Feedback, Mindset and Motivation – Linked?

By Sarah Donarski

In the lead up to examination season, it is interesting to see different mindsets and ‘self-perceptions’ developing amongst the pupil body. Most notably, patterns of cognitive dissonances seem to appear into our students’ narrative: fragile students perceive themselves to be worse than they are; confident underachievers assert they are ‘fine’; and confident achievers seem too modest to admit they are making adequate progress. As the only feedback they get on their academic progress is through their teachers, it is interesting to consider the ways that our feedback can alter our students’ awareness of their ability. Such thinking has led me to (quite a lengthy) exploration into this question:

To what extent does feedback affect a student’s mindset and, as a result, their motivation – or self-regulation – of knowledge?

Or in other words: How does what we tell our students impact what they believe about their own ability? What I have found is that we need to start reconsidering the ways we give feedback depending on the ability of the pupil and the time of the academic course.


Processing Negative and Positive Information

It is important firstly to note that we process negative and positive information differently. Positive information enables us to affirm our beliefs about ourselves, and it is the information we often pass on to people that we want to see us as ‘our best selves.’ More complex than this, is that – depending on our emotional state – we have moments where we would much rather receive information or compliments that are positive or self-affirming.

Moreover, avoidance tendencies towards negative information or threats are often ‘dominant’ and ‘hardwired’ as undesirable information usually coincides with undesirable emotional responses. Elfers and Hlava (2016) put this clearly in their book ‘The Spectrum of Gratitude Experience’ as they assert:

Information coming into the central switching station of the thalamus is also processed through the amygdala to scan for potential threat or danger. Any hint of threat triggers an alarm bell”.

Over time, these avoidance tendencies may lead pupils to develop a positive or negative bias about their ability.


Negativity Bias

The self-deprecating (re)action to negative information is to draw emphasis to it.   According to Elfers and Hlava (2016) this forces the individual do develop a false positive:

“There are a lot of false positives to the negativity bias, meaning that we are likely to see a lot of threats where none exist. False positives are an error that our ancient threat detection system is primed to take and so it operates on the principle that it is better to be safe than sorry. One false negative – that is, not seeing a threat when one is there – could have fatal consequences. Uncomfortable experiences have longer shelf life in memory. Learning occurs faster from painful experience, dislikes are learned faster than lines, and it the world of relationships, trust is easily lost but challenging to regain”

If a student has invested a considerable amount of time and energy into their work, it makes sense that they may focus on the negative feedback you give them. It could feel uncomfortable and, as a result, be more quickly stored into their longer-term memory than their short term. It may explain why our studious students begin to develop the fixed narrative: “I’m rubbish at English” or “I’m never good at maths.”

– and, as a result, why our students develop a negative self narrative (re: my first blog on the Importance of Understanding Self-Narrative) and why there is the need to equip our students with an awareness of their thinking and mind set.


Positivity Bias

However, why is it that students may feel over-confident or self-assured in a subject even when their grades suggest they are significantly under performing? The self-protective (re)action to feedback can cause the individual to develop (bear with me while I use the term) ‘illusory superiority’ – or, that an illusion that they are doing better than they are.

The pupils who subconsciously ‘flee’ from negative information can develop illusory superiority; they avoid targets and will not remember our ‘critiques’. For them, it appears easier to focus on the positive information.

But here’s the catch: having this positive bias may also actually be helpful in motivating some of our students to achieve as well.

A recent study on illusory superiority – or positivity bias – found that it can be internally motivating. A study by Wehrens (2008) that explored how self-perception and bias may affect an individual’s motivation suggested the following:

Screen Shot 2017-04-28 at 10.27.15

As you can see above, positivity bias may affect students two fold. Figure 1 shows Student A (with positivity bias – and having repeated an academic school year) still under performing compared to Student B who has a greater understanding of their class ability. On the other hand, Figure 2 reveals the outstanding academic improvements that can be made through illusory superiority for students at the bottom end. In Figure 2, Student A engages with the same level of positivity bias as student B, however, was significantly more motivated by their positivity bias than a pupil who already has good academic performance.


How this affects our feedback?

Given the tedious and grey line between altering, building or affecting a pupil’s self perception, it seems the most effective way to give feedback has been propelled into the ether. However, I suggest the information above contains three clear implications:

  1. For reflective thinkers at the top-end, clear instructive feedback can be enough.

Spending a long time on positive and encouraging comments may only be required in younger years, whilst more mature thinkers may ignore and/or be discouraged by vague, positive remarks. If we explore the same illusory superiority picture as earlier, it was clear that a ‘top-end,’ successful pupil was not as encouraged by positive comments and worked just as effectively with clear feedback.

