Giving useful feedback
Effective feedback is crucial to enable students to grow and develop during their time at QMUL. It is an essential part of the teaching and learning process and of delivering an ‘outstanding, inclusive, world-class education’ (QMUL Strategy 2030). Strategy 2030 sets out the aim:
Assessment and feedback is focused, streamlined, aligned with progressing learning and supportive of students realising their academic potential.
This guide explores how feedback can be enhanced in these ways to be both more effective for students and more efficient for staff. Feedback is also the area which regularly receives the lowest scores on the National Student Survey for almost all universities. There is often a difference between the amount of feedback that students perceive that they receive, compared to the amount staff report that they provide. We may need to help students recognize feedback, consider whether we are providing it in the format that students want, and also support students in knowing how to use feedback and what to do with it (feedback literacy).
What is feedback?
Feedback within Higher Education is ‘any information, process or activity which affords or accelerates student learning based on comments relating to either formative assessment or summative assessment activities’ (Advance HE, 2013).
As indicated in this quotation, feedback can be provided on both formative and summative assessment work. Formative activities are purely developmental; feedback on formative assessment is crucial in order to help students learn from these experiences. Summative activities carry a grade or mark which will count towards students’ overall programme result. Feedback on summative activities is also important, however it is sometimes not offered, for example on summative exams. Students often request feedback on both summative and formative activities. Feedback on summative assessment can help students prepare for the next year of their programme, or even help support them into further study or employment.
Feedback is about more than simply telling students where they have gone wrong and where to improve. The key functions of feedback include:
- correcting errors;
- developing understanding through explanations;
- generating more learning by suggesting further specific study tasks;
- promoting the development of generic skills by focusing on the evidence of the use of skills rather than on the content;
- promoting meta-cognition by encouraging students' reflection and awareness of learning processes involved in the assignment;
- encouraging students to continue studying.
(Gibbs and Simpson, 2011, p.19-20)
Forms of feedback
Feedback to students can take a wide variety of forms, and we should consider whether we are providing it in the form that students want, and that is most easy for them to use.
Feedback mechanisms include:
1. Specific, targeted, tutor feedback
- Tutor written summative comments on a piece of work
- Tutor on-script comments on individual work
- Indication of achievement against various criteria on a marking grid
- Individual feedback using a departmental feedback form
- Oral feedback - of overall comments or in-line for specific points
- Comments with Gradebooks or their equivalent in a VLE
2. Generic tutor feedback
- Whole group feedback
- Printed responses to exercises
- Coverage of topics within class sessions
3. Automated feedback
- Tests within a VLE
- Self-assessment tasks
4. Feedback from people other than the tutor
- Fellow students commenting on each other's work
- Self-feedback - students' own evaluation of their work
- Feedback from PDP Tutors
5. Informal feedback
- Comments from the tutor in seminars
- Comments from the tutor within the VLE
- Reference to assessed work as 'asides' within a lecture
(Advance HE, 2013)
Alongside these different feedback mechanisms, consider the form of feedback too; feedback can be provided in writing – either using a grid, feedback form, or free text, in person, or via audio or video recording. If the feedback is provided in person then giving a brief written summary, or encouraging students to write down key points, can be useful.
When choosing which forms of feedback you will use, consider both the effectiveness for students and the efficiency for staff; while specific individual feedback is incredibly valuable for students, it is the most time consuming to provide. Students will need this kind of feedback on some of their work, but this can be combined with automated feedback (e.g. on quizzes either within the VLE or using student response systems in sessions), group or generic feedback given to the entire cohort, and peer feedback. Peer feedback is a particularly useful exercise as it increases student feedback literacy and helps them become more independent users of feedback – both giving feedback to peers and receiving it on their work are incredibly valuable for student learning.
Consider where your feedback strategies would fall on this chart – which feedback strategies could you adopt to make more of your feedback very useful for students and efficient for staff?
Dimensions involved in feedback
Feedback as dialogue and action - sustainable feedback
- minimising telling and focusing on students’ needs & interests (Carless et al.,2011)
- engaging students (active collaboration)
- fostering discussion
- supporting students (agency & interaction)
- feeding forward
- reflecting (progress)
- planning action
- generating questions (Bloxham & Campbell, 2010)
- soliciting answers (agency & identity - O’Donovan, Rust & Price, 2016)
- appreciating (autonomy & empowerment)
- managing affect (self-esteem)
- seeking, generating & using feedback from peers & self as part of self- regulated learning
- taking & planning action (proactive recipience - ability to self-monitor their work in progress)
Feedback as collaboration and co-creation - shared responsibilities
(mutual development of feedback literacy)
Feedback as interaction and development (assessment as learning)
- co-constructing meaning
- sharing responsibility
- linking feedback and ILOs, criteria, rubrics
- reviewing exemplars
- acting upon and tracking impact (action plans, portfolios, …)
What is effective feedback?
In an influential article written in 2006, David Nicol and Debra Macfarlane-Dick set out seven principles underpinning highly effective feedback. These principles are still extremely relevant today and offer a useful starting point for reviewing feedback practice. Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick argue that effective feedback:
- helps clarify what good performance is;
- facilitates the development of self-assessment (reflection) in learning;
- delivers high quality information to students about their learning;
- encourages teacher and peer dialogue around learning;
- encourages positive motivational beliefs and self-esteem;
- provides opportunities to close the gap between current and desired performance;
- provides information to teachers that can be used to help shape the teaching.
Find out more: Seven Principles of Effective Feedback [PDF 164KB]
At QMUL and according to the principles of the Code of Practice on Assessment and Feedback (QMUL Assessment Handbook 2020-21):
- Feedback will be given in ways that promote students’ learning
- Feedback will be given as often as is practicable using a variety of strategies, as deemed appropriate.
- Curriculum design will be informed by a requirement to integrate opportunities for giving and receiving feedback.
- Feedback will be relevant, informative and appropriately detailed.
- Feedback will be given within a reasonable timescale determined by school or departmental policy and advertised clearly to students.
- However, feedback should always be in a timeframe that allows students to learn for subsequent summative assessment.
- Feedback will be efficient and use a range of approaches as deemed best practice in each discipline.
- Feedback will provide academic staff with information that can be used to inform their teaching and curriculum development.
- Members of a course team and academic advisers should be informed of the progress of students and their areas of success or lack of understanding.
- Further to Assessment Principle 9 above, feedback will be appropriate to the nature of the assessment task.
Drawing on these principles, other literature, and the QMUL Assessment Strategy and Baseline Principles for Assessment, the following are some key strategies to consider for enhancing feedback.
Writing feedback: Ensure that the feedback provided directly relates to pre-defined criteria (grading criteria) so that students see that there is not any hidden criteria or additional tutor expectations they have not been made aware of. Feedback should also look forward – hence the term ‘feed-forward’ – so that it both offers an assessment of the work presented but also suggests ways that it can be improved. Feedback can have a significant positive or negative impact on student self-esteem, so make sure that it is always supportive even when providing constructive criticism (don’t make assumptions about how hard students have tried or how much effort has been put in). Consider the amount of feedback provided – if there is too much then it can be difficult for students to use. In addition to any commentary on the work (if relevant), providing 3-4 key action points for areas to develop for students’ next assignment can be really useful.
Organising feedback: one of the NUS feedback questions relates specifically to timeliness of feedback. Ensure you publish clear dates to let students know when to expect feedback returned, in line with your school guidelines. Is it feasible to turn around feedback within this timeframe? If there will be delays then let students know as soon as possible. Consider the form of feedback provided – written, in person, audio / video, could you let students choose how they want to receive feedback?
Planning feedback: consider ways that you can increase the opportunities for formative feedback throughout a module. This could include both activities where students receive detailed, individualised feedback, combined with activities which generate automatic feedback (quizzes etc), generic feedback and peer feedback activities. Consider your capacity to provide individualised feedback and where it will be most important to deploy this. How can you help students to make best use of the feedback you provide? You might have discussions about feedback in class, or design linked assessment activities.
