Currently reading Cohen, Steele & Ross (1999) “The mentor’s dilemma: Providing critical feedback across the racial divide”

It seems to be common knowledge in my network that effective teachers articulate both high standards and their belief that students can meet those standards. Looking for sources for this in the literature, I came across Cohen, Steele & Ross (1999)’s “The mentor’s dilemma: Providing critical feedback across the racial divide”, which I’ll summarise below.

The two studies described in the article happened in the US the context of White mentors giving  critical feedback to black students, and the potential of those students not taking the feedback constructively because they might assume that the mentor’s assessment of them is biased based on stereotypes about them. How could the White mentors give critical feedback to Black students in a way that they were likely to take it seriously, and take action on it?

In the studies, both Black and control-group White students were instructed to hand-write an academic text. Under some pretext, a picture of them would be stapled to the text to ensure that students knew that their race was known to the reviewer of their letter. A week later, they would come back to a hand-written feedback on their letter under different conditions: Either just the critical feedback, or the critical feedback buffered in a “wise” way (both stating the reviewer’s high standards, and an assurance that — based on the work demonstrated in the piece already — the reviewer assumed that the student could meet the high standards), or a third condition in which either the student’s draft was praised (study 1) or where the reviewer’s high standards were stated (study 2).

Buffering the criticism with both stating high standards and the belief that the student could meet them had strong effects on Black students’ perception of the feedback. They perceived the reviewer (by name identifiable as caucasian) as way less biased, they were a lot more motivated, and they had a higher belief in their own writing abilities. For White students, the conditions did not have any significant effects.

So what does that mean for when we give feedback as part of a majority group to members of a historically disadvantaged minority group? We should be buffering critical feedback with both stating high standards and reassurance of our belief that the student can — based on their demonstrated performance so far! — meet them. Of course, stating high standards only credible if the feedback is then also sufficiently critical, and in order to credibly state a belief in students’ abilities, there needs to be reasonable evidence of that, too. So just adding a generic paragraph to all feedback is maybe not a good idea. But keeping in mind that buffering feedback in this way can reduce stereotype threat (also, for example, for women in STEM, or first generation students in academia in general), make our feedback seem less biased (which it hopefully is!), and increase student motivation and belief in their own abilities is definitely important, so go and figure out an authentic way to do it in your own teaching! :-)

Cohen, G. L., Steele, C. M., & Ross, L. D. (1999). The mentor’s dilemma: Providing critical feedback across the racial divide. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 25(10), 1302-1318.

Leave a Reply