The Simple Phrase that Increases Effort 40%


imagesEvery teacher or coach worth their salt knows that there’s no moment more important than the moment feedback is delivered. Do it correctly, and the learner takes a step forward. Do it poorly, and the reverse happens.

The deeper question is, what’s the secret of great feedback? We instinctively think that effective feedback is about the quality of the information — telling the learner to do this and not that. But is this true, or is there something else going on?

A team of psychologists from Stanford, Yale, Columbia, and elsewhere recently set out to explore that question. They had middle-school teachers assign an essay-writing assignment to their students, after which students were given different types of teacher feedback.

To their surprise, researchers discovered that there was one particular type of teacher feedback that improved student effort and performance so much that they deemed it “magical.” Students who received this feedback chose to revise their paper far more often that students who did not (a 40 percent increase among white students; 320 percent boost among black students) and improved their performance significantly. (See the study here.)

What was the magical feedback?

Just one phrase:

I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.

That’s it. Just 19 words. But they’re powerful because they are not really feedback. They’re a signal that creates something more powerful: a sense of belonging and connection.

Looking closer, the phrase contains several distinct signals:

  • 1) You are part of this group.
  • 2) This group is special; we have higher standards here.
  • 3) I believe you can reach those standards.

The key is to understand that this feedback isn’t just feedback — it’s a vital cue about the relationship. The reason this works so well has to do with the way our brains are built. Evolution has built us to be cagey with our efforts; after all, engagement is expensive from a biological standpoint. But when we receive an authentic, crystal-clear signal of social trust, belonging, and high expectations, the floodgates click open.

I think the lessons for teachers and coaches are pretty simple:

  • First, connect: like John Wooden said, they can’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
  • Highlight the group: seek ways (traditions, mantras,  fun little rituals) to show what it means to belong in your crew.
  • Don’t soft-pedal high standards. Don’t pretend that it’s easy — do the opposite. Emphasize the toughness of the task, and  your belief that they have what it takes.

If you have any ideas, stories, or examples to share about how coaches and teachers achieve this kind of connection, I’d love to hear them.

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9 Responses to “The Simple Phrase that Increases Effort 40%”

  1. Evert Pruis says:

    hi there Daniel,

    Your quote resonates incredibly well with Multipliers by Liz Wiseman. I love it and will adopt it immediately. Have a lovely and inspired weekend!

    Kind regards, Evert Pruis, The Hague, The Netherlands

  2. Lynn McCall says:

    So wonderful to have scientific backing for what we Suzuki teachers already practice. Thankyou for this article!

  3. Nick Heap says:

    Your observation fits well with the classic research into the Pygmalion effect of having high expectations. This “works” even if you don’t say then directly!

    Another phrase that works very well is “You are doing very well”. It is always true. You view it from the perspective that people are always doing their best when everything about them and their history is taken into account. If you have any doubts about this, just ask yourself if it is true about YOU.

    In practice, people’s energy and performance, as individuals and as a group, always improves if you say “You are doing very well” and mean it. They feel better about themselves.

  4. Annie Petrie says:

    Yep! Keep it Simple and make sure your students know you care….Thanks for your throughs!

  5. djcoyle says:

    Hey Nick, Thanks for sharing that. I like that phrase a lot. The trick, of course, is delivering it in a way that is authentic, believable, and 100 percent BS-free. Which means having a relationship that is the same. With all of this, I think it’s less about the phrase and more about the signals behind the phrase.

  6. William says:

    It’s amazing that scientific research leads us back to age old wisdom: be genuine, authentic, speak the truth in love, and seek to encourage your fellow man.

  7. Chris Sousa says:

    Great post. In it you mention “the relationship”. That is key, once you have established a strong relationship, the focus on semantics diminishes. I use similar strategies in my classes as I do on the field and this is true in both places. Class wide critiques of all presentations, including mine, are par for the course. Without a strong positive relationship with my students this culture of learning would be nearly non existent. The best part is that my kids can articulate this better than me.

  8. Cathleen says:

    My phrase recently has been, “remember that my job is to take something good and make it better. If you work on this, we go from good to great!”

  9. Lynn Hause, USA Michigan VB Program says:

    Your words resonate our teaching/training philosophy at USAMIVB. Thank you for posting this study. I agree with its results. For instance, when correcting an athlete when teaching skills, I like to replace the word “but” with the word “and”: “your footwork was on target AND you can include focus on your platform, etc. I believe that simple word exchange helps the athlete know they have accomplished the goal of proper footwork AND can now include that achievement to successfully work on mastering the skills that coordinate to complete the overall focus on a successful execution of the entire skill. The athletes seem to remember their positive efforts, that they have accomplished a part of the overall success of a particular movement and are able to feel good about moving forward into another skills. A sense of accomplishment that shows that coaches & athletes genuinely work together in improvement. AND, that the program & coaches are invested in the athletes’ well being. This approach brings success & fun!! USAMIVB insists on all of our coaches using this approach because it is so successful. Thanks again!

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