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Wise Critiques Help Students Succeed

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"Nice job A' written on bottom of student's paper


African-American students tend to receive lower grades, partly because they distrust school and their teachers.


When teachers tell African-American students, “I have high standards, and I know you can meet them,” they build their students’ trust and help them excel.


Social psychologist David Yeager and his colleagues recruited African-American and European-American seventh-graders who were earning Bs and Cs. They first asked the students to write an essay about their personal hero, and then asked the students’ teachers to comment on and grade the essays. Before the teachers returned the essays, the researchers randomly assigned the students to receive one of two notes clipped to the paper and allegedly from the teacher.

In the standard condition, the note said, “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper.”

In the wise criticism condition, the note said, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.”

The teachers then gave the students the option of revising their essays.

After receiving the wise criticism, 64% of African-Americans revised their essays, compared to only 27% of African-American students in the standard condition.

Wise criticism also helped European Americans, but not significantly. In both conditions, most European-American students took the opportunity to revise their essays.

When the revised essay was required, African Americans in the wise criticism condition turned in better essays and 88% of their scores improved from the first to second draft. In the standard condition, only 34% of African Americans’ scores improved.

Why This Works

Students often don’t know why teachers criticize their work. African- American students in particular may fear their teachers are giving negative feedback because of negative stereotypes that say African-Americans are not smart or good at school. But when teachers clarify why they are giving feedback, African-American students can feel more trusting, focus on their work, and get better grades.

When This Works Best

Wise criticism works best when students do not trust the people, policies, and procedures in an environment. The wise criticism intervention was most effective for African-American students who had little trust in school and were least likely to agree with statements like “I am treated fairly by teachers and other adults at my school.” Among low-trust African Americans, 0% who received the standard note turned in optional revisions compared to 82% of wise note recipients. In a version of the study where the revisions were required, low-trust African Americans in the standard condition turned in worse essays than their (more trusting) peers; the lower the trust, the worse the essay. In the wise criticism condition, African-American students’ revised essays were better and trust no longer predicted the quality of their work. For high-trust African-Americans, the notes made no difference.

The Original Study

Yeager, D. S., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., Brzustoski, P., Master, A., Hessert, W., Williams, M. & Cohen, G. L. (2014). Breaking the Cycle of Mistrust: Wise Interventions to Provide Critical Feedback Across the Racial Divide. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143, 804-824.

In the Press

The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (JBHE)

The New York Times


Image CC by Jennifer Tomaloff