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Feedback to students on their work and progress

Professional Development

Academic Practice and Enhancement

Professional Development 
Academic Practice and Enhancement 
January 2008

Feedback to students on their work and progress 

Final Report 

Dr Rachel Johnson

Quality Enhancement Officer SSH 

This report contains the purpose, method, activity and results of a project undertaken by the QE Officer for SHH concerning external and internal policy, University practices and students�� perceptions of feedback to students.  It contains discussion of the results of each activity, finishing with two sections that synthesise the lessons learned and specify recommended actions.  Four Appendices give contextual, practical and additional explanatory material. 

Feedback to students on their work and progress

Final Report


From September 2007 to January 2008 the Quality Enhancement Officer for Social Sciences & Humanities (SSH) was engaged in an investigative project concerning feedback to students on their work and progress.  This work had two stimuli. First, data concerning teaching and learning at Loughborough University generated through the National Student Survey indicated that students perceived assessment and feedback more negatively than other area of provision.  Second, the University wished to respond to this data and identify the feedback practices that students perceive to be effective and of value to their learning and achievement.  The project��s objectives were to:

  • reveal why students rate feedback as a weaker area of university provision
  • identify examples of effective practice within SSH and outside the university
  • enable dissemination of examples of effective practice
  • generate ideas amongst staff about how to improve practice
  • stimulate an understanding that feedback encompasses more than written comments on assessed work
  • assist staff in completing the new field on the module specification
  • go some way to managing student understanding and expectation concerning the mode and frequency that they are given feedback on their work and progress

1. Work undertaken:

  • A review of the external policy context for feedback [Section 2 of this document]
  • A review of current Loughborough University policy on feedback [Section 3]
  • A literature review of research on effective practice in feedback and research on issues that impinge negatively on communication between students and lecturers [Summary, Section 4; full report Appendix One]
  • Discussion of the findings of the policy context and the literature review with SSH Teaching and Learning Co-ordinators [Section 5]
  • Development of a guidance note for staff on completion of the module specification��s new field relating to feedback [Section 6]
  • One meeting with two Student Representatives of each of the University��s Schools and Departments in the Students Union.  A short survey was conducted followed by discussion. [Section 7]
  • Meetings with departmental staff groupings: PIRES staff meeting, English and Drama Teaching and Learning Committee, SSES Teaching and Learning Committee and Staff Student Liaison Committee, PIRES Teaching Away Day (to come) and two workshops with LUSAD.
  • Professional Development workshops on providing effective feedback have been designed, and first delivered in December 2007 to be repeated twice more in the academic year to June 2008.

Section 8: Lessons Learned 
Section 9: Actions

Appendix One: Literature Review 
Appendix Two: Questionnaire for Students�� Union Representatives 
Appendix Three: Useful www links to external resources and guidance on feedback 
Appendix Four:  QAA Code of Practice: extract concerning student feedback

2. The external policy context for student feedback

QAA Guidelines and Codes of Practice [see Appendix 4]

The QAA (2006) recommends that feedback to students should ��promote learning and facilitate improvement�� and suggests that ��students benefit from feedback �� at a time when they will be able to use �� advice about how to improve their performance in time to affect their final mark�� (p. 20 – 2).  Feedback can be written or take place through dialogue, might be generic across a whole cohort, can come from different sources such as peers and personal tutors and can be generated during an activity or through self reflection and self assessment practices.  The QAA states that all feedback should be given as soon as possible after a task is completed and that students should be told in advance how and when feedback will be given.  The QAA��s summation of Institutional Audits (January 2006) identifies that students value feedback on examinations as well as coursework, whilst feedback on coursework should be given before the examination for that module is taken. 

What is seen as effective practice by the QAA?

QAA Subject Reviews have consistently identified assessment feedback as the teaching and learning practice that is the least effective, inconsistent and ill-timed.  However within the social science and humanities disciplines across the UK, good practice includes the following activities:

  • Art and Design (2000): Has a strong tradition of providing students with oral feedback through tutorials. Students value this greatly.  Students in some institutions maintain their own records of tutorial discussions.
  • Drama and Dance (96 – 98): Written feedback on students�� work is supplemented by formal or informal oral feedback to individuals or small groups.
  • English (1994): The application of academic and personal support for students and offering them regular and comprehensive feedback
  • Geography: (1994) Full feedback of all marks and discussion of examiners�� comments on assessed scripts.  Detailed and constructive written feedback, well annotated with supportive comments which provided helpful guidance.
  • Languages: Standard pro formas that encourage a consistent level of feedback. Sensitive and useful feedback that has helpful and informative comments.
  • Philosophy (2001): Feedback on summative assessment is not common but is reported as good practice where it occurred.  Formative feedback provided on draft coursework.
  • Politics (2001): Full feedback on oral presentations, examinations, dissertations and essays.  Providing critical analysis that enables students at all ability levels to improve.
  • Psychology (2000): The use of structured, criterion-referenced forms that give advice for improvement.
  • Sport (2001): The best feedback gave detailed and constructive comment, and was clearly set in the context of learning outcomes and assessment criteria – this guided the students on how to improve their performance.
  • Business and Management (1994): The increased use of standard feedback sheets sometimes supplemented by tutorials to give oral feedback.

