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Education Fellowships

Feedback and language choice

2 May 2023
Online graphic summary of the World Cafe and Clinic event
Online graphic summary of the World Cafe and Clinic event on 25 April

By Michael Willett, Associate Fellowship Programme Lead.

As we come to the end of the spring semester assessment period, this blog offers some reflections on the importance of language choice in feedback.

In educational contexts, feedback has a diverse range of forms and functions. However, scholars agree that its primary role is to enhance performance (Hounsell, 2011). For instance

  • Feedback refers to ‘information, processes, activities or experiences which aim to encapsulate, enable or boost students’ learning’ (Hounsell, 2011). 
  • ‘Feedback is information with which a learner can confirm, add to, overwrite, tune, or restructure information in memory, whether that information is domain knowledge, meta-cognitive knowledge, beliefs about self and tasks, or cognitive tactics and strategies’ (Winne and Butler, 1994).
  • ‘The main purpose of feedback is to reduce discrepancies between current understandings and performance and a goal’ (Hattie and Timperley, 2007)

The ingredients for good quality, effective feedback will necessarily vary by context, such as the level of study, type of task or activity, and the nature and purpose(s) of the feedback (Hounsell, 2011). However, there is general agreement in the literature that good feedback encourages and ‘empowers the student to make intelligent adjustments when [they apply it]’ to future work (Wiggins, 1997; see also Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick, 2006).  

One way to ensure our feedback encourages and empowers learners to develop their future work is to consider the language we use. This is important whatever the form and context of feedback may be. Word choices and tone can play a significant role in the extent to which feedback is perceived as constructive – or not – and in turn, the extent to which learners are likely to engage with it and use it. (I use ‘tone’ in the lay sense here, rather than the phonetic sense, although of course intonation choice is significant when we are thinking about verbal feedback – see Halliday (1970) on the meanings carried by intonation).

Consider the following imaginary examples:  

Example 1:  Your argument is not convincing here because you do not draw on evidence 
Example 2:  Your argument could be strengthened here by adding supporting evidence. For instance…. 

In this case, Example 2 is likely to be perceived as more encouraging and helpful, because it emphasises how (and where) the work can be developed and improved. It focuses on what the student can do, in future pieces of work, using words and expressions whose meaning is constructive (‘strengthened’ and ‘adding’), rather than dwelling on the negatives of what they didn’t do this time. By contrast, Example 1 uses negative polarity twice (‘not convincing’; ‘do not draw on evidence’). In disciplines such as Linguistics and Philosophy, Example 2 illustrates what is known as ‘recasting’ (Banaruee, Khatin-Zadeh and Ruegg, 2018), which refers to changing the form of an expression or utterance, either for clarity or to draw attention to certain elements, whilst maintaining the underlying meaning. In this case, the core sentiment remains: the argument would be more effective with supporting evidence. However, in Example 2, the negative focus is recast, and the shortcomings are framed as opportunities for development. In this way, the feedback can feed-forward to future pieces of work.

Using constructive language does not mean feedback should only draw attention to positives, and cannot discuss areas where work does not meet the assessment criteria, or where there are clear gaps or shortfalls in understanding or performance. Brookhart (2017) notes: ‘Being “positive” doesn’t… mean saying work is good when it isn’t. Being positive means describing how the strengths in a student’s work match the criteria for good work and how those strengths show what the student is learning. Being positive means pointing out where improvement is needed and suggesting the things a student could do about it. Just noticing what is wrong without offering suggestions to make it right is not helpful’.  

To the same end, it is also worth reflecting on the pronouns we use in feedback; specifically, whether we choose to use the grammatical 1st, 2nd or 3rd person. The table below shows some hypothetical examples:

1st person  2nd person
3rd person 
I can fully follow and understand your explanation of theory X   You show a clear understanding of theory X  The essay demonstrates a clear understanding of theory X  
I acknowledge the range of innovative examples supporting the discussion  You support your discussion with a range of innovative examples   This discussion is supported with a range of innovative examples  

The literature highlights arguments for and against both 1st/2nd and 3rd person (e.g., Brinko 1993). However, one key practice to avoid is using second-person pronouns to highlight shortcomings (for example, ‘you failed to….’ or ‘you need to consider…’). This has the effect of focusing on the individual rather than their work. To a learner, this can feel more like a series of personal – and potentially hurtful – criticisms of their self than an assessment of their work. As Brinko (1993) explains: ‘Feedback is more effective when it focuses upon [behaviour] rather than on the person. Negative information is ‘less injurious and more “hearable”’ when presented in first-person, third-person or in the form of a rhetorical question (ibid.). Therefore, in my own practice I find it useful to use third person for discussing shortcomings, focusing explicitly on the work rather than its producer or assessor, then switch to using first and second person for highlighting strengths and areas for development. Using second person to highlight areas for development is particularly valuable, as again this emphasises students’ agency in their learning process: the idea that they can do something constructive with the feedback that will have a positive impact on their future work (cf. Evans, 2016).

World Café and Clinic

Our World Café and Clinic on 25 April was another success. Join us at our next in-person event on 13 June at 12:30-14:30 in the Aberconwy building (including lunch). More information will be shared soon. If you have any questions contact the Learning and Teaching Education Fellowships team on


Banaruee, H., Khatin-Zadeh, O., and Ruegg, R. (2018) ‘Recasts vs. direct corrective feedback on
writing performance of high school EFL learners’. Cogent Education 5, 1: 1-23.  

Brinko, K. T (1993) ‘The Practice of Giving Feedback to Improve Teaching: What Is Effective?’. The
Journal of Higher Education 64, 5: 574-593. 

Brookhart, S. (2017) How to Give Effective Feedback to Your Students. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.  

Evans, C. (2016) ‘Enhancing assessment feedback practice in higher education: The EAT
framework’. Available online here, accessed 22.02.2023.  

Halliday, M. A. K. (1970). A Course in Spoken English: Intonation. London: Oxford University Press. 

Hattie, J., and Timperley, H. (2007) ‘The Power of Feedback’. Review of Educational Research 77, 1:

Hounsell, D. (2011) “Rethinking feedback: What’s it for, and how can it make a difference?”. Talk
given at the University of Nottingham, 22nd September 2011. Available online here,
accessed 21.02.23.  

Nicol, D. J., and Macfarlane-Dick, D. (2006) ‘Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: A
model and seven principles of good feedback practice’. Studies in Higher Education, 31:2,

Wiggins, G. (1997) ‘Feedback: How learning occurs’. A presentation from the 1997 AAHE Conference
on Assessment & Quality. Pennington, NJ: The Center on Learning, Assessment and School
Structure. Cited in Burke, D., and Pieterick, J. (2010) Giving Students Effective Written
Feedback. Maidenhead and New York: Open University Press.  

Winne, P. H., and Butler, D. L. (1994) ‘Student Cognition in learning from teaching’. In Husen, T., and
Postlewaite, T. (eds.) International Encyclopedia of Education. Oxford: Pergamon.