Positive Feedback

I want you to take a moment and think back over your recent interactions with classmates, colleagues  students, supervisors/advisors and any one else you interact with. When was the last time that you told someone they were doing an excellent job. Or that someone said that to you?

I stumbled across an article from edutopia.org called The power of the positive phone call. Now, this article is more for teachers in the k-12 system. But, it did start me thinking about how important it is to give (and receive) positive feedback.

One thing that grad students become really ‘good’ at, is critiquing research. On one hand, it’s a really important skill to be able to read and critique papers. However, grad students are also much more likely to write a harsher review than faculty. In some sense we must mellow the longer we stay in academia, but it’s also partly to do with becoming better at balancing bad news with good news. Instead of just writing a review that tears a paper apart, you learn how to weave together positive and negative feedback.

However, this ability to critique doesn’t just come out when writing papers. I notice it at research meetings, listening to talks, attending conferences, poster sessions and so on. And yes, giving critiques to a researcher can help them with their research and make it better in the long run. But, pointing out why you think some research is cool or great or interesting or some other positive comment is probably going to be more motivating in the short run, which means they’ll continue to work on it.

Sure, we all generally (and hopefully) think good things about our research. However, if the only feedback you ever get when you share it with other academics is how it would be better if, then you’re not going to continue to focus on the good. As if grad school isn’t stressful or often demotivating enough, you don’t need the rest of the community working together to bring you down.

I know that when my supervisor makes a specific positive comment to me, I remember it. And it has a lasting effect. That’s not to say that a negative comment isn’t motivating or memorable. But, the positive one makes me want to work harder. The negative one makes me just feel worse.

So, I want to leave you with a challenge. Over the next week, every time you find yourself in conversation with someone about their research, their school work, their new exercise routine – really, just something their proud of – make sure to give them some positive feedback. That’s not to say shy away from critiquing, but for every negative comment, try to come up with a positive one as well.


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