3. Loughborough University policy for student feedback

The Coursework Code of Practice on Feedback to Students [correct at 27th October 2007)

The Coursework Code of Practice gives the university��s minimum requirements:

    ��Departments shall ensure that adequate, timely and appropriate feedback is provided to students on all coursework assignments. It is recognised that much valuable feedback is provided orally, but departments are encouraged to give feedback in a form that is retrievable e.g. in written or electronic form, and must keep records of feedback to students having taken place.  The communication of marks/grades should be individual (except where a common mark/grade is given for group work); the communication of individual marks/grades by ID number is permitted.  Programme Handbooks shall state the form of feedback that students can expect and this information shall also be given to students when assignments are set.  The feedback should enable students to understand the reasons for the mark/grade given and should include constructive comments on the strengths and weaknesses of their work.�� 

    Learning and Teaching Committee approved policy changes

    [This list of policy changes is correct to 15/02/07]

    • Module Specification: Approved the addition of a new free-text ��method of feedback�� field to module specifications.  New field to be rolled out 2008/09.  Recognised that feedback is not restricted in definition to written comments on coursework assignments but should be interpreted more broadly and seen as a means of helping students to enhance their learning and raise their standards of performance.  ��It is also the hope that staff completing the module specification will be encouraged to think about the type of feedback they are giving and whether it is the most effective�� (L&TC paper 2006)
    • Departmental Culture: Encouraged work at departmental level so that tutors are complying with the University��s minimum requirements and so that students appreciate that feedback takes a variety of different forms.  The aim is to develop a feedback culture which supported students engagement and participation in the development of their own learning.
    • Course Handbooks: With reference to the Coursework Code of Practice recommended that the following text is added and that it is included or adapted within Departmental Course Handbooks: 
      ��The feedback should enable students to understand the reasons for the mark/grade given and should include constructive comments on the strengths and weaknesses of their work.��
    • Exam Feedback: Agreed that modules with 50 - 100% examination assessment should provide some form of generic feedback to students on the examination and that ideally this feedback should be made available in parallel with the module marks, particularly for Semester One modules.
    • External Examiners: Agreed that question 16 on the External Examiners�� report form be amended to read,  
      ��Was the standard of marking and feedback in assessed coursework satisfactory?��
    • APR and PPR: Agreed that documentation for programme review be amended to ensure that the information requested on student feedback was to a specific standard and to include a requirement that departments outline their strategies for ensuring that individual staff comply with the University��s minimum requirements on feedback to students
    • Module Feedback: Agreed that departments be required to include a question about the quality of feedback in the ��individual tutor�� section of the OMR Module Feedback forms.
    • Students�� Union: Encouraged the Students�� Union to work with course representatives and student committees to ensure that students collect feedback given on assessed work and to help students make better use of feedback to enhance their learning

    4.  Issues arising from the literature

    To achieve effective feedback we need to become more efficient. This means helping students get the most out of the communication that occurs.  Research suggests that the following issues are detrimental to efficient communication and goes some way to explain what is meant by timely, adequate and appropriate feedback. Full literature review can be found in Appendix One


    • Feedback is more effective when given immediately or soon after the activity concerned.
    • Feedback is most useful when given frequently within the context of the learning activity – i.e. before extensive formal assessment. This is formative assessment and formative feedback.  Some formative assessment might contribute to overall marks but need not.  Formative assessment can be a small ��in-class�� activity as well as an individual or group assignment.
    • Feedback can be obtained by the student through self assessment.


    • Feedback should enable students to understand their strengths and weaknesses and give guidance on how to improve in the future.
    • Feedback is most effective and valuable when it is received prior to the assessment connected with a piece of learning. Technically this is termed formative feedback.  However it could also be understood simply as ��teaching�� in that formative activities that result in the student learning how well they are doing are developmental activities.  Students often do not know how well they have understood a lecture until they have processed the information in some way.  Not all formative activities are tutor dependent; self and peer assessment are powerful means of increasing a students�� understanding of assessment criteria and the evaluation process against these criteria.  Not all activities have to be complex or time consuming; a student might write the ��five main points�� taken from a lecture on an index card and give this to the tutor.  The tutor might then report on these the next session.  In this instance the tutor is also receiving valuable feedback on their own teaching and hence the activity is of value to both parties.
    • Feedback is effective when students can see the advice set out in practice, i.e. when they can access examples of what you would like them to achieve. 
    • Students will gain greater understanding of past achievements and future direction when this is the subject of discussion with their peers, in groups, in class or with a tutor.
    • Discussing some examples of how and why previous assignments have been marked is highly recommended.
    • Students�� work is marked against assessment criteria and tutors should relate their feedback to these criteria so that students can diagnose why they achieved a particular grade.
    • When feedback��s focus is on an activity that has come to an end, it is of value as a developmental process only when it can be transferred to the future.  Feedback on past events therefore has to be generic in scope rather than a close analysis specific to a piece of work.
    • A balance should be struck between brevity and extent; students need to be able to pick out what is essential for future progress from the more routine issues.


    • Research literature suggests that students and academics need to check they have shared understandings of academic conventions and terminology.  Whilst academics might have implicit and shared collegial understanding of ��criticality�� and ��analysis�� in the context of their own discipline, students might not.  Disciplinary differences need to be taken into account, e.g. ��critical�� could mean something different in English to the meaning(s) it can have in Sociology.  Comments such as ��too descriptive�� might not have self-evident meaning to a student.  Student thinks, ��Hmm but what would less descriptive look like?��.
    • Dialogue with students about conventions, terminology and expectations might help students make more of the communication.
    • Students also reflect on their learning. They will interpret your feedback against their own assessments of how they are doing.  Your feedback might concur, augment or conflict with their views.  Active engagement and dialogue around feedback will help students really listen to, understand and take on board what you are trying to say to them.
    • Receiving feedback on performance, particularly from an authority, will be an emotive process for students, affecting their self-esteem and sense of identity in the academic context.  Motivation and self-esteem are more likely to be enhanced when a course has many low-stakes tasks with feedback geared to providing information about progress against own previous performance.  A balance needs to be struck between the extent of formative tasks and feedback within a module and high stakes assessment that give defining statements (grades) about how students have done compared to their peers.