- Designing feedback: just as assessment design should be planned across a whole module (or programme), feedback too can be considered as part of curriculum design. Build in linked or two-stage assessments or drafts and resubmissions (see Carless et al, 2011) in order to incentivise student use of feedback (e.g. assignment 1 is a proposal / project plan, feedback is received, then students prepare assignment 2 the full essay / report, or assignment 1 is a presentation of initial ideas for essay / project / report, then feedback is received and assignment 2 is the full write up). Building in opportunities for dialogue about feedback between students and tutors and among students is also important for enhancing student feedback literacy. For example, peer feedback activities, discussing feedback in class, or inviting students to meet with you to receive feedback.
- Helping students understand feedback: students may not know how to engage and use feedback effectively when they enter Higher Education. Making time to discuss grading criteria and assessment and feedback processes in classes can be a really useful way of showing how feedback works and making this explicit to students. Class activities involving the grading criteria can also be really beneficial, for example an exercise where students mark, offer feedback and discuss sample/exemplar assignments.
- Peer feedback: peer feedback activities are another great way to enhance feedback literacy and support students in understanding how to engage with feedback. The act of giving feedback to a peer is as important for student learning as receiving feedback. By assessing others’ work, students gain vital insight into how their own work is positioned in relation to grading criteria and how they can improve it themselves. This is an example of a ‘sustainable’ feedback practice (Carless et al, 2011), wherein students are supported through the design of feedback processes and activities to become much more independent at assessing and improving their own work.
Designing feedback into the curriculum
Rather than viewing feedback as an isolated activity, we should incorporate it into curriculum design, and consider how it is planned across the duration of the module. Some key questions to consider include:
- When will feedback take place?
- How can we design opportunities for students to use feedback received in future assignments?
- How can we incentivise meaningful engagement with feedback by students?
- Can we build links between modules or provide feedback that will be useful for further study / employment?
Tools to enhance feedback
Good Practice Reccomendations: (Evans 2016, p. 6-7)
1- Provide accessible feedback - Keeping assessment focused with an emphasis on how to improve is important (e.g. What was good? What let you down? How can you improve?). Agreeing key principles underpinning assessment feedback and consistency in the giving of feedback are essential.
2- Provide early opportunities for students to act on feedback - In order to support students to help themselves, early assessment of needs is important. Emphasis should be on providing early opportunities for students to receive feedback on key areas of practice while there is sufficient time for them to use such feedback to enhance their work; assessment design must take account of this. Furthermore, formative feedback must directly link into the requirements of summative assessment as part of an aligned approach.
3- Prepare students for meaningful dialogue / peer engagement - Peer engagement activities are important in promoting student self-regulatory skills.
4- Promote development of students’ self-evaluation skills to include self-monitoring / self-assessment and critical reflection skills. For feedback to be sustainable, students need to be supported in their self-monitoring (in the moment) and self-assessment (aggregation of information from multiple past events of their work), independently of the lecturer / teacher.
Find out more: Evans Assessment Tool [PDF 421KB]
Assessment for learning: how might students and academics negotiate the teaching, grading and feedback cycle in an age of accountability?
Speaker: Pete Boyd (26/01/2016)
QMUL Teaching and Learning Conference 2016
Video available - https://youtu.be/_VGvR7pg3LA
Assessment matters: it shapes student approaches to learning. What experiences of assessment do undergraduates bring from their schooling and how do academics manage their continuing assessment experiences within the significant influence of quality assurance systems? In this keynote I will outline the paradigmatic ‘constructive alignment’ approach to assessment, which has been adopted so widely and enthusiastically by quality assurance agencies and universities. Informed by the growing body of research on assessment in higher education I will challenge this framework and suggest strategies that academics might use to mediate the unintended consequences for students of high accountability workplace contexts. My intention is that this keynote and the subsequent discussion will provoke your thinking and provide practical tools for development of assessment literacy and practice.