Feedback FAQs for students
Feedback is information about how you're progressing as a student. Feedback can tell you:
• how well you have understood something (a concept, a body of knowledge, a topic)
• how well you've learnt how to do something (a new skill, procedure or technique)
• how well you've performed on a particular task, exercise or assignment
Feedback is therefore a check on whether you're learning to the standard you're aiming at, and a guide to where you might need to improve.
Why does feedback matter?
Feedback is important to students for three main reasons.
First, it can help you to focus your effort, so your energies are concentrated on where they're most needed. (Learning without feedback, it's been said, is like blind archery. If there's no feedback, you can't be sure which arrows are on target).
Second, feedback is performance-enhancing. It can help you to improve the overall quality of your work or to reach a particular target or a standard that presents a real challenge.
Third, feedback is motivational. It's reassuring to know that you're doing OK, and great to have a pat on the back when you've done really well. And if you are in danger of falling behind, feedback can be a spur to taking prompt action.
Feedback's also important to teachers. They can take pride in the progress their students are making. And if they're to ensure that their teaching is effective, they need to know where students are doing well and what they might be finding difficult.
What forms does feedback take?
Feedback can take many different forms. Probably the most familiar kind is the feedback that accompanies a teacher's 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, a breakdown of the mark into its component parts, or ratings against the assessment criteria. 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 you approached the task and the standards you achieved.
But feedback can also be more informal: a brief one-to-one with the tutor at the end of a class, say, or while you're working on something in a lab, a studio or on a placement. Or the tutor's impromptu response to a question that's been puzzling you. Or it might be a show of hands in a class on whether you've all followed a tricky explanation, or a check on what still isn't clear.
Alternatively, feedback could be a different but equally useful opportunity to check on what's expected of you — for instance, looking at past exam questions; a tutorial discussion about what's needed for an A or B grade; an optional revision seminar; or an informal get-together of three or four students to look at the work they'd handed in and the marks and comments they'd subsequently got back from the teacher.
Which forms feedback takes is likely to vary from subject to subject, and from one course unit or module to another. So it's crucial that you familiarise yourself with how feedback is provided in each of the courses you're taking.
When and where is feedback given?
The kinds of feedback that accompany a mark or grade on a piece of assessed work tend to cluster towards the end of semesters, where assignment deadlines fall, or when there is an examination to be sat. Feedback on coursework is usually written, but can be podcast, emailed or transmitted to a student as a video download. Feedback on exams may well take the form of 'whole-class comments' (i.e. as a set of overall comments on the exam answers submitted rather than individually tailored to each student), which are presented verbally in a class or emailed. Where a student has not done well in an exam, there may be an opportunity to get face-to-face individualised comments from the lecturer or tutor.
In some cases, there may be the option of 'feedforward' rather than feedback on coursework — i.e. an opportunity to get comments on a draft or outline, and so to take account of these in the final version. Similarly, there may be the option of a practice test (e.g. getting feedback on how well you answered multiple-choice questions) or what has sometimes been called 'pre-emptive' feedback — a pre-exam revision seminar, or a workshop focusing on past exam papers. Each can help you to 'get the feedback in early', by guiding your efforts to prepare for the exam itself.
Feedback that is not linked to a particular assessment can happen at any time in a course, whether outwith or during a timetabled class (a lecture, practical or tutorial). Some lecturers feel that many students under-appreciate the value of this more incidental or impromptu kind of feedback.
What makes for good feedback?
In order to be effective, it's generally agreed, feedback needs to be prompt, informative and helpful. Here is how these terms are explained in the University's Feedback Standards and Guiding Principles:
• prompt feedback is returned to students within an agreed timescale for the work submitted;
• informative feedback highlights strengths and weaknesses, giving specific examples or explanations;
• helpful feedback offers suggestions about how to improve.
But if feedback is to work really well, it also needs to be seen as a dialogue between feedback-givers and feedback recipients. The onus is on both partners in the dialogue to help make it a success. To check out how you can get the most of that dialogue, take a look at Making Feedback Work for You .
Feedback typically comes from a teacher (if you're in a timetabled class), or from a supervisor or mentor if you're on a professional placement or clinical attachment. As experts in the field, they're well-placed to make an informed judgment. But you don't need to rely entirely on them for feedback. You can also try to supplement their feedback with feedback from elsewhere.
One potential source is your fellow-students. If for example you're preparing a seminar presentation, or working on an assignment such as an essay or report, you can ask them to listen to a run-through or look over your draft and tell you what they think. Their feedback might not be as expert about the subject-matter as a tutor's, but they can still be helpful in sharing their impressions with you.
Then there's you yourself. Sounds a strange idea? Well, not if you were a police officer on an advanced driving course. Because you'd be expected to talk aloud while you drove about the traffic conditions as you saw them, and what potential hazards you were spotting on the road ahead. The talking-aloud is designed to help you become a more observant and thoughtful driver. And you can apply the same principle to your work as a student. You can learn to generate your own feedback, by reflecting on what you've achieved and where there might be scope for improvement. And by taking every opportunity to exchange marked work with your classmates, you could aim to become a better judge of standards — what's worth an A or a B or a C, and why?
Whose responsibility is feedback?
The short answer is that it's a shared responsibility. Anyone giving feedback has a responsibility to try and make their comments helpful and to the point. But even the most brilliantly crafted feedback can't succeed if the person it's being offered to doesn't bother to collect it or to study it carefully. So the onus is on both parties to make feedback a real dialogue.
When you're giving feedback to others, then, ask yourself what kinds of comments they would be likely to find most valuable, and how you could most clearly communicate those comments to them.
When you're getting feedback from someone else, ask yourself how you could put that feedback to good use. And don't hesitate to ask for further clarification on anything that's puzzling or unclear.
How can feedback be improved?
Given how many different forms feedback can take, it's not surprising that there is a wide variety of ways in which feedback can be improved. To explore a range of these, go to Ideas, strategies and case examples on the staff pages of this website.