    5. Issues arising from meetings with Teaching and Learning Co-ordinators

    The first meetings with Teaching and Learning Co-ordinators concerned discussion of the policy context for student feedback and the findings of the literature review.  Discussion of these documents raised some questions concerning university procedure:

    • how do staff learn of changes to university policy consequent on Senate approvals of Learning and Teaching Committee recommendations?
    • at what point following a Senate meeting does policy take effect?
    • who collates this information and who receives it?
    • there is a need for co-ordination in changes to the Academic Quality Procedures Handbook  (AQPH) and updating of other online information.
    • The AQPH could be expanded to give greater detail of policy expectations and guidance to staff on fulfilling this in practice
    • The above changes to the AQPH would assist with the induction and development of new staff

    Departmental practices are largely consistent with university policy.  However of concern to the university will be:

      1. In general, staff members perceive feedback to be written comments on student work.
      2. In general ��feedback�� is conceptually linked to and associated with assessment.  This results in lack of attention to feedback that comes before assessment.  The concept of feedback prevalent in the university is described in the literature as ��summative�� or retrospective feedback.
      3. The only references to feedback to students on their work and progress contained in the University��s Code of Practice refer to projects and coursework, i.e. feedback connected to assessed work and then only two forms of assessed work.
      4. We need to focus attention and resources to the development of formative assessment and feedback practices. These are the practices identified by the literature and by Loughborough students as those most powerful, useful and valuable to the development of work and learning achievement.
      5. There is no mention of feedback to students in the student handbook.
      6. Some staff point out that the new question on module evaluation form will be problematic.  It is expected that students are asked to make comment on the quality of the feedback in a module under the individual tutor section.  Some staff point out that this contradicts the idea that student feedback is more than comments provided by staff on assessed work. Some feedback to students comes from provision outside the module, such as personal tutors or core modules.  Some modules are also taught by more than one member of staff and some modules have seminars that do provide feedback but are given by other members of staff.
      7. A couple of departments will find it difficult to obtain external examiner comment on the quality of feedback because much of their feedback to students is given orally and the external will not be able to receive evidence of this unless the external meets with students in the course of the year.
      8. The course work code of practice refers to the university��s ��minimum requirements�� for feedback without specifying what these are.  The extra significance of this is that the code applies to written comments on assessed work.  There is no guidance on feedback for other assessment activities.  This focus on feedback as written comments on students�� work might appear to run against the university��s intentions to broaden staff and student understanding of feedback.

    Concerns held across the range of staff spoken to:

    1. The time taken to produce detailed written feedback
    2. An apparent lack of engagement by students with feedback provided (not collected or no requirement that they digest it and act on it)
    3. The potential time involved in talking through feedback with students (no space in lecture schedule, pressures on tutorial system, module staff not having interaction with students after the close of the module)
    4. In order to address lack of mutual understanding by students of terminology of both assessment criteria and feedback staff would benefit from example activities and exercises that could be undertaken in lectures and in large groups
    5. In some SSH subject areas it was felt that the specification and articulation of criteria for assessment and for feedback on achievement exacerbates a perceived assessment driven, grade focused and instrumental approach on the part of students and mitigates against a risk-taking, inventive and creative approach.  In this context students feel that staff need to justify the grade given and feedback is an emotive issue and perceived as information to dispute, rather than information for development of future learning and achievement.  This is a source of tension for staff.
    6. The majority of feedback is given after an assessment has taken place.  This results in the need for feedback to focus on generic and transferable issues rather than focus on subject matter specific to a module that will by then have come to an end.

      6. Guidance on Feedback to Students on their Work and Progress and Completion of Module Specification

    Feedback is central to the learning process.  The concept of feedback is often linked to assessment.  This is usually given after the assessment has taken place and will be summative in nature.  However feedback is not necessarily related to assessment.  Interaction and communication with students within the learning process prior to assessment (often referred to as teaching), and the completion of activities that require students to engage with and synthesise the teaching material (often referred to as learning) might also produce information for students that allows them to see or evaluate how well they are doing.  This is called formative feedback.  It is the most powerful and valuable form of feedback.  Students rate it highly.

    There will be a new free text field on the module specifications starting 2008-9 that will allow you to set out your feedback practices.

    Purpose of the new field

    Method of Feedback

    This field should specify all the ways that students hear, read or discuss comment on their work and progress within a module and thereby:

    • manage students�� expectations of type and extent of feedback
    • help students understand that feedback is not just written comments on essays
    • give staff the opportunity to identify all the ways that students do receive input on their progress and achievements in a module
    • give staff to identify the instances where feedback is given prior to assessment, perhaps as a product of an activity undertaken within a teaching session or as the product of interim tests (see 17 to 30 below)
    • encourage more effective communications between staff and students

    List of possible statements (soon to be available online as a drop down box)

    1. Handwritten comments on (or about) students' assessed work;
    2. Word-processed overall comments on each student's assessed work;
    3. Model answers or solutions, issued to students along with their assessed work;
    4. Assignment return sheets;
    5. Word processed overall class reports on an assignment;
    6. Codes written on students' work, debriefed in a whole group session;
    7. Face-to-face feedback to whole classes;
    8. Face-to-face feedback to individual students outside the tutorial system
    9. Face-to-face lecturer meetings with students
    10. Face to face seminar tutor meetings with students
    11. Face to face personal tutorials
    12. Face-to-face feedback to small groups of students;
    13. Emailed comments on students' assessed work;
    14. Online positing of overall comments on batches of students' work
    15. Online posting and discussion of overall comments on batches of students�� work
    16. Feedback generated by small formal assessment activities that occur periodically within the module (but accounting for less than 20% of overall mark)

    Statements for feedback that comes in the form of a formative task

    1. Self-assessment tasks (marked in class or by the student against a sheet that you give out)
    2. In class tests (to be marked by a peer)
    3. Discussion of responses to an activity in a whole group session;
    4. Online tests (computer generated marks)
    5. Peer assessment and peer feedback
    6. Writing five minute summaries of the main points in a lecture
    7. Writing ten minute essay plans to be marked by a peer (also engages students with assessment criteria: their meaning and how to apply them)
    8. Write ��revision cards��: ��five issues that are unclear to me��
    9. Breaking a lecture into 20 minute sections with break for 5 minutes where students engage in an activity based on the subject matter
    10. Job applications (could be related to RAPID): If this job requires knowledge of this subject matter, apply for this job demonstrating your command of the subject, giving examples of how you have applied this subject matter in practice. Other students then become the selection panel.
    11. Engaging students with feedback given on course work by asking them to act on it in a re-working of one part of their assessment submission. Could be marked by a peer.
    12. Snowball: small groups have to decide on the five main points given in a lecture.
    13. Asking questions in a lecture: avoid lack of response by setting the question as a two minute small group discussion activity where one member is delegated to feedback the group response
    14. Use of online networking: form a group, ask students to research an issue and submit this to the group site, for discussion and examination by other students.

