Unfair teacher feedback means demotivated students

Teacher feedback can have a huge influence on student learning. Teachers who provide what students perceive to be unfair feedback can destroy students’ academic motivation. And it doesn’t take long for a demotivating teacher to discourage student interest, confidence as well as effort in a subject. Demotivated students think ‘why bother?’

Here are two real-life examples that students have shared of unfair teacher feedback and the negative impact it had.

The first example was an assessment task that asked students to provide their own interpretation of why a particular Shakespearean character had behaved the way he did. The teacher stressed the importance of including originality of ideas in the response along with evidence to support their explanation. The class had studied the play and some considerable discussion had ensued in tutorial sessions with the teacher about the play’s characters, including this key character.

The student received a reasonable (not outstanding) mark for the assignment along with feedback from the teacher. It was the feedback that concerned the student more than the mark, but the student surmised that the two were obviously connected.

The feedback was critical of the student’s response to the question. The teacher took what could only be described as personal umbrage with the student’s interpretation, which contradicted what the teacher had shared in class as his view.

The feedback questioned how the student could have "got it so wrong". The message the student took away was that the only ‘original’ interpretation worth presenting is one that is in complete accord with the teacher… so 'why bother thinking, reflecting, researching, being creative, taking risks…'

I read the student’s assignment. It was an impressive piece of work. The arguments presented were clear, cogent and well supported and there certainly was originality of ideas. The teacher provided no feedback at all about any of these elements, focusing pretty much exclusively on the actual interpretation itself. The effect was a demotivated student ready to walk away from a subject that he showed immense aptitude in and enthusiasm for.


The second example comes from a student whose physiology class was asked to write an essay on a medical-related topic for which he had to critique the latest developments or breakthroughs based on the most recent research.

The student in question decided to contact a senior medical researcher who he knew was working in the area to request recent research papers or research examples he might know of by way of supporting preparation of the essay. The senior scientist obliged by providing copies of papers that had been accepted for journal publication in the upcoming next edition of that international journal – in other words not yet in public circulation.

When the essay came back marked, the student’s feedback included what the student translated as a reprimand for including references the teacher was not aware of and for ‘showing off’. The student had felt he was displaying initiative by going to a highly respected primary source and including the most up-to-the-minute research on the topic.

The message received seemed totally contrary to what had been told to the class multiple times over, namely to source reputable contemporary research.

Again – regardless of intention – the teacher had demotivated a very capable student and had also lessened his own credibility with the student who sensed that the teacher was threatened by his contacts in the field and his (superior) resulting knowledge about this one particular topic.

A very big part of a teacher’s job is to help students achieve their potential. Feedback that is unfair and not linked to stated assessment criteria works against this happening. If the criteria states marks will be based on original ideas, it is not constructive or fair to found marks and feedback on structural or organisational or mechanical elements such as grammar and spelling and ignore originality of argument.

If the task encourages students to take risks or experiment then make sure the grade and feedback reflect how well they have achieved that – that is, align feedback with the stated assessment criteria.

Feedback should never shame students or make them fear trying. It should also not be used to punish students or for teachers to grandstand. Feedback should be about helping students progress in their learning. It’s hard to imagine how a demotivated student can achieve this!

Nita Temmerman (PhD) is former pro vice-chancellor (academic) and executive dean (education) at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia; visiting professor at the Solomon Islands National University; chair of the academic board of the Leaders Institute Australia; and is a specialist with the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications.