washington. Retrieved from

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House

Holmes, N. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Breaking The Cycle of Failure

Chuck Sandyby Chuck Sandy

I hadn’t realized my 10th grade math teacher had been watching me struggle, but as I closed my book and put my pencil down in frustration she walked over and asked me if I was alright. “No, I’m not all right. I can’t do this,” I said. She pulled up a chair and sat down. Then she asked, “are you using everything you’ve been given to solve the problems?”

Thinking she might be criticizing me, I got defensive. “Of course I am,” I said angrily. “I don’t think you are,” she replied as she opened my book back up to the proper page. “Who have you asked for help?” I thought about this for a moment and said, “No one.” She handed me my pencil and said, “then you haven’t used everything you’ve been given to solve your problems. Let’s get to work.”
As I noted her use of the word let’s and her shift from the problems to your problems she asked if I was willing to let her help me. I agreed I was and she promised that she would. Then for the last few weeks of that semester between classes, during class, and after school she set aside time to work with me.

Whenever I didn’t understand something she’d say, “so you’re not ready do to X yet and that’s ok. I know you can do Y though, so let’s go back to that point and figure out where we got lost. Meanwhile, try this.” Then she’d offer me some new strategy to use on a problem I could do, and when I used that successfully she’d congratulate me. “See, I knew you could do it,” she’d say. Eventually I started to believe her and as I did something changed inside me. I started to feel good about myself and looked forward to her class. Maybe I wasn’t a failure after all.

That’s why it wasn’t a catastrophe when my high score on the final exam wasn’t enough to save me from getting an F in the course. Yes, I failed the course, but because this teacher had given me a place to stand, a way forward and a path out, the second time through her course I came pretty close to getting an A.

More importantly, I finally broke out of the cycle of failure I’d gotten trapped in.

Over the years I’ve thought a lot about this teacher and the way she’d helped me to break the cycle. By the time I’d gotten to her class in 10th grade I knew for a fact that I couldn’t do math. I was also pretty sure I was a loser and that everyone knew it. Though I could tell you the long story about how I’d come to believe this about myself, I don’t really need to because my story could be anyone’s story.

You hit a bad patch, skip a few classes, and now you have no idea what’s going on. Then you move to a seat in the back of the class and hope no one will notice how lost you are. You haven’t done your homework because you don’t know how so why even bother? Then what’s this? It’s a quiz on which you just scored close to zero. All you want to do is get out of that room where you’re failing and find some place where you possibly could feel better about yourself.

But that’s when your teacher decides to pull you over and tell you that you really need to try harder and wonders why you’re so unmotivated and says something like “you’re going to fail my class unless you shape up” without giving you a clue about how you might do that. That’s what my 6th grade math teacher told me before adding “and don’t ever come to this room without your homework done.”

All that talk does is scare you and when you do come back with your homework done it’s all wrong because you still don’t know how to do it. But all you get is that lecture again and then you fail and you fail and you fail and now it’s not just that one class. It’s everything and you’re sinking fast and there’s no place to stand until you get to the 10th grade and you’re lucky enough to have a teacher who gives you one. Yet there’s more to the story as there always is.
There’s also the story about how much easier it is to turn on the television or hang out with friends than it is to work at something you’re not good at. Then there’s the story about not fitting in with your peers or maybe you come from a family who doesn’t have much and your whole life is a struggle, or maybe it’s that you’re overweight or your clothes are out-of-style hand-me-downs or you don’t feel well or you’re depressed but you know this part of the story, too. There are a million reasons why someone might start the slide into failure and wind up in danger. Failure is complex, multi-layered and human. No one is immune.

Whatever the reasons students might get trapped in a cycle of failure, I’ve never seen any of mine get out of that trap because someone’s given them a lecture about trying harder or because they’ve seen some meme on social media about how failure is just a part of success so stand up when you fall down. The only times I’ve seen real change made were those times when someone pulled up a chair like my 10th grade math teacher did and offered a place to stand. Then even if a failing grade should still happen, that not really failure because there’s now at least the possibility that the cycle of failure could be broken.

I learned this as I was failing a 10th grade math class. None of this is easy and there are no guarantees it will work, but I’ve learned that the way out begins by asking are you alright? Are you using everything you’ve been given to solve this problem. Who have you asked for help? Well, I’m willing to help you if you want some help and yes, I do understand you can’t do this now, but I know you can do this other thing and here’s how we could get started on that.

That this offer of help is sometimes rejected hardly matters. Even pulling up that chair and making the offer let’s students know that their struggle has been acknowledged, that there’s a place to stand if they want one, that there is a way forward and a path out. It says I know this is hard for you but I’m here if you need me. You could open your book, pick up your pencil, and we could begin here.