Years ago, I served as the moderator of a paper session at a student psychology conference. My role was pretty simple: I introduced the student speakers, kept track of their speaking time (giving them the five and then two minute warning), and running the question and answer session that followed each of the five or so talks. If no one asked a question, then I did so, just to be sure that each speaker or group was given the opportunity to talk a little more about the work.

Toward the end of the session, one student group—I think there were three students who shared the speaking responsibility—gave a superb talk. The research design was rigorous and thoughtful, the research findings were clear and impressive (I think it was a project on psychometrics, a rare topic for undergrads to be interested in, let alone explore), the presentation itself was well-paced; all in all, it was a first rate job. I was so impressed that I said something like that during the Q&A that followed. Indeed, I asked the students to share how and why they decided to pursue such a challenging and interesting topic, and so on. I really was quite impressed.

A few minutes later and after the next talk was underway, someone—a faculty member from another college or university—whispered in my ear that my comments to the previous group were “not appropriate” because “you praised their work but you did not say the same sorts of things about the work of the other students, which isn’t really fair because they might note feel as good about their work” or words to that effect. This sort of comment is similar to those offered by parents who worry that anything less that enthusiastic cheering for even the most modest accomplishment will cause the rapid depletion of their children’s self-esteem.

As you might guess, I was shocked, even floored. I turned around in disbelief and whispered back something like, “So, we shouldn’t honor excellent work when it’s just that—excellent? Or are you suggesting ALL work is and must be treated as equally good, regardless of its actual merits?” Needless to say, my colleague was not happy with me—nor I with her.

I recalled this experience the other day in the midst of grading some exams. There are some psychology teachers who believe that everyone’s work should be praised, just as there are others who believe that almost no work is praiseworthy—not that the given work is necessarily poor or bad; rather, that it can almost always be improved. (Readers who have endured graduate education in psychology may recall it as a time when their instructors often went on what we might charitably call “search and destroy missions,” where almost nothing was ever treated as being any good—mere perfection being the desired end state.)

I am certainly not advocating a posture of high criticism but at the same time I worry that undergraduate education sometimes risks being overly positive and rosy. As is usually the case, a middle path between the poles of over-criticism and hyper praise is probably the best course. (At the same time, I will point out that our larger culture has often embraced an overly positive outlook on performance in virtually all walks of life—as a mental exercise, consider this: Do you remember a time when the word “hero” was rarely used because it was reserved for rare and true acts of heroism. I do. And now it is approaching the status of a cliché in many venues.)

I do think that good and wise teachers should try to find something constructive (but still honest) to say about most student work. Doing so is usually truthful (i.e., here is a feature of your effort that works well) and perhaps allows the student to better heed the critical comments about other aspects of the work that will follow (e.g., your hypothesis is not specific enough, your literature review was hard to follow, there is a confound in your research design, and so on). When grading papers, for example, my usual practice is to write a paragraph at the end of the paper where I highlight those parts that work well and those that work less well. Only in those rare cases where it’s clear that the work was neglected until the last minute so that the end result was a poor effort am I likely to offer words to that effect.

So, I do think psychology teachers should be certain to offer appropriate levels of praise and encouragement where and when it is due, while being careful not to offer praise indiscriminately.

Still, I am curious—do other teachers or readers have ideas on how to best convey positive or negative comments on student work?

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