Every teacher or coach worth their salt knows that there’s no moment more important than the moment feedback is delivered. Do it correctly, and the learner takes a step forward. Do it poorly, and the reverse happens.
The deeper question is, what’s the secret of great feedback? We instinctively think that effective feedback is about the quality of the information — telling the learner to do this and not that. But is this true, or is there something else going on?
A team of psychologists from Stanford, Yale, Columbia, and elsewhere recently set out to explore that question. They had middle-school teachers assign an essay-writing assignment to their students, after which students were given different types of teacher feedback.
To their surprise, researchers discovered that there was one particular type of teacher feedback that improved student effort and performance so much that they deemed it “magical.” Students who received this feedback chose to revise their paper far more often that students who did not (a 40 percent increase among white students; 320 percent boost among black students) and improved their performance significantly. (See the study here.)
What was the magical feedback?
Just one phrase:
I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.
That’s it. Just 19 words. But they’re powerful because they are not really feedback. They’re a signal that creates something more powerful: a sense of belonging and connection.
Looking closer, the phrase contains several distinct signals:
- 1) You are part of this group.
- 2) This group is special; we have higher standards here.
- 3) I believe you can reach those standards.
The key is to understand that this feedback isn’t just feedback — it’s a vital cue about the relationship. The reason this works so well has to do with the way our brains are built. Evolution has built us to be cagey with our efforts; after all, engagement is expensive from a biological standpoint. But when we receive an authentic, crystal-clear signal of social trust, belonging, and high expectations, the floodgates click open.
I think the lessons for teachers and coaches are pretty simple:
- First, connect: like John Wooden said, they can’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
- Highlight the group: seek ways (traditions, mantras, fun little rituals) to show what it means to belong in your crew.
- Don’t soft-pedal high standards. Don’t pretend that it’s easy — do the opposite. Emphasize the toughness of the task, and your belief that they have what it takes.
If you have any ideas, stories, or examples to share about how coaches and teachers achieve this kind of connection, I’d love to hear them.