Enhancing Feedback Enhancing Feedback

Feedback FAQs for staff

• Why does feedback matter?

• What is feedback given on?

• What counts as 'feedback'?

• What forms does feedback take?

• Who can give feedback?

• What evidence is there that feedback actually makes a difference?

• Why has feedback become a cause for concern?

• Does better feedback cost more?

Why does feedback matter?



Feedback is a performance-enhancer.  It enables university students and their teachers to maximise the effectiveness of learning and teaching.  It can do this in three ways:


•   by enabling students to learn something that might otherwise be beyond their grasp;

•   by accelerating their learning, so that they master something more quickly than might otherwise have been possible;

•   by refining their learning, optimising the quality of the work in which they are engaged


Feedback can also play an important motivational role in learning.  It can help to build students' confidence, encourage them in their efforts to master a field of study, and acknowledge and praise their accomplishments.

What is feedback given on?



Traditionally, feedback has often been equated with comments by the teacher on a piece of work (typically written) that a student has produced as coursework or in an exam. This is feedback on achievement  what a student has accomplished in a completed assignment or task, in terms of meeting a range of criteria and standards. 


But feedback can also be given on progress – where a student currently stands in relation to a specified goal, target or level.  In such instances, the feedback typically has a stocktaking function, focusing on what has already been accomplished, and what remains to be done.


Similarly, feedback can be given on attainment– what a student knows, understands or can do at a given point  in time. This might occur in the course of a  timetabled class (a lecture, practical or tutorial), and the aim is usually diagnostic, checking what might need further clarification, guidance or fine-tuning before moving on.

What counts as 'feedback'?



In this website, feedback is seen as having a variety of guises.  It can take the form of :


• information (e.g. written comments on an assignment such as an essay or report)

• processes (e.g. a procedure to discuss students' progress with them at regular intervals)

• activities (e.g. a revision workshop where students and their tutors explore how to tackle sample exam questions)

• experiences (e.g. students sitting in on their peers' seminar or poster presentations, and offering suggestions for improvements).


All four of the above are seen as valid and valuable forms of feedback, where they can meet our opening definition (see Why does feedback matter?) by enabling, accelerating or refining learning and motivating students.

What forms does feedback take?



Feedback can take many different forms.  Probably the most familiar kind is the feedback that accompanies a mark or grade on an assessed piece of work — a set problem, an essay, a report.  The feedback may consist of some verbal or written comments (written, verbal, audio- or video-recorded) as well as a breakdown of the mark into its component parts or ratings against the assessment criteria, typically using a pro forma.  And depending on the subject area and the type of work concerned, the feedback may be very specific (notes in the margin or alongside particular points or steps in a solution, say) or some overall observations on how the student approached the task and the standards that were achieved.  This kind of feedback is both formal and what Laurilld (1993) calls extrinsic, i.e.  it is usually privately communicated between tutor and student, focuses on a piece of work that has been completed outside of rather than within a timetabled class, and there is a gap of days or weeks between submission of the work and the provision of the feedback.


Where feedback is intrinsic, it is woven into a timetabled activity, may be virtually instantaneous, and will probably be communicated to the whole class. Examples of this kind of feedback in a lecture would include the use of 'clickers' (classroom response systems) by the lecturer to monitor students' understanding, or  his/her impromptu response to a student's question or request for clarification. In a lab or studio, it might be in the form of a brief interchange between the demonstrator or tutor and one or more students working through a problem, experiment or design task or performance. It could also be automated, where students took a practice test and got computer-generated information on their responses.


Other kinds of feedback may be generated in the course of an activity — for instance, by consulting past exam papers or dissertations; in a revision workshop or a tutorial discussion on assessment expectations and requirements; by observing other students give a short talk or poster presentation; or where students exchange with one another their marked work and the tutors' comments;  

Generally speaking, a course is likely to generate feedback of more than one kind.  Which particular combination of forms it takes, however, will vary from subject to subject, and from one level of study to another or module to another. It's therefore crucial that, in each of the courses they take, students are briefed by their teachers on how, where and when they will get feedback, and offered guidance on how they can make the most of it.

Who can give feedback?



The most obvious answer is that feedback can be given by those who teach or provide learning support— lecturers, tutors, demonstrators, advisors, mentors and supervisors. But feedback is also given by other professionals (and even by patients, clients or community members) when students are on placements, field-trips, attachments or internships.  And feedback can be given by students to their peers, as well as self-generated – in either case, usually as a complement or supplement to feedback from a teacher.

What evidence is there that feedback actually makes a difference?



There are abundant indications that, in higher education, feedback is of variable quantity and quality. See below, Why is feedback a cause for concern? [to follow].  But what about the converse: evidence that feedback actually makes a difference?


One way of trying to answer this question is to look at the outcomes of large-scale reviews of research findings that have used some form of 'systematic review' (Davies, 2002) such as meta-analysis or best-evidence synthesis, where studies are weeded out where they do not meet a specified threshold for research quality. One widely praised example is a review by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam of formative assessment (i.e. assessment where the primary purpose is to foster students' learning), within which feedback to students and pupils plays a prominent part (Black and Wiliam, 1998; Black and Wiliam, 2003).  The authors conclude:


"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, p. 61)


A necessary caveat is the largest gains in achievement were for below-average learners in primary and secondary schools, where the majority of the studies reviewed had been undertaken.


