How Basketball Teaches ESL Students to Give Feedback

I recently played a silly game of basketball with my students to demonstrate how to give meaningful feedback. It worked remarkably well, and I want to share it with you.

I work with ESL students at an art university. One of the most important things they need to learn is how to give feedback to one another, so they can improve their artwork. This may seem like a simple task, but I assure you, for them, it is not.

Students will often say nothing, or they will simply compliment each other for doing a good job. I believe this is because they do not know how to give meaningful feedback, and they are worried about hurting each other’s feelings.

While listening to a recent episode of the Where There’s Smoke podcast about criticism, I got the idea to play basketball with my students to demonstrate the difference between constructive feedback and vague unhelpful comments.


How did you setup the basketball game?

It was simple. I asked for a student volunteer to stand in the center of the room. I gave them a handful of small stress balls with smiley faces on them.

Behind the student, I placed a small wastebasket to serve as the goal.  I asked the student to, without glancing behind them, shoot a basket over their shoulder into the unseen goal.

I told the student I would give them feedback to help them make the basket. I assured the student that I wanted them to make the basket.


How did this practice giving feedback?

When the student took their first shot, they missed. I looked the student in the eye and used a common feedback phrase I have heard my students use many times before. I said, “That was good, but I think you need to practice more. Try again.”

The student took their next shot and missed. I again used language that my students use on themselves. I said, “That was good, but I think you need more confidence. Try again.”

The student shot a third time and missed yet again. I said, “You need to improve. You should shoot the ball closer to the basket.”


How was my feedback?

After the student had missed the basket a few times, I turned and asked the class, “How’s my feedback? Is it helping?” The overwhelming response from the class was, “NO!”

I asked, “Why not? I’m using the same language you use when giving feedback to one another.” The students pointed out that my feedback was not specific. I was not telling the student how near or far from the basket, their shots were landing.


Is my feedback helping now?

I asked the student volunteer to please shoot again, and this time, I would do my best to offer more specific feedback to help them ring the basket.

Each time the student missed during this round, I offered constructive feedback. I used language like, “If I were you, I would not shoot so strong,” or “You might want to aim a little more to the left,” etc.

The student continued to shoot until they finally made the basket.


What was the difference with my feedback?

After the student finally made a basket, the class cheered. I asked, “Why was the feedback this round more helpful than before?” I was able to elicit from the class the major differences between giving vague comments and constructive feedback.

I reminded the class that when they are asked to give feedback to each other about their artwork, it is helpful to offer specific advice about changes that could be made.


Feedback Basketball

Overall, this was a fun and entertaining way to demonstrate the effect various kinds of feedback can have on performance. I have seen a shift in my class since doing this, and I highly recommend trying it with your students. It will help if they are having difficulty grasping the importance of giving specific, constructive feedback. Big thanks to Where There’s Smoke for the great idea!

Please let me know how it goes with your class!

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