Why Strengths-Based Feedback Motivates Real Improvement

The way we frame feedback matters, especially if our goal is to support the ongoing learning of our teams. So how might a strengths-based approach make feedback motivating, rather than demoralising?

Feedback in the traditional mode

There’s no denying that, in many professional contexts, ‘feedback’ still retains connotations of evaluation, judgement and being told that ‘you’re doing it wrong’. In the education sector, this is perhaps due in part to the sometimes isolated nature of classroom teaching; feedback conversations have tended to be part of an infrequent, often bureaucratic ‘review’ process. It’s no surprise that feedback tends to be seen as an ‘end point’ for teachers, rather than as an integral part of an ongoing learning process.

Yet, we know that feedback is indeed crucial not only in improving individual performance, but also in fostering motivation and engagement. When it comes to our students’ learning, high quality feedback has become a central priority for improving outcomes, thanks in part to John Hattie’s finding that feedback is the most powerful single factor that influences learning.

The power of a strengths-based approach

Perhaps the most important consideration when giving feedback is the affective dimension – am I being praised or criticised? Research suggests that the ideal ratio of ‘positive’ to ‘negative’ feedback is 6:1 – that is, for every point of criticism, there are six points of positive reinforcement.

This suggests that a strengths-based approach to feedback is much more likely to have positive motivational effects. A strengths-based approach focuses on helping the individual to:

  • identify areas of specific strengths and how these have led to positive outcomes; and,
  • suggests ways of leveraging these strengths to further improve performance.

The research suggests the benefits of this approach in terms of both motivation and performance: a strengths based approach increases an individual’s desire to improve their performance, as well as being correlated with measurable performance gains.

So, it makes sense that schools are now looking to adopt strengths based approaches to improvement across the board. Indeed, with what we already know about the impact of feedback on student learning, it makes intuitive sense for educators – as individuals, and as institutions – to prioritise a strengths-based approach to their own learning. By recognising and developing the skills and capabilities that are already producing positive outcomes, schools can go from strength to strength.