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Is a Teacher a Friendly Critic or Critical Friend?

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Supportive relationships between teachers and students create safety and provide encouragement but they are not uncritical.  In fact, constructive feedback - in both directions - is an essential feature of a healthy relationship, but the manner and spirit of that feedback determines whether it enhances or undermines the relationship.

Students should see their teacher as a critical friend, not a friendly critic. The distinction is important because feedback not only provides information about current learning but also contributes to students’ emerging sense of self-efficacy as a learner, which affects their inclination to engage in future learning.  Therefore, encouragement should be in the foreground and correction comes later.  In learning, fluency precedes accuracy.

Students decide, generally sub-consciously, about whether and how to engage with an activity based on a sort of cost-benefit analysis and one of the “costs” to be considered is the likelihood of failure. If a student does not feel that s/he has a reasonable likelihood of success then s/he will generally find reasons and ways not to engage, even if the task itself is attractive.

The following recommendations for building confidence in students are based on self-efficacy theory, which holds that the underlying motivators of human action are perceptions of personal control and competence.  (Motivation in education: theory, research and applications, Chapter 3, by Pintrich & Schunk, 1996) 

  • Help students develop their self-perceptions of competence within a content domain. Provide assistance in areas of difficulty, but focus on constructive, encouraging and specific feedback about what students can do rather than what they cannot do.

  • Help students to maintain relatively accurate but high expectations and self-efficacy beliefs, and to avoid the impression of incompetence. Towards this end, use formative assessment frequently to provide descriptive feedback and supportive suggestions, and make much more limited use of summative evaluation and critique.

  • Because students' perceptions of competence develop not just from accurate feedback from the teacher, but through actual success on challenging academic tasks, assignments should be relatively challenging but reasonable.

  • Minimize the amount of relative achievement information that is publicly available to students.  Do not use comparative evaluation.

  • Foster the belief that competence or ability is a changeable, controllable aspect of development rather than a question of innate talent or intelligence. Focus on encouragement rather than praise and stress the merits of effort and persistence.

Supportive relationships with students are based on a commitment to student learning and faith in their ability to learn, but also includes constructive feedback about learning that provides helpful guidance and builds a realistic but confident sense of self-efficacy.