The Feedback Sandwich is a familiar tool in the educational toolkit, isn’t it? Envision a hamburger where compliments are the buns, softly holding a substantial layer of constructive criticism.

This method attempts to make criticism more palatable for students, softening the blow with encouraging words.  

But …. does this approach hold up under scrutiny?

Surprisingly, there’s minimal research on the topic, and some of the existing studies cast doubt on the sandwich’s effectiveness. 

1. The Importance of the First Bite!  

Anchoring bias plays a significant role here. In other words, students are likely to pay more attention to, or get ‘anchored’ to, the initial positive feedback they receive, often overlooking the constructive criticism that follows (see this study). This focus on the ‘tasty bun’ of the sandwich can result in confusion and miscommunication, diminishing the effectiveness of the feedback provided. This confusion might be even higher for ESL students who are often baffled by seemingly contracting messages.  

2. The Risk of Person-directed Praise:  

When we feel the need to provide a ‘compliment’ bun, we sometimes end up praising student’s personality (e.g., “You’re such a critical thinker” or “You’re so creative”). While this may sound encouraging, it poses a risk. When praise is directed towards ‘who they are’ instead of ‘what they did,’ students might fear losing their perceived special status if they fail, making them hesitant to take risks. The potential downside of person-praise is well-documented (see this seminal paper), warning that it may ultimately hinder a student’s willingness to explore and learn. 

3. The Pitfall of Inauthentic Praise:  

Similarly, in a hurried attempt to provide feedback, educators might occasionally offer praise that may come across as disingenuous to students. Far from feeling encouraged, students might become disenchanted or even annoyed. Communication is already challenging with feedback recipients who might be anxious; starting on the wrong foot by appearing insincere only exacerbates this challenge, potentially leading to reduced student engagement. 


Opt for an Open Sandwich:  

Consider starting with a constructive point, followed by encouragement. Various feedback structures have been explored in this study, including Corrective-Positive-Positive (CPP), Positive-Corrective-Positive (PCP), and Positive-Positive-Corrective (PPC). Among these, the CPP approach, which begins with constructive criticism, appears to be the most effective, whereas ending with criticism (PPC) might not be as beneficial. 

Focus on Effort-based Praise:  

Avoid praising students for their inherent traits. Such praise, while well-intentioned, can have detrimental effects over time. Instead, commend their efforts and assure them that continual practice will yield improvement. 

Try Alternatives:  

Consider other feedback strategies that might be more effective. Clearly articulate the student’s level of achievement, highlight areas needing improvement, offer reassurance for common challenges, and provide specific steps for advancement. 

Before serving up another Feedback Sandwich, take a moment to reflect on its ingredients (ie. avoid person praise mayonnaise) and consider alternative approaches.

While the sandwich is a well-known and widely used method, it may not always be the most effective for fostering improvement in students. Perhaps an open-faced sandwich or a different feedback technique will offer a more balanced and nourishing alternative for your students’ development.

For additional tips and strategies, refer to the feedback module, and here’s wishing you a joyful and productive teaching and feedback-giving experience! 

Want more?

5-minute interactive tool for markers 

Providing Effective Feedback: a quick guide for markers (1 page) 

Improving feedback impact and quality: A quick guide for Unit Convenors (1 page)  

Feedback for student learning: Self-paced module on iLearn (20+ mins)

Image credits:

Header image – generated with Dall-e AI tool by Olga Kozar

Sandwich image

Posted by Olga Kozar

I'm a 'long-term' Mq girl. I did my PhD here and taught on different courses, ranging from 1st year to PhD students. I now work in Learning and Teaching, which I love. I have 2 young kids and a dog, and I love meeting other Mq people, so give me a shout if you'd like to talk 'learning and teaching' or would like to brainstorm together.

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