One of my favorite quotations comes from Nelson Mandela.  He says, “I never lose.  I either win or learn.”  How wonderful would it be if we could all have that attitude?  How wonderful would it be if we could get all of our students to have that attitude about their school work?

I’ve written a number of times about Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset,” and this quotation shows that Mandela had fully incorporated this optimistic, “always growing” philosophy into his daily life–and look at all the challenges he had to overcome!  Can you imagine every student you teach taking this attitude toward every mistake, every wrong answer, every missed test question?

Well, it is possible, but it takes some very careful framing on your part.  Let’s look at some approaches that, used consistently, can lead your students to adopt Mandela’s mindset.

Using Descriptive Language Rather than Judgemental Language When Responding to Writing

We’ve all been there as students; we pour our heart and soul into a piece of writing, whether it be a term paper, an essay, a lab report, or a piece of creative writing in English class–and then we get the paper back from the teacher with a bunch of red ink and negative remarks (or at least what we perceive to be negative remarks).  Soon, we find ourselves dreading the next writing assignment–which means we’ll probably procrastinate when we get that assignment, which leads to poorer writing, which leads to more negative remarks by the teacher….It can become a steady downward spiral.

And it’s not just the writing that suffers in such situations.  So does the relationship between the teacher and student.  I’ve seen it happen over and over again in my consulting work.  The strange thing is that, when I bring the problem to the teacher’s attention, she’s often surprised.  She may have noticed that the student had become reluctant to write or had even begun to act sullen and resentful when being assigned written tasks or when receiving graded writing back, but she had not even considered that her written feedback to the student was the source of the problem.

Sometimes we teachers can get so focused on what we’re saying about the content and/or form of the writing that we forget that we’re dealing with a (often fragile) psyche, as well.  With every comment we make on a piece of student writing, we need to remember that students invest a lot of emotion in their work, especially if the writing is of a personal nature.  Negative comments about the writing can come across to students as negative comments about them personally.

So, what do we do about this situation?  We can focus, when giving feedback, on being as specifically descriptive as possible and try to leave out any “judgement words.”  Here’s an example: instead of writing in the margin of a student’s paper, “This doesn’t make sense.  Rewrite.” we can write something like, “I understand what you’re saying in the first sentence of this paragraph, but I missed the logical connection between it and the second point you make.  Could you make this connection clear to me in your revision?”

Or, if the direction of a student paper is way off when compared to the models (examplars) you showed the class prior to the assignment, you could say, “I noticed that your argument here is supported by examples from personal experience.  In many kinds of writing, such an approach would be an excellent way to go about it.  However, if you’ll remember in the exemplars we looked at, in this particular type of writing, it’s required that you quote directly from the sources you’re trying to rebut and challenge their assertions logically.”  This is descriptive language that focuses externally on the student’s writing compared to an external model, not on personal failings.

If you had said, instead, “This is way off base and is unacceptable as written,” judgemental words like “off base” and “unacceptable” can make a student upset or angry and can lead to a damaged relationship between you the student and can cause a student to stop trying or to hate writing.  Now, in your mind, the writing may very well be “unacceptable as written,” but if you make your feedback non-judgemental and simply descriptive, and if you give the student the opportunity to rewrite the piece, the focus becomes helping the student improve his writing, which is what you want to happen, after all.

Five Ways to Respond to Incorrect or Incomplete Answers During Classroom Discussion

Another area where our feedback can cause students to shut down is during verbal interactions (when we’re calling on students to share their answers to a problem, or during classroom discussions).  Very often, students give answers that are incorrect or incomplete.  We have to be very careful when we respond to students in these situations.  Focusing on the inadequacy of the answer in a judgemental way can hurt students’ feelings and damage the teacher-student relationship.  In fact, judgemental teacher responses in these situations can be more damaging than when giving written feedback on a paper due to the fact that other students hear the judgement, which often makes the student giving the answer even more embarrassed.