    Statements for activities that engage students with feedback

    1. Talk about the meaning of feedback in personal tutoring sessions
    2. Give examples of actual past student assessments – why a 1st, 2.1 etc?
    3. Get students to mark work submitted on the module in previous years.
    4. Give examples that demonstrate assessment criteria in practice
    5. Give examples of assessment criteria at different grades
    6. Provide marks only after students have responded to feedback
    7. Require students to undertake an activity (individually, with a friend or in groups) concerning the feedback that they have been given
    8. Reporting feedback in class with break-out discussions

      7. Findings from survey conducted with the Students�� Union Departmental Student Representatives

    Student perceptions of feedback

    Students at the Student Union departmental forum, where 26 students from 16 departments were represented, were asked to list the forms of feedback that they recognised.  Students were not ranking from a pre-given list but gave their own suggestions.  They were then asked to rank their suggestions on a scale of 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest) in respect of the perceived value of each form of feedback.

    Ranked by form, the results were:

    Type The most frequent form of feedback Average value to Students (out of 10)
    Assessment marks 22 6.9
    Written individual FB 17 6
    Personal tutor 14 3.12
    Lecturer interaction 11 7.27
    Tutorial work in module 6 7
    Emailed individual FB 4 4.25
    Generic written 3 4.3
    Online, RAPID, LEARN 3 2.66
    Project supervisor 1 8
    Peer comparison 1 5

    Ranked by value the results were:

    Type Responses Average value to students
    Project supervisor 1 8
    Lecturer interaction 11 7.27
    Tutorial work in module 6 7
    Assessment marks 22 6.9
    Written individual FB 17 6
    Peer comparison 1 5
    Generic written 3 4.3
    Emailed individual FB 4 4.25
    Personal tutor 14 3.12
    Online, RAPID, LEARN 3 2.66

    Students were then asked to list the two most frequent forms of feedback that they received from those that they had listed.  The responses were:

    Type Frequency of response
    Written individual 16
    Exam results 14
    Tutorial work 10
    Class tests 3
    Requested FB 3
    FB sessions 2
    Generic lecture 1

    Students were asked about the problems they had with the two most frequent forms of feedback that they received.

    Form       Frequency of response:

    Illegible / rushed / unclear    8 
    Need detail of areas of improvement   5 
    Need detail of areas done well   5 
    Not enough detail / vague    5 
    Too late / not before assessment   4 
    Need explanation of CW feedback   2 
    Too general, not personalised   2 
    Too infrequent / too little comments   2 
    Limited time in individual tutorials   2 
    Tutorial work lacks FB/ peer comparison  2 
    Low attendance at FB sessions   1 
    English language     1 
    Want FB on exams     1 
    Not formative feedback    1 
    Incomplete FB forms     1

    Finally students were asked for their ideas for improvement.  Their responses were:

    Improvement      Frequency of Response 
    More assessed tutorials / class tests 
     (where marks don��t contribute)    7 
    More small group tutorials      4 
    A pro-active / compulsory PT system     4 
    Time with lecturers       4 
    Half termly email / meeting on progress    3 
    Typed feedback on structured form     3 
    Breakdown of exam results with comments    3 
    More detailed comments on coursework    2 
    Smaller tutorial groups / more time     2 
    More assessments within modules     1 
    More ��homework�� type work to see if are on the right track  1 
    More generic exam feedback      1 
    From these results we might conclude that:

    • The main form of feedback that students receive and are relying on is end of module, summative feedback.  Students are using assessments rather than distinct feedback activity to gauge their progress.
    • Students find feedback that comes within a module, whether from tests, seminars, small contributory assessed tasks or interaction with a lecturer to be most useful. 
    • Coursework feedback tends to come too late to be of formative use for the final assessment
    • The valuable feedback that comes internal to a module (formative feedback, via tests or other activities) is the most infrequent form of feedback that students receive
    • Students struggle to understand some of the feedback that is given, either because it is too brief, too vague or poorly written
    • In discussion few students indicated that they receive generic feedback on exams
    • The results shed some light on why the questions on the NSS concerning helpfulness of feedback receive low rankings.

    All of these results are echoed by the research literature which suggests that summative assessment is predominant in higher education.  Feedback on summative assessment tends to be retrospective and judgemental rather than forward looking and developmental.  It has also been established that feedback is most useful given near to the event and prior to final assessment.  

    A great deal of research has been interested to explore how students understand academic conventions and terminology.  This literature shows that students and lecturers often do not have shared understandings of the terminology that is being used. The learning outcomes, assessment criteria and feedback on students�� relative achievements against those criteria need to be discussed with students to ensure their understanding.

    We should consider ways of increasing the extent of formative activities and formative interim assessment within modules. 

