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Is it time to abandon the Feedback Sandwich?

Is it time to abandon the Feedback Sandwich?

4 min read
  • Delivering feedback

Giving feedback to students is an essential part of teaching, but it can be challenging to strike a balance between being supportive and critical. In fact, research shows that over one-third of feedback interventions do more harm than good, making it even more important to get the balance right.

One approach that has long been popular is the “Feedback Sandwich”, which is when we sandwich constructive criticism between two pieces of positive praise. The aim is to make constructive criticism come across as more pleasant, but does this actually work? And does this help students improve?

The Feedback Sandwich: Separating fact from fiction

There are only a handful of studies that support the Feedback Sandwich; a recent study found partial evidence that students improved their performance the most when educators used this method compared to students that had no feedback or only constructive criticism.

However, most studies focus on students’ positive perceptions of the Feedback Sandwich rather than whether it is effective in helping them improve. For example, one study found that medical students who were given sandwiched feedback viewed it as more useful, although it was just as effective as other feedback methods and didn’t help to increase grades in their future assignments.

4 drawbacks of the Feedback Sandwich

Overall, there is not a lot of evidence that favours the Feedback Sandwich over other feedback strategies. However, it is widely used, possibly because it is a simple method that provides a clear structure of how to deliver both positive and negative comments.

So, what is stopping the Feedback Sandwich from outperforming other techniques?

1. Makes positive feedback less impactful

    The Feedback Sandwich can be misinterpreted by students as ignoring positive feedback in favour of criticism. This is because starting off feedback with positive comments followed by “but” undervalues encouraging comments and overemphasises negative feedback. As a result, students may feel like they can’t get anything right due to the negative comments holding more weight than the positives.

    2. Feedback feels insincere

      Sandwiching constructive criticism with positive comments can make students question the authenticity of positive feedback and wonder if it’s only there to soften the blow of the criticism. This is especially true with lavish praise over small achievements, as it could give the impression that a teacher has low expectations of them, which can be demotivating.

      3. Gives students an inaccurate view of themselves

        On the flip side, giving students excessive praise can make them think that they are performing much better than they actually are. From this, they can fall into the trap of the Better-Than-Average Effect, which is when students think that their abilities are superior to their peers. The result? Students don’t feel the need to take feedback that will help them improve on board.

        4. Doesn’t motivate students

          For students to make the most out of feedback, they need to be motivated to take it on board. However, research suggests that the format of the Feedback Sandwich doesn’t motivate students to improve any more than other feedback methods. This could be because its aim to balance positive and negative comments can reduce the emphasis on providing students a clear insight into their current performance and how they can improve.

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          3 alternatives to the Feedback Sandwich

          While the Feedback Sandwich is a popular method for giving feedback, it isn’t the only format available. In fact, here are three alternative methods that make the feedback process more engaging, meaningful and actionable for students…

          1. Separate positive feedback from constructive criticism

            Instead of sandwiching constructive criticism with positive comments, positively reinforcing productive behaviours as soon as they happen can boost students’ motivation. Then, giving corrective feedback at a different time point means that it does not take away from the positives.

            From this, students can better process the feedback that they are given in the moment instead of pre-empting what’s coming next.

            2. Use the feedforward approach

              A lot of the time, feedback focuses on the past, whereas the feedforward method emphasises how students can get better for the future. So, giving students advice on what they could do differently next time is more effective than stating the positives and negatives of previous results, as students can set clear goals regarding how they can improve. It also reduces the likelihood of students becoming defensive about what they have done in the past.

              3. Allow feedback to be a two-way conversation

                Sometimes, receiving feedback can come across as one-sided if a student doesn’t have the opportunity to share their perspective. However, when feedback is a dialogue, students can actively take responsibility during the feedback process. This helps them view feedback as an opportunity to improve rather than a personal judgement.

                You facilitate feedback conversations by using both open and closed questions during the feedback process and encouraging students to ask questions too.

                Final thoughts

                Even though the Feedback Sandwich is a simple and time-efficient method, it may not be the most effective for boosting progress, even if students believe it’s helpful. It is certainly up to you to decide what works best for your students and which techniques lead to genuine improvements.

                To support your judgement, the strategies in this blog will support you in delivering wise feedback that is both well-balanced and impactful.

                About the editor

                Bradley Busch

                Bradley Busch

                Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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