Students who expect immediate feedback on their work are more likely to get a higher grade, even if they think they'll do poorly, new research suggests.

Keri Kettle, a PhD student at the school of business at the University of Alberta, wanted to see if the timing of students' evaluations had any impact on their performance.

"When you receive information about your performance outcome, that brings the possibility of disappointment," Kettle told CBC Radio's Quirks & Quarks. "Disappointment is a powerful motivator and we can avoid disappointment in one of two ways."

One way is to lower expectations, Kettle said, and the other is to improve one's performance as much as possible.

"We thought that the amount of time that people expected to wait to receive feedback would actually motivate them not only to lower their expectations but … we motivate them to improve that outcome," Kettle said.

To test the effect of the timing of the feedback, Kettle recruited 271 students to give a presentation and receive a grade on it. Some students were told they would receive their grade that same day, while others were told their marks would come up to 17 days later.

"Those people that expected to receive immediate feedback, gave the least optimistic predictions about their own presentations," Kettle said.

"Those people that expected some lengthy delay, for them the threat of disappointment was far off in the distance, so they gave very optimistic predictions."

However, when the researchers compared the marks, they found the opposite was true.

"The students who expected to receive immediate feedback … performed the best," Kettle said.

The research, published in the journal Psychological Science, suggests that the sooner the feedback is anticipated, the better the students perform.

"Our study is the first to show that it really is about the anticipation of when you're going to receive feedback," Kettle said.

People like to be optimistic about their work, and research suggests that optimism is a good thing, Kettle said, but sometimes being pessimistic leads to better outcomes.

"Disappointment is a very strong motivator. It not only leads us to lower our expectations and seem somewhat pessimistic but also to actually work harder and focus on our performance and lead to a better… outcome."

The research has implications not only for students and employees but also for teachers and bosses, too.

"If the people who are working for me or the people I'm mentoring … expect to get immediate feedback, then I'm going to get the best performance I can out of them," said Kettle.