    8. Lessons learnt from this project

    • We should consider ways of increasing the extent of formative activities and formative interim assessment within modules.
    • The University Code of Practice should refer to the value of formative assessment/feedback [See Appendix Four for the QAA��s view in their Code of Practice on Assessment.  The University could make distinctions between feedback that comes as a product of activity within the module and might, but is not necessarily connected to assessments, and feedback that is given as a result of formal assessment.
    • The University needs to include explanation of what feedback is, the forms that it takes and what its value to learning is within the Student Handbook.  The Students�� Union might make a useful contribution to managing students�� expectations concerning feedback within induction activities – i.e. highlighting information in the Student Handbook and pointing out that students should read the module specifications for information concerning the feedback (forms and extent) that they will receive within the process of teaching and learning and after assessment(s) for a module has taken place.
    • Part of this strategy could usefully include the making of a guide to formative feedback written in the context of the outcomes of this present project.  This may form the basis of a workshop to take to staff groups in departments and might include the development of strategies for formative feedback in different contexts (discipline, size of group, non-tutor dependant activities)
    • It may be productive for ADt or PVCt to give a steer to departments on the value of formative assessment and formative feedback.
    • It would be advisable to give some attention to questions concerning communication with staff about changes to university L&T policy and regulations and the posting of accessible information about policy for new staff.
    • In this context a clear message to staff concerning the implementation of the new module specification field is required.  This should explain the date from which it takes effect and also to which modules it applies.  The development of an online ��drop down box�� should also be explained.
    • It would be useful to evaluate the impact of the new text field on the module specification –  what practices are claimed and claimed to be new.  This might also form part of a conversation at an APR meeting.

    9. Action Points

    • Promotion of and setting University expectations relating to formative feedback
    • Changes to the University Code of Practice
    • Changes to the Student Handbook
    • Work with the Students�� Union
    • Production of a Guide to Formative Feedback for staff; development of a workshop on formative feedback
    • Attention to questions concerning communication with staff about changes to university L&T policy and regulations.
    • Clear message to staff concerning the implementation of the new module specification field
    • The development of an online ��drop down box�� should be taken forward
    • Evaluation of the impact of the new text field on the module specification on both departmental practices and students�� engagement with the specification.
    • Consider talking about feedback practices at APR.

    Appendix One: Literature Review

    Feedback on performance is arguably the cornerstone of all learning, both formal and informal (Brown & Knight,  1994; Biggs,, 1999)  However many student evaluations of teaching reflect a deep dissatisfaction with feedback quality and quantity whilst students�� seeming failure to respond to and utilize feedback frustrates academics (Orrell, 2006). 

    Guidelines and Codes of Practice issued outside and inside the university largely reflect structural concerns. However most research is focused on sociological and psychological aspects of communication between academics and their students.

    Development Literature 
    There is plenty of advice available for giving feedback that draws together experience built on practice.  This advice often concentrates on structural concerns similar to the QAA.  Applying the principles of this will go some way in helping staff meet the University��s requirements under ��a��, ��b�� and ��c�� above.  Race (2001) considers the qualities and attributes of feedback that are crucial, irrespective of process of feedback used.  He says that the issue of time is important because research has shown that the impact of feedback is significantly eroded the longer the gap between the learning event and receipt of feedback.  Also, feedback should be individualised, taking into account the achievement and individuality of the students; global ways of compiling and distributing feedback reduce the ownership that students take of the feedback.  However Carless (2006) puts a different view, arguing after Knight and Yorke (2003) that feedback on generic issues such as citation and referencing is more likely to stimulate learning as these topics feed forward into future tasks rather than back to completed assignments.  Continuing with Race (2001), feedback should give detail rather than give broad finalising comments such as ��weak�� or ��excellent��.  Finally a balance must be struck between the quantity and detail of feedback so that the student is not overwhelmed and is able to sort out the important feedback from that which is more routine.  Gibbs and Simpson (2004) add that the purpose of feedback is for students to act on it to improve their future work and learning.  This is most likely if feedback is also

    • frequent, timely, sufficient and detailed enough
    • linked to the purpose of the assessment task and criteria
    • understandable, given the students�� level of sophistication; and focuses on learning rather than marks by relating explicitly to future work and tasks��.

    Feedback should reflect the work completed but should also feed forward (Glover, C and Brown, E, 2006).  In this sense, feedback is a formative act differentiated from summative feedback.  Summative feedback is primarily for the use of the marker in assessing a grade (ticks, crosses, question marks or notes such as ��why?).  Formative feedback will provide ��a comment which [is] developmental in nature, i.e. expected to provide the student with [information/explanation] on how progress can be made on the work�� (Randall and Mirador, 2003, p.523).

    In this structurally focused practice literature little critical analysis is made of what makes feedback ��effective��.  What qualities should an ��explanation�� or set of ��constructive�� comments have if they are to engage students and communicate to them in ways that the student will understand and find useful?  In order to work towards successful feedback practices and to meet the University��s expectations of departments, we need a more profound understanding of student feedback.

    All assessment practices are primarily communicative processes in that they are interactions between students and academics giving signals, information and involving loops of communication between both parties..  If so, feedback has to be understood as a communicative act whose effectiveness is determined in the same way as other forms of communication in social contexts.  This issue is the subject of the majority of research on student feedback.

    Research Literature: the sociology and psychology of feedback

    Whilst it is important and sensible (Higgins et al. 2001) to time communication with students about their progress so that students are able to use it, structural aspects of the feedback process are of no greater significance than sociological and psychological factors in determining the effectiveness of the communication.  Feedback is a social process in which elements such as discourse, power and emotion impact on how messages can be interpreted (Carless, 2006, p. 221).  A student makes an ��emotional investment in an assignment and expects some ��return�� on that investment�� (p.272).  Tutors assume a perceived position of authority within a power relationship based on their experience and the institutional context.  Feedback can be ��deeply affective, exercising a profound impact on students�� constructions of themselves as learners and their motivation in future learning (Orrell, 2006).  The receipt of feedback may invoke an emotional response, with the feedback interplaying with the students�� feelings of pride, security, guilt, embarrassment, capability and identity within the academic context. A rejection of feedback may be a self protective psychological device whilst a failure to engage with that feedback is likely to lead to a cycle of deprivation as the student is less likely to be engaged with the subject matter, tutor and learning assistance (Higgins, 2000).

