“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” This proverb has become a cliché, but it remains a useful shorthand for self-sufficiency. If you want someone to succeed independently, give them the tools to do so.

Within the realm of education, this principle can inform the ways that teachers give feedback. For instance, it is often easier and quicker for educators to simply correct a student’s work. But this approach can take away a student’s opportunity to learn, grow and demonstrate that they can rise to the occasion. Indeed, what we often miss about “teaching a man to fish” is that this approach also communicates the teacher’s belief that the proverbial man can succeed at fishing.  By giving feedback that allows someone to do the work themselves, you signal your expectation that they have the capacity to do it. 

In a recent study, education professor Lisel Murdock-Perriera of Sonoma State University, psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt of Stanford University and I examined how feedback in the classroom can support student learning. That question is long-standing, but we explored a new dimension of feedback: agency. In this context, agency is the sense of control and freedom someone has when responding to a teacher’s comments. In what we call agentic feedback, teachers provide opportunities for students to independently revise their work, making the student an active partner in the revision process rather than a passive recipient of feedback. My colleagues and I argue that this approach can help kids thrive academically—and may be especially powerful for children from marginalized backgrounds. In fact, agentic feedback could be a key to improving equity and outcomes in many contexts, from the classroom to the boardroom.

[Read about how racial bias sways teacher evaluations]

To study agentic feedback, we began by collecting critiques, comments and edits written by 139 middle and high school teachers from across the U.S. My colleagues and I developed a way to distinguish between teacher comments and edits that provided more versus less agency to students. For example, correcting spelling errors is not agentic feedback. Telling a student that they need to reread the piece because there are multiple spelling errors throughout is agentic feedback. As another illustration, rewriting a student’s topic and transition sentences throughout an essay is not agentic. But crafting a note like “A topic sentence should signal what the paragraph is about. Can you try reworking this sentence to reflect the paragraph?” is far more empowering. It provides the student with information to guide their revision and signals trust that the student can master this skill.

We then presented 1,260 middle and high school students with samples from this collection of teacher feedback. Each student saw several types of feedback. For each sample, the student had to answer several questions. For instance, students had to rate how much choice they felt the teacher had provided and how much effort it would take to respond. We also asked students to report how this feedback would make them feel if they received it for their own assignment.

Students perceived that those who received more agentic feedback would have to do more in response than those who received less agentic feedback. But they also saw agentic feedback as offering more choice. That is, agentic feedback makes students think, “Because I’m being given more independence, I have more work to do, but I get to choose how to move forward and use problem-solving to find a path that makes sense for me.”

What’s especially notable is how agentic feedback has the potential to support kids from marginalized backgrounds. Our studies show that all students, and particularly Black students, see agentic feedback as communicating the teacher’s belief that they can improve their writing. This aspect of teacher-student communication is really powerful. The teacher is not explicitly saying, “I know you can do this” or “I have high expectations,” but their feedback implicitly delivers this message. Communicating that you believe in someone’s ability to grow is a proven way to promote their growth, especially for marginalized groups that are usually expected to do poorly because of stereotypes. Past studies have also demonstrated that, compared with their white peers, many Black students wonder whether their teacher believes in them and worry more about a teacher’s race-based negative expectations for them.

Another powerful benefit of agentic feedback is that it is not merely built on encouragement or praise. Though supportive language can complement agentic feedback, it should not be the only feedback given. This distinction is important because it relates to an effect in psychology known as the “positive feedback bias”: teachers tend to give Black students more positive and less critical feedback than they give to the students’ white peers. Receiving only praise can be disempowering because it limits the potential for learning and growth.

Relatedly, agentic feedback can include criticism, but it scaffolds critique with information to support next steps. For instance, when a teacher writes, “This part of your presentation is a little unclear,” they are offering a critique. They can then follow with guidance, such as “Start this section with a plain-language summary of what you want to say and then elaborate on it.” This is agentic feedback.

Our research involved middle and high school teachers responding to student writing. But the lessons learned can apply to many contexts, including the interactions between a manager and their employee. People want to feel like someone believes in them and is there to support them. Agentic feedback provides one way to achieve both goals. The key to providing this feedback is to think about the questions you can raise rather than issuing direct corrections or prescriptions. It’s the difference between telling someone how they should do it and asking, “How could you approach this issue differently in the future?”

Agentic feedback is not revolutionary. It uses skills and concepts you likely already have in your arsenal: giving advice rather than prescriptions; asking questions rather than correcting; and affirming while providing guidance. But our research shows exactly why—and for whom—this feedback can be most effective. Whether in the classroom or in the office, “teaching someone to fish” with agentic feedback not only helps people become more self-sufficient but also helps them believe in their potential to learn.

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about for Mind Matters? Please send suggestions to Scientific American’s Mind Matters editor Daisy Yuhas at pitchmindmatters@gmail.com.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.