Can negative feedback drive students?

Feedback plays an important role in a student’s learning experience, as it can offer the grounds for improvement and ensure that one is on the right track.

“Feedback is the task or process of learning that fills a gap between what is understood and what is aimed to be understood” (Sadler, 1989).

In order to get a better sense of what students’ experiences are with receiving feedback in academia, Peergrade recently conducted a survey of international students, see the infographic with more results here. The study was anonymised to offer the students a more open space to share their thoughts. We were especially interested in understanding what kind of feedback students are getting and what they consider to be the most helpful in improving their individual learning.

Our respondents’ replies revealed a range of different opinions to what kind of feedback works the best. There were times where students appreciated positive feedback (“nice work”) and while it’s purpose is not constructive, it assured them when they were in doubt. It helps the student get to the next level towards achieving their learning goals.

“But I did get some positive feedback as well, even a couple of “Nice work!”. That actually made me feel better and made me feel like I was going into the right direction. It helped in a time when I was unsure of myself”. (Student 1)

But why do some students feel more driven by the negative feedback?

Let’s hear it from them.

“During my Bachelor, I felt more confident, so just hearing “Nice work!” wouldn’t have meant as much. I was more interested in hearing if I did something wrong.” (Student 1)

Positive feedback may fall short, if the students are already confident about what they are doing. In these instances, they may consider negative feedback/criticism as more helpful, as it directs them towards areas of improvement.

“I get positive feedback on what’s working too, but I pay more attention to the negative. I understand that it’s not an insult to my talents, intelligence, or work ethic, but rather an objective analysis designed to make me think critically and creatively about my work and make me a better artist.” (Student 2)

The respondents also highlighted the importance of recognizing the line between offering criticism and positive feedback. One of the respondents noted that criticism can help improve the work only so much, but it can be demotivating if the teacher does not acknowledge the student’s hard work.

“My language teachers do not know how to pay a compliment. After a series of written assignments with several mistakes, I finally wrote one with only a couple of wrong things and instead of a compliment for improving, my teacher wrote: “You should be able to write flawless by now”. (Student 3)

What can the teachers do?

Students need personalized feedback. The more personal, the better. This, in turn, means that the teacher has to get to know the students and follow their progress. It is quite understandable that this case is not realistic in a class with over 100 students.

But here is what you can do.

Set clear goals from the beginning

Make sure that both the giver and the receiver of feedback have the same goal in mind. You can achieve this by making the assessment criteria as straightforward as possible. Check how to do that here: Tips and Tricks for creating perfect Rubrics.

Keep in mind that

Students feel like they can benefit more from criticism when they feel confident of their work. When they attain a certain level of confidence, they will feel the need for recognition and reinforcement. Thus, negative feedback alone, is not beneficial in the long-term.

Make sure…

… You don’t make superficial comments related to grammar or spelling. Students will not consider that to be feedback. Instead, focus on skills that are useful to solving more than one task throughout the student’s education.

The Takeaway

So what is the takeaway from our survey? Probably the greatest finding from our study is that students feel the need to hear positive, reinforcing feedback when they don’t do well in class or when they are new to the subject. While students who already know they’re doing well — pay more attention to the critique and find it more useful.

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Tell us about your learning experiences. Have you felt like you needed more critique than praise? In which situations?

We also want to hear about your teaching experience. What are your challenges in giving personalized feedback?

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  • Hattie J. & Timperley H. (2007). The Power of Feedback
  • Sadler, R. (1989). Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems
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