Friday, September 18, 2009

Assessment and student feedback

One of the main underpinning functions of assessment is to give students feedback about their progress. As part of the Assessing and Evaluating course I am taking, I have been asked to consider the part feedback plays in the assessment process.

What feedback models or processes do you prefer?
It's been my experience over the years, as both teacher and student, that feedback is a double edged sword. I tend not to take any notice of summative feedback - all I am interested in is whether I have passed or not. As a teacher, in the past the only time I heard from students about the feedback I gave them was when they wanted me to increase their grades. Very rarely have I heard from students who have wanted to discuss my feedback so they can learn how to improve their 'performance'.

The process for giving feedback I use is an open feedback model, especially when I teach in online courses. I give frequent formal feedback often as I can as a way of scaffolding students to their summative assessments. As much as possible I prefer to give feedback in a way that everyone can learn from it, not just the individual student.

Why is feedback important?

However, as I have become to understand more about how students learn, the more I have come to realise that the feedback I give students is as important as the assessment itself. Receiving feedback is a vital part of the learning process so it is vital that I spend time to give constructive feedback that students can use to achieve learning outcomes in the future. Quality feedback is also an acknowledgment of the work that students have put into their assessments.

Here are a few points about feedback (University of Technology Sydney, 2007).
  • Feedback can be used to ensure that students improve the quality of their work and do not make the same mistakes in their next assessment.
  • Feedback should not be given right at the end of their course - this will be of no use for the students' learning.
  • There needs to be a clear framework that guides lecturers, and which students can compare feedback against.
  • Comments should be specific rather than vague, broad sweeping statements.
  • Feedback should be constructive, focusing on how students can improve as opposed to emphasizing what students did wrong.
What are the challenges or issues with assessment feedback?
The lecturer has to be mindful of the effect that power has on the process of feedback, both in terms of giving and receiving it (Higgins, 2000). Students will have different preferences and needs, and lecturers need to make feedback a learning process, not one of confrontation or defensiveness.

To my mind, one of the challenges is how to get students to look at their feedback and take heed of it. Today, it seems that we concentrate so much on grades that we neglect the learning process that takes us to the point we get our grades, yet this is as important as the final marks (Nichol, 2006).

How do you balance how much feedback to give?
From a pragmatic point of view, the amount of feedback you are able to give depends on time constraints. I find I give far more feedback to students who have areas to improve than about work that is very good. I also find that feedback is a lot easier to give when you have a clear marking rubric - it allows you to be accurate and objective, and not to distracted into subjective opinions.

If you are a student, do you read your feedback? What do you think makes good feedback? If you are a teacher, how do you like to give students feedback?

Higgins, R. (2000). Be more critical: rethinking assessment feedback. Retrieved 18 September, 2009, from

Nicol, D. J., McFarlane-Dick, D. (2006). Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: A model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in higher education. 31, (2), 199-219. Retrieved 11th September, 2009, from

University of Technology Sydney. (2007). Formative feedback. Retrieved 18 September, 2009, from


Claire Thompson said...


I think that when there is a grade attached to an assessment, students tend to tune out the constructive feedback given by the instructor. A student's first response is "what did I get?" (on the assessment), not "I wonder what suggestions the instructor had to improve my work?" If you remove the grade, then students are more likely to want to know what they did well and what they need to improve.

Students are also more likely to really take in the feedback when it is timely--feedback on an assignment that was completed 2 weeks ago has less of an impact than feedback delivered within a day or two of completion.

Of course you can't avoid grades forever (or can you...), but one option is to provide quick feedback, but no grade, on a number of assignments and then ask the student to choose one of those assignments--to which they've made improvements--to submit for a grade. Have them hand in the original with your comments and the 'new and improved' version.

Do you think this kind of approach would work with the courses that you teach?

Thanks for getting me to think more deeply about this issue!

Carolyn said...

Claire, I really like your idea of giving feedback on a number of assignments and allowing the students to choose one for marking, giving them the opportunity to improve on the original. I think this type of marking would work well for the type of assignment I am looking at, a learning contract. The big issue I think is how to do this but keep it manageable as a workload issue. Have you used this type of feedback in your teaching and if so is it manageable in terms of workload, both for you and the students?

Pam said...

Hi Claire,

I am a post graduate student wit Otago and I would like to say I have received recent feedback on one of my last papers as you described. Feedback without the grade. However, I would like to say all it did was send me into a spiralling panic crisis believing that I had failed the paper.

I would say that I personally just initially read the grade and then revisit the comments after I've had a glass of wine.

What I have found is that whilst often the tutors have passed comments on my work only one tutor has given me the follow up and tools to go about correcting the repeated mistakes I was making with each paper and assignment I got back.

So I recommend, by all means give feedback first but make it clear the piece has passed before creating panic.
Then send the grade through.
But follow up any comments with a suggestion of tools to use to 'fix' problems.

Just a post grad student's point of view!

Ray Tolley said...

Hi, Sarah,

Following with interest this piece on 'Assessment and student feedback'. Of the two papers you quote, I feel that the Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick paper is much further 'on the ball' than the other. For instance I agree with their 7th point on page 7 that the feedback FROM students should inform future teacher input.

However, two point I did not see:
a) students appreciate regular feedback - they say such things as "I really feel that my tutor cares about my progress."
b) early intervention in the form of feedback to the student prevents wasting time by going down blind alleys.

One book I highly recommend is W J Popham's 'Transformative Assessment' - it really is an eye-opener to those (like me) who thought that they knew all about formative assessment!

Ray T

Sarah Stewart said...

Thank you all for your comments - I've really enjoyed reading this discussion.

Claire: one of the things I have done at postgraduate level is be a lot more flexible with my marking, so if it looks like a person is 'failing', I give feedback and tell her to re-submit. But life gets difficult when you take that approach when you have a lot of students and strict time frames.

Carolyn: I think workload is a big issues. We talk about all these strategies which we know enhances student learning but it is not so easy, particularly in a busy undergraduate program. But then again, I think we have to get back to the question about whether we over-assess students, thus compounding our workload.

@Pam Good point Pam. I must admit there have probably been times when I haven't been as constructive in my feedback as I could be. The problem for the lecturer is that marking heaps of essays etc can be boring so keeping up my interest and enthusiasm to make my feedback useful can be challenging at times. How would you address that issue?

@Ray..again...great comments. I think what you have said would help deal with my problem of finding marking boring...if I had to give feedback 'little and often' I would find it more manageable than having to mark big pieces of work in one hit. What do you think?