A more recent review by John Hattie focuses specifically on feedback in higher education (Hattie, 2009), but drawing on earlier meta-analyses that also spanned a range of educational settings (e.g. Hattie and Timperley, 2007).  Focusing on the question 'What works best?', Hattie (2009) concludes that:


"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 argues that an ideal teaching-learning environment or experience is one in which both teachers and students actively engage with three key feedback questions:  'Where am I going?', focusing on goals and intentions; 'How am I going?', focusing on progress towards those goals;  and 'Where to next', focusing on what activities needs to be undertaken to make better progress.


Other key sources of evidence on the positive effects of feedback can be found in the section below, What makes for effective feedback? [to follow].


Black, P. and Wiliam, D. (1998a). '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.



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.


Why has feedback become a cause for concern?



It is the annual results of the National Student Survey which have done most to keep concerns about feedback in the spotlight.  Of the 22 items that make up the survey questionnaire,  five are grouped together in the sub-scale assessment and feedback.  As has also been the case in previous years, scores on assessment and feedback in the 2010 survey are markedly lower than those for the other sub-scales, as the following table shows:


National Student Survey, 2009 and 2010 - UK Results
1. The teaching on my course (Q 1-4)
2. Assessment and feedback (Q 5-9)
3. Academic support (Q 10-12)
4. Organisation and management (Q 13-15)
5. Learning resources (Q 16 - 18)
6. Personal development (Q 19-21)
7. Overall satisfaction (Q 22)
8. NHS practice placements (Q 23-28)



And within the assessment and feedback sub-scale, scores on the three feedback items have consistently been lower than for the two assessment items.  In 2010 71% of final-year undergraduate students agreed that the marking criteria used to assess them had been clear, while, while 73% felt that assessment had been fairly conducted. On feedback, however, only 60% agreed that feedback had been prompt, 63% agreed that feedback had been detailed, and 58% agreed that 'feedback on my work has helped to clarify things I did not understand'. Bear in mind also that these all figures are sector-wide averages: there are wide variations in scores between universities, and across subject areas.


Since the NSS data on feedback are sometimes viewed with scepticism, it should be acknowledged that they mirror an abundance of findings from other sources stretching back at least to the mid-1980s (see for example Hounsell, 1987, 2003, 2007; Gibbs and Simpson, 2004; Hounsell et al. 2007).  These include a review of nearly 3,000 QAA subject review visits in the period 1993 to 2001, from which feedback emerged as a pervasive and recurring concern and 'the area most in need of further consideration by institutions (QAA, 2003, pp. 28-29).


Nor is consistency in the quantity and quality of feedback an exclusively British problem. Shortcomings have also been reported in Hong Kong (e.g. Carless, 2006) and in Australia, where in three successive quinquennial surveys of first-year students, two out of five students have expressed dissatisfaction with the provision of feedback (Krause et al., 2005).


Carless, D. (2006). 'Differing perceptions in the feedback process,' Studies in Higher Education, 31.2, pp. 219-233. http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals/carfax/03075079.html


Gibbs, G. and Simpson, C. (2004).  'Does your assessment support your students learning?' Journal of Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, 1.1,  pp. 3-31.  http://www.glos.ac.uk/adu/clt/lathe/issue1/index.cfm


Hounsell, D.  (1987)  'Essay-Writing and the Quality of Feedback.' in Richardson, J.T.E. et al., eds., Student Learning: Research in Education and Cognitive Psychology  Milton Keynes: SRHE & Open University Press, pp. 109 - 119


Hounsell, D. (2003). 'Student Feedback, Learning and Development.'  In: Slowey, M. and Watson, D. ed. Higher Education and the Lifecourse.  Buckingham: SRHE & Open University Press.  pp. 67-78.


Hounsell, D. (2007). 'Towards more sustainable feedback to students.'  In: Boud, D. and Falchikov, N., eds. Rethinking Assessment in Higher Education. Learning for the Longer Term. London: Routledge, pp. 101-113.  ISBN-0414-39779-0


Hounsell, D. et al. (2007). Learning and Teaching at University: The Influence of Subjects and Settings. (Teaching and Learning Research Briefings, no. 31).  London:  ESRC Teaching and Learning Research Programme. http://www.tlrp.org/pub/index.html


Krause, K., et al. (2005). The First Year Experience in Australian Universities: Findings from a Decade of National Studies A project funded by the Higher Education Innovation Programme, Department of Education, Science and Training. Final Report. CSHE for further information, University of Melbourne. http://www.cshe.unimelb.edu.au/


QAA (2003).  Learning from Subject Review, 1993-2001: Sharing Good Practice. Gloucester: Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education.  ISBN 1 84482 006 8. http://www.qaa.ac.uk


Does better feedback cost more?



Not necessarily.  Take a look at Time-friendly ways to boost feedback.