      ��The process of giving and receiving feedback is a particularly complex and problematic form of communication which takes place within a social context. Students produce work and tutors provide feedback on that work and this process is defined ��through implicit assumptions about what constitutes valid knowledge �� and the relationships of authority that exist around the communication of these assumptions�� (Lea and Street, 2000, pp. 45)  Furthermore, feedback carries messages to students ��about university values and beliefs, about the role of writing in learning, about their identify as a student, and about their own competence and even character�� (Ivanic et al., 2000, pp. 47). Consequently students�� feelings and identities needs to be recognised as playing a significant role in this process alongside notions of authority and implicit knowledge�� (Higgins, 2000, p. 2)

    The feedback comments convey a message based on an implicit understanding of particular academic terms, which in turn reflect a much more complex academic discourse, which in turn may be only partially understood by students�� (Higgins et al 2001, p. 272).  Hyatt (2005) questions the status of feedback comments; he asks whether feedback becomes more useful if it is explicitly written as a dialogue, where advice is open to challenge rather than comments written by an ��anonymous authority figure presenting canonical unquestionable rules�� (p. 350).  Feedback is given in a system where power is loaded towards the provider rather than the recipient of feedback so that the ways in which negative/critical feedback is given is important if feedback is intended to be empowering and strengthening of learning.  Hyatt also points out that omissions in feedback are as significant messages as those included, particularly if the marker focuses on students�� omissions or errors rather than successes.  Finally he argues that attention should be paid to ��common feedback terminology in academic discourse��:

      ��Opportunities for engagement in dialogue between markers and student-writers should not only be provided but actively encouraged as these too play an absolutely crucial pedagogic role in helping to induct students into the particularities of an academic discourse community, which offers them a position from which to challenge, a ��critical inclusion�� in the community, so they are not simply disempowered apprentices whose role is to follow and reproduce�� (p. 351)

    In their study (2006) Glover and Brown noted that even feedback that is carefully drawn up as formative fails its purpose when students and their lecturer do not have a shared understanding of the relationship between assessment criteria and feedback given, or students do not accurately understand the ��taken for granted academic discourse that underpins assessment criteria and the language of feedback�� (pp. 10).  Chanock��s study (2000) found that almost half of the students who described their understanding of the common marking comment ��too much description; not enough analysis�� did not interpret this comment in the way their tutors did.

      ��51% thought that analysis had to do with argument or interpretation. �� The other meanings �� included critical thinking, originality, depth, concise style, facts or research, relevance and, finally �� ��breaking up�� or ��pulling apart. �� Any of the qualities they list would be welcome in most essays, and we would be likely to complain about their absence. However not one of the ��other meanings�� is the same thing as analysis, and an essay could have any or all of them without analysis�� (pp.99-100). 

    This research demonstrates how careful tutors must be to check and develop students�� understandings of terms that are commonly used and perhaps thought of by academics as commonly understood when there are different disciplinary concepts of what ��analysis�� is.  Hounsell (1987) applies the idea that communication involves shared understandings which tend to be tacit and taken for granted to his own work on feedback and suggests that it may fail because of the differential between students�� and tutors�� conceptions; students ��do not have a grasp of the assumptions about the nature of academic discourse underlying what is being conveyed to them�� (p 114). Therefore

      ��conventional attempts to guide students �� may founder because of the exigencies of communication �� Such characteristic comments as ��you do not make your points clearly enough��, ��this essay lacks structure�� or ��too much irrelevant detail��, do not have a meaning which is self evident�� (p. 118).

    What is meant by language used and associated ideas, beliefs, conventions, concepts and assumptions underpinning feedback comments will also vary in meaning by discipline (Baynham 2000). In the same way, a differentiated student body with an increasingly diverse range of background experiences and hopes implies that the different recipients of feedback will hold various conceptions of learning, writing and assessment (Higgins, 2000).  Clearly, students and their teacher/assessors need continuous interaction and dialogue concerning the nature of learning outcomes, assessment criteria, marks and explanations (feedback) or why a piece of work has achieved a particular grade.

      ��Given the centrality of assessment to learning, students need to learn about assessment in the same way that they engage with subject content �� Demystifying the assessment process can make a contribution to such student processes of engaging with required standards�� (Carless 2006, p. 230). 

    Rust et al (2005) describe the whole process of assessment as necessitating direct interaction between staff and students; in the development of criteria, in feedback on assessment and criteria, in feedback to students on their work, and in feedback to staff on student learning through the work submitted.  ��Feedback is seen as a dynamic process in which context is important, student perspectives are crucial and staff and students interact. (Millar, p.32). The content of what Carless calls ��assessment dialogues�� might include:

    • Unpacking assessment criteria
    • Reminding students that grades are awarded on the basis of these criteria
    • What tutors hope to achieve through their written marks and annotations.
    • Moderation processes and the role of boards of examiners and externals.

    Orrell (2006) made a comparative study of academics�� espoused beliefs and actual practices concerning assessment feedback.  She found that the majority of participants�� held beliefs and espoused definitions of feedback that placed it as an important part of the learning process.  ��They had largely defined feedback as: (1) giving students an insight into the appropriateness of their written product and their efforts to produce it so as to facilitate students�� own capacity for self-evaluation and improvement; and (2) to engage in a co-learning discussion of the actual ideas in the students�� texts�� (p. 253).  However academics�� tended to give feedback that was more summative than formative in orientation.  For the most part the feedback amounted to an justification of the grade given and not an account of how the academic had interrogated and responded to the content of students�� writing; there was no explanation of how to improve and no basis for dialogue over students�� understandings and ideas.  Furthermore there was no requirement for students to act on the written comments.  Orrell explains the disjuncture between belief and practice as the result of ��the tacit, routine nature of much assessment practice learnt on the job.  This is especially likely when assessment is treated in policy and practice as a postscript to teaching and learning rather than an integral and pivotal component of the educative process�� (p.454). 

    Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick (2006) place students at the centre of a theoretical model of the feedback process.  Students�� actions reflect their own understandings of the academic task relative to their own judgements of their performance and their motivation to progress.  Not all students will engage in this reflective process to the same degree or even explicitly but all students will have (their own version of)

    • a concept of the goal/standard or reference level being aimed for
    • a notion of how their performance compares to that goal
    • an idea of how to engage in appropriate action which leads to some closure of that gap.

    For students to be able to compare actual performance with a standard, and take action to close the gap, then they must already possess some of the same evaluative skills as their tutor.  Any model of the feedback process must recognise that students produce their own internal feedback.  ��If external feedback is provided, this additional information might augment, concur or conflict with the students�� interpretation of the tasks and the path of learning�� (p.202) The teacher��s feedback response must be interpreted and internalised by the student before if can influence subsequent action (Ivanic, Clark & Rimmershaw, 2000). Therefore if students are to different degrees always involved in monitoring and assessing their own work, then rather than just thinking of ways of enhancing the teacher��s ability to deliver high quality feedback we should be devising ways of building upon [the student��s] capacity for self-regulation (Yorke, 2003) and actively give them opportunities to talk about the relationship between internal and external feedback.

    Learning the Lessons

    The structural and sociological/psychological concerns outlined in the previous two sections are reflected in Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick��s analysis of good feedback practice (2006).  Good feedback practice:

    • facilitates the development of self-assessment (reflection) in learning
    • encourages teacher and peer dialogue around learning
    • helps clarify and bring common understandings of what good performance is (goals, criteria, expected standards)
    • provides opportunities to close the gap between current and desired performance
    • delivers high quality information to students about their learning
    • encourages positive motivational believes and self-esteem
    • provides information to teachers that can be used to help shape the teaching

    Ideas for practice

    The development of self-assessment can be encouraged by providing students with self-assessment tasks, activities that encourage reflection on both the processes and the products of learning. (McDonald and Boud, 2003) and the elicitation of peer feedback (Liu and Carless, 2006). Reporting feedback in class and structuring break-out discussions of feedback or using interactive classroom technology and whiteboards can facilitate dialogue in the context of large class sizes.  Students can be provided with written documents embodying descriptive statements that make explicit the assessment criteria and the standards that define different levels of achievement (grade descriptors). Exemplars of performance are effective because they define an objective and valid standard against which students can compare their work.  Other strategies that have proved effective in clarifying criteria, standards and goals include involving students in assessment exercises where they mark or comment on other students�� work in relation to defined criteria and standards and workshops where students and tutors devise their own assessment criteria for a piece of work.  The quality of information given to students can be improved by making sure that feedback is provided in relation to pre-defined criteria, providing feedback soon after a submission, providing corrective advice not just information on strengths/weaknesses, limiting the amount of feedback so that it is used, prioritising areas for improvement, and providing online tests so that feedback can be accessed anytime.  Motivation and self-esteem are more likely to be enhanced when a course has many low-stakes tasks with feedback geared to providing information about progress and achievement rather than high stakes summative assessment tasks where information is only about success or failure or about how students compare with peers.  Other strategies that would help encourage high levels of motivation to succeed include providing marks on written work only after students have responded to written feedback comments, allocating time for students to re-write selected pieces of work and drafts and re-submissions.  Tutors can generate information about student learning by asking for one minute summaries about a lecture which are handed in at the end, by asking students what feedback they would like on their assignments, asking students to identify what they are having difficulties with when they hand in assessed work, asking students in groups to identify a question that they would like exploring in the next session and quick evaluation strategies at key points in the teaching programme.


    Baynham, M. (2000) Academic Writing in New and Emergent Discipline Areas, in: Lea, M. , and Stierer, B. (Eds) Student Writing in Higher Education: New Contexts. Buckingham: SRHE and OUP.

    Biggs, J. (1999) Teaching for quality learning at university. Buckingham: SRHE.

    Brown, S. & Knight, P. (1994) Assessing learners in higher education. London: Kogan Page.

    Carless, D. (2006) Differing perceptions in the feedback process; Studies in Higher Education (31) 2 pp. 219 – 233.

    Chanock, K. (2000) Comments on Essays: do students understand what tutors write? Teaching in Higher Education (5)1 pp. 95 – 105.

    Glover, C. and Brown, E (2006) Written Feedback for Students: too much, too detailed or too incomprehensible to be effective? Bioscence Education e-journal http://bioscience.heacademy.ac.uk/journal/vol7/beej-7-3.htm

    Gibbs, G and Simpson, C (2004) ��Conditions under which assessment supports students�� learning��; Learning and Teaching in Higher Education 1 (1) 3 – 31

    Higgins, R. (2000) Be More Critical!: Rethinking Assessment Feedback��. Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Conference, Cardiff University, September 7 – 10 2000.

    Higgins, R, Hartley, P. & Skelton, A, (2001) Getting the Message Across: the problem of communicating assessment feedback. Teaching in Higher Education 6(2) p. 273.

    Hounsell, D. (1987) Essay writing and the quality of feedback, in Richardson, J., Eysenck, M. W. and Piper, D. W. (eds) Student Learning: research in education and cognitive psychology. Milton Keynes: OUP.

    Hyatt, D. F. (2005) ��Yes, a very good point!��: a critical genre analysis of a corpis of feedback commentaries on master of Education assignments. Teaching in Higher Education (10)3 pp 339 – 353.

    Ivanič, R., Clark, R. and Rimmershaw, R. (2000) What Am I Supposed to Make of This? The Messages Conveyed to Students by Tutors' Comments, in: Knight, P. and Yorke, M. (2003) Assessment, learning and employability. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

    Lea, M. R. and Stierer, B. (Eds.) Student Writing in Higher Education: New Contexts. Buckingham: SRHE and Open University Press.