Here are five ways to respond to incorrect or incomplete student answers that allow the student to save face and keep the focus where it needs to be–on learning.  These five strategies come from Rick Wormeli’s article, “What To Do in Week One?” (Wormeli, 2016):

  1. Affirm Risk-taking: You can point out that an answer is incorrect, but still acknowledge the risk the student took to offer up the answer.  As with descriptive written feedback, try to be as descriptive here as possible.  Instead of saying, “That’s incorrect, but good try,” say something like, “That answer happens to be incorrect, but thanks for taking the risk to put it out there for us to consider.  That’s what scholars do!”
  2. Ask the Student to Explain More About His Thinking: When we hear an incorrect answer and, instead of identifying it as incorrect, we ask students to explain how they arrived at their answers, we affirm their thinking (even when it leads to a faulty conclusion) and it allows us to see where the error took place and correct it.  Often, in fact, when we ask students to explain their thinking, they will see their own error before we even point it out.
  3. Be Empathetic to Their Thinking: You could say something like, “I used to think that, too” (whether you did or not), “but now I think that….  When I took into account the argument made in today’s reading assignment (which the student may well not have read), I had to admit that my original way of thinking was off base.”  This kind of response empathizes with the student’s current thinking while gently correcting it.
  4. Affirm the Portions that are Correct and Invite Focus on the Incorrect Portions: If you say something like, “The majority of your argument is very powerful, but I don’t see any support for your argument in the third paragraph.  Can you help me understand your thinking there?” you acknowledge that there are more strengths than weaknesses in the student’s work while still guiding the student to reassess the weak/faulty/incorrect portion(s).  (See the next section for an excellent example of this approach applied systemically in math class.)
  5. Re-frame “I don’t know”: If the student responds to a question with “I don’t know,” you can respond to the student, “Pretend that you did know the answer–what words would come out of your mouth?”  This approach gives students who are unsure of themselves an “out” by framing it as a hypothetical.  Students, given this option, almost always say something, and very often the answer is excellent.  They did know something, they were just afraid to say it.

An Approach to Grading Math Quizzes That Keeps the Focus on Learning

I’ll wrap up this discussion of effective feedback approaches with a summary of a fantastic strategy I saw recently on a Teacher Channel video.  7th and 8th grade math teacher Leah Alcala has an approach to giving feedback on tests that keeps the focus where it should be–on learning, not on a grade.

Here’s what she does: When she takes a test home to grade, she doesn’t put a grade on it.  She doesn’t put any check marks on incorrect answers.  She doesn’t write any comments.  Instead, she highlights where students made mistakes.  She does record a grade to be posted later on the online school grading system, but she doesn’t put this grade on the students’ test, and she doesn’t allow students to access the grading system to see their grades until after they have gone over the tests in class.

When she returns the tests, she goes over common mistakes with students and asks them to figure out, with a partner or small group, where the problem in question went wrong.  Students offer up their reasoning, and they fix the problem together.  Once Ms. Alcala has gone over common mistakes, she allows students to go through all the highlighted mistakes in their own papers and, once again, focus on understanding what went wrong and how to fix it.  They can work with a partner or group to figure this out, or ask the teacher.  Students have a chance to retake a different version of the test after school later in the week, which also gives students who scored poorly the first time the chance to replace that grade with a better one.

One of the unique concepts Ms. Alcala uses when she scores the tests is what she calls “flow through credit.”  Let’s say that a student makes a mistake on the second step of a four-step problem.  This mistake at step two, of course, leads to an incorrect final answer in step four, as well as incorrect material in step three.  Ms. Alcala docks the student for the mistake in step two, but not for the incorrect material in steps three and four that result from the single mistake (they get “flow through” credit for not making any additional mistakes).  If, however, based on the mistake in step two, the student goes on to make another mistake in step three or four, he would be docked twice, once for each mistake.

This approach takes students away from the simplistic approach of viewing their final answers as right or wrong and instead focuses their attention on exactly what they did incorrectly and how to change it next time.

I love this approach, and I can see ways that teachers of any subject at any grade level could take a similar approach to grading that keeps students focused on learning.


How we respond to student work, whether it be their writing, their responses in classroom discussions, or their answers on a test, goes a long way toward setting the climate in the classroom.  If the focus is on judgement, feedback can come across as punitive, and students will resent it.  This leads to a worsening relationship between the teacher and student, and often leads to student apathy toward their work.

If, instead, we come up with ways to keep feedback non-judgemental and focused on learning (as in the strategies above), we can foster a classroom climate where students aren’t afraid to engage and to risk sharing their thinking.  If we then give students opportunities to re-do their work, we will send the message that we want them to succeed and will give them every opportunity to do so.


Teacher Channel video.  Highlighting mistakes: A grading strategy.  Retrieved from

Wormeli, R.  (2016, September).  What to do in week one?  Educational Leadership, 74(1), 10-15.