Why Feedback Often Doesn’t Help

By Alfie Kohn

[This is an expanded version of the published article, which was given a different title.]

A lot of people make a living by offering advice about how teachers should give feedback to students — or how administrators should give feedback to teachers. Unfortunately, a body of compelling theory and research raises troubling questions about the value of much of that advice. It turns out that hearing how well we’ve done (typically from someone in a position of power) often doesn’t lead us to improve.

The word feedback, which originated in the world of mechanics, refers to a self-regulating system like a thermostat in which output affects input. Thus, when applied to human communication, the word would seem to apply only to information — as in “Here’s something you did that I noticed…” When feedback is contaminated with evaluation (“Here’s what I think about what you did…”), it tends to become not only less effective but often downright damaging — both to future performance and to recipients’ interest in whatever they were doing.

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