What it is and why is it important?

Feedback comes in a range of forms, for instance:

  • Via rubrics in Turnitin
  • Handwritten notes, in the margins of an essay or lab. report,
  • Using video and / or audio recorded messages,
  • Verbal or emailed comments,
  • During a lecture, using Personal Response System (PRS) systems such as Ombea
  • Practice sessions in marking and commenting on a sample assignment,
  • 'Drop in' advice or a supervision meeting,
  • A debriefing by a professional practitioner,
  • Whole class feedback on how an exam or essay question had been tackled.

Each of these are valid and valuable types of feedback, facilitating, shaping and helping to redefine learning and in turn motivating students.

  • feedback works best when it is a two-way process, creating dialogue or interaction between the two parties involved: the person giving the feedback and the person receiving it,
  • types of feedback offered within a particular course or programme may vary, depending on what and how students are expected to learn and the resources available.

Effective feedback should be timely, constructive and informative. As such it should:

  • be returned to students within an agreed timescale,
  • highlight weaknesses and strengths, giving specific examples or explanations,
  • offer suggestions about how to improve for next time.

The latter point is probably the single most valuable piece of advice and is known (rather unfortunately) as 'feedforward'.


When should feedback be given?

While feedback, and particularly summative feedback, has traditionally been given following the submission of assessed work, feedback can be given at any point in the learning process.

Diagnostic feedback is in its nature given at the early stages of a course and can help identify any areas of need or intervention.

Formative feedback can be given at any time but can be particularly effective during a course, and before any summative assessment, or on drafts of summative assignments.


Who can give feedback?

Many consider feedback as something that can be given only by those who teach or provide learning support, e.g. lecturers, tutors, demonstrators, advisors, mentors and supervisors. However, feedback can also be given by other professionals, patients, clients or community members (for example when students are on placements, field-trips, attachments or internships). As noted above, feedback can also be given by students to their peers.


Does feedback actually make a difference?

There have been a number of studies over the last 20 years that have highlighted the value of good feedback in all its forms.

Researchers such as Black and Wiliam (1998, 2003) have completed studies of the value of formative assessment, with the authors concluding:

The research reported here shows conclusively that formative assessment does improve learning. The gains in achievement appear to be quite considerable, [...] among the largest ever reported for educational interventions. As an illustration of how big these gains are, an effect size of 0.7, if it could be achieved on a nationwide scale, would be equivalent to raising the mathematics attainment score of an 'average' country like England, New Zealand or the United States into the 'top five' after the Pacific Rim countries of Singapore, Korea, Japan and Hong Kong. (Black and Wiliam, 1998:61)

More recently Hattie (2009) focused on feedback in higher education while acknowledging earlier meta-analyses which had focused on a range of educational settings. On the subject of 'What works best?', Hattie concludes:

Of all the factors that make a different to student outcomes, the power of feedback is paramount in any list. The overall effect-sizes of feedback from over 1000 studies based on 50,000+ students reveal that feedback is among the highest of any single factor, and it underpins the causal mechanisms of most of the factors in the top 10-20 factors that enhance achievement. (Hattie, 2009)

Moreover, Hattie expresses a belief that the ideal teaching-learning environment or experience is one where teachers and students actively engage with three primary feedback questions:


Where am I going?

Focusing on goals and intentions

  How am I going?

Focusing on progress towards those goals

  Where to next? Focusing on what activities needs to be undertaken to make better progress

Further sources of information on this subject:

  • Black, P. and Wiliam, D. (1998). 'Assessment and classroom learning'. Assessment in Education, 5.1, pp. 7-74. http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals/titles/0969594x.asp
  • Black, P. and Wiliam, D. (2003). '"In praise of educational research": formative assessment'. British Educational Research Journal, 29.5, pp. 623-637.
  • Davies, P. (2002). 'The relevance of systematic reviews to educational policy and practice.' Oxford Review of Education, 26.3/4, pp. 365-378.
  • Hattie, J. (2009). 'The black box of tertiary assessment: an impending revolution.' In: In Meyer, L.H. et al. (eds.), Tertiary Assessment & Higher Education Student Outcomes: Policy, Practice & Research. Wellington, New Zealand: Ako Aotearoa. pp.259-275. Available from: http://akoaotearoa.ac.nz/ako-aotearoa/ako-aotearoa/resources/pages/black-box-tertiary-assessment-impending-revolution (accessed July 2011)
  • Hattie, J. and Timperley, H. (2007). 'The power of feedback'. Review of Educational Research, 77.1, pp. 81-112
  • Shute, V. J. (2008). 'Focus on formative feedback.' Review of Educational Research, 78.3, pp. 153-189.


Does better feedback take longer to provide?

Feedback can be perceived as being labour-intensive, particularly if it is written out longhand although this is becoming less common as electronic submission becomes increasingly commonplace. However there are "time-friendly" ways of providing feedback. For the most part these would not replace the traditional ways of giving feedback but can be used alongside them.

Refocusing the feedback mix

If faced with common weaknesses or errors, rather than writing similar comments to each student, highlight the issue verbally in class. This means that less time is spent on providing individual feedback, and an entire class can benefit from wider feedback aimed to complement and enlarge on comments made to individuals.

Give students pre-submission input

Consider providing students with the opportunity for input on their assignments before they submit them, for example by encouraging the submission of drafts, section headings or essay plans. Students might also be provided with mocked-up versions of assessments at different levels (2:2, 2:1 and 1st), demonstrating your expectations at this level.

Encourage further engagement with feedback

Try to structure feedback in a way that students might engage with it and that it might be of use to them. One way to do this might be to identify two or three areas where students might reasonably improve their performance for their next assignment.

Experiment with alternative modes of delivering feedback

Does all feedback have to be ritten down? You might find it useful to experiment with using audio or video feedback.  This is increasingly straightforward to do, using systems such as Panopto to record and then upload feedback direct to MyAberdeen.