    Lea, M. R. and Street, B. (2000) Student Writing and Staff Feedback in Higher Education: An Academic Literacies Approach, in: Lea, M. R. and Stierer, B. (Eds.) Student Writing in Higher Education: New Contexts (Buckingham: SRHE and Open University Press).

    Liu, N-F. & Carless, D. (2006) Peer feedback: the learning element of peer assessment. Teaching in Higher Education (11)3 pp. 279 – 290.

    McDonald, B. & Boud, D. (2003) The impact of self assessment on achievement: the effects of self-assessment training on performance in external examinations. Assessment in Education (10)2 pp. 209 – 220.

    Millar, J. (2005) Engaging Students with assessment Feedback: what works? An FDTL5 Project.

    Nicol, D. & Macfarlane-Dick, D. (2006) Rethinking Formative Assessment in HE: a theoretical model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in Higher Education (21) 2 pp. 199 – 218.

    Orrell, J (2006) Feedback on learning achievement: rhetoric and reality Teaching in Higher Education (11) 4, pp. 441 – 456).

    Race, P. (2001) Using feedback to help students learn. HEA, York. 
    QAA Code of Practice. Section Six: Assessment of Students, September 2006

    Randal, M and Mirador, J (2003) How well am I doing? Using a Corpus-based analysis to Investigate Tutor and Institutional Messages in Comment Sheets. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 28 (5) 516 – 526.

    Rust, C. , O��Donovan, B., Price, M. (2005) A social constructivist assessment process model: how rthe research literature shows us this could be best practice. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education (30)3 pp. 231 – 240.

    Yorke, M. (2003) Formative assessment in higher education: Moves towards theory and the enhancement of pedagogic practice. Higher Education, 45(4) pp. 277 – 501)


    Appendix Two: Questionnaire for student representatives

    Feedback to students on their work and progress

    1. The university would like to know what students count as ��feedback��. 
      Make a list of the ways that you hear about how you are doing
    2. The university would like to know what forms of feedback are valuable to students 
      Rank the list you have made with 10 being most valuable and 1 being least valuable. Note your rankings above.
    3. The university would like to know what actually happens in departments 
      List the 2 most frequent forms of feedback that you receive.
    4. The university would like to know what the main problems are that you have with the most frequent forms of feedback that you receive (your answers to question 3) 
      List the problems that you have with your answers to question 3.
    5. The university would like to know your ideas for making communications about your work and progress more effective. 
      List any ideas that you have:

    Appendix Three

    Giving feedback to large groups and to individuals (University of Flinders, Australia) http://www.flinders.edu.au/teach/t4l/assess/feedback.php

    Engaging students with assessment feedback: Case Studies (Oxford Brookes University, UK) 

    Self, Peer and Group Assessment: Guidance, Case Studies and Tools (Higher Education Academy) 

    Self and Peer Assessment (Oxford Brookes University, UK) 

    Using feedback to help students learn: Guidance, Case Studies and Tools (Higher Education Academy) 

    Enhancing Student Learning Through Effective Formative Feedback: Guidance, Case Studies and Tools (Higher Education Academy) 

    Self and Peer Assessment: Guidance and Tools (Robert Gordon University) 

    Making every comment count: Effective formative feedback to journalism students 

    Assessment of and for Learning (QAA Scotland) 

    Assessment Feedback to Students: examples (University of Bath, UK) 

    Using Blogs for Formative Assessment and Interactive Learning (ARIADNE) 


    Appendix Four: QAA Code of Practice on Assessment

    Section 6: Assessment of Students http://www.qaa.ac.uk/academicinfrastructure/codeOfPractice/section6/default.asp


    Institutions provide appropriate and timely feedback to students on assessed work in a way that promotes learning and facilitates improvement but does not increase the burden of assessment.

    It is good practice to provide students with sufficient, constructive and timely feedback on their work in respect of all types of assessment. Timing is important: students benefit from feedback on their work at a time when they will be able to use it and are most likely to take notice of it, for example, during a module rather than at the end.

    Institutions are already alert to the need for staff to use their time effectively while providing comments to students on their work. Concentrating staff effort on providing feedback during the learning process has the added benefit of giving students advice about how to improve their performance in time to affect their final mark.

    It may be helpful to consider how different forms of feedback can be used for different purposes. For example, students are likely to find it helpful to receive constructive comments on their work from a range of sources including teachers, personal tutors, peers and, where appropriate, practitioners. Encouraging students to reflect on their own performance, as well as receiving feedback from others, can be a useful part of the learning process, especially when opportunities for self-assessment are integrated in a module or programme.

    It is also possible to provide generic feedback to students in ways that help them to improve their individual performance by learning from the cohort as a whole. For example, making available anonymously a summary of all comments provided to individual students on an assessment task set for a group can help each student to think about how his/her work could be improved, especially if the comments are clearly related to learning outcomes and assessment criteria. Another strategy that can be economical of staff time but that can provide helpful feedback to students is publishing, anonymously, assessed work at different levels showing examples of progression and staff expectations of increasing development.

    In meeting the needs of students for feedback on their progression and attainment, it can be helpful to consider: 
    the desirability of providing feedback at an appropriate time in the learning process (see above paragraphs), and as soon as possible after the student has completed the assessment task  
    specifying the nature and extent of feedback that students can expect and whether this is to be accompanied by the return of assessed work. It is important to consider the particular needs of students studying part-time and/or remotely

    the effective use of comments on returned work, including relating feedback to intended learning outcomes and assessment criteria, in order to help students identify areas for improvement as well as commending them for achievement

    the role of oral feedback, either on a group or individual basis, as a means of supplementing or replacing written feedback

    providing guidance about the point in the module or programme where it is no longer appropriate for a member of staff to continue providing feedback to a student on his/her work. This is normally when a student is approaching a summative assessment, such as submission of a dissertation, or handing in a coursework assignment.



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