In fact, with some of my A Level and HL IB Learners, there seems to be a real thirst for clear feedback; they often skip the vague: “Wow! Olivia. What a fantastic essay! You’ve really shown a strong understanding of sophisticated language and writer’s craft.”

I am not saying do not compliment them on their efforts. Of course, we have seen the detrimental effects that can occur when a student (or individual) begins to perceive that they are doing “nothing right”. However, perhaps we should reconsider how much time we are investing in these comments when all pupils want is intellectual, clear and instructive feedback; perhaps ‘2 stars and a wish’ becomes less relevant for our more academically minded pupils.


  1. For vulnerable learners, you might need to help develop some positivity bias to drive their internal motivation.

The second implication is that it might be worth being more positive to our more vulnerable pupils. It is why articles like this exist. It is also how Dijk and Kluger (2011) ended up concluding the diagram below. In their study, they found that a student’s ‘Intention to Exert Effort’ was significantly impacted by the positive comments they were receiving. Pupils seemed to generate more ideas – significantly impacted by the level of positive information given:

Screen Shot 2017-03-31 at 14.01.38

Interestingly, of course, is that a pupil’s ability to notice when they were making errors decreased. This is where clear, instructive feedback is also important.


  1. All feedback must be engaged with.

Most importantly, feedback must always be something that our students engage with. This is to stop more vulnerable pupils, and indeed, sometimes our top end pupils, from ignoring feedback and developing any bias at all.

Pupils see a target as encouragement rather than a threat when they engage with it. It changes how they think about your feedback – it becomes a goal rather than a critique.

In the paper ‘Making Sense of Assessment Feedback in Higher Education,’ Evans draws on the importance that Braksick (2000) places on ensuring that there is clear delineation between positive, negative and constructive feedback.

Braksick (2000) proposed that positive feedback is used to encourage desired behavior whereas negative feedback focuses on the “bad side” and does little to improve performance (p. 146). In this sense, negative feedback is likened to a form of criticism and is often directed at the individual rather than to the undesired behavior of the individual. As an alternative to negative feedback, Braksick (2000) suggests the use of constructive feedback. She asserts that constructive feedback is intended to, “discourage an undesired behavior and replace it with a preferred behavior”

 She continues:

“When feedback merely indicated that a response was correct or incorrect; it resulted in a lower effect than when the feedback in some way informed the learner of the correct answer” (p. 232). The basic feedback and elaborate feedback manipulation implemented in this study closely parallels Bangert-Drowns et al.’ s (1991) definitions of feedback that was corrective and explanatory, respectively. Results from the current investigation suggested positive effects in both the basic and elaborate feedback conditions for each group. That is, improvement was observed on subsequent attempts regardless of the feedback type received suggesting possible practice effects. However, significant differences were identified between the BF Group and the EF Group. Overall, there was a significant difference in performance and learning gain for individuals who received elaborate feedback relative to basic feedback.

Moreover, there are numerous more articles that confirm the claim that, unless interacted with, feedback can be forgotten. This is most likely due to a student’s reaction to negative information; their need and/or want to develop a positive bias.

It seems that feedback is not only crucial for ensuring that our students to not develop any positive or negative bias but can further assist the motivation and self-regulation of our students. Biases that occur are a natural reaction to the way we receive negative information; some people will ignore it, and others will reflect too strongly on it. As a result, it becomes increasingly clearer that the level of positivity or negativity we use in feedback may differ depending on the ability, age and emotional maturity of our class. Most vital, however, is that feedback is engaged and interacted with as may assist all students in developing a more accurate awareness of their ability.





Further reading:

Making Sense of Assessment Feedback in Higher Education Author(s): Carol Evans Source: Review of Educational Research, Vol. 83, No. 1 (March 2013), pp. 70-120 Published by: American Educational Research Association

The Role of Student Processing of Feedback in Classroom Achievement Author(s): Ellen D. Gagné, Robert J. Crutcher, Joella Anzelc, Cynthia Geisman, Vicki D. Hoffman, Paul Schutz and Lloy Lizcano Source: Cognition and Instruction, Vol. 4, No. 3 (1987), pp. 167-186 Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.

The nature of feedback: how different types of peer feedback affect writing performance Author(s): Melissa M. Nelson and Christian D. Schunn Source: Instructional Science, Vol. 37, No. 4 (JULY 2009), pp. 375-401 Published by: Springer

Task type as a moderator of positive/negative feedback effects on motivation and performance: A regulatory focus perspective Author(s): DINA VAN DIJK and AVRAHAM N. KLUGER Source: Journal of Organizational Behavior, Vol. 32, No. 8 (NOVEMBER 2011), pp. 1084-1105 Published by: Wiley

Wehrens, M. J. P. W. (2008). How did YOU do? Social comparison in secondary education s.n