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