James Smith, Faculty of Arts, Science and Technology, (formerly School of The Arts), talks about the importance of feedback for student learning.


How can we provide feedback to students?

There are many ways to provide feedback to students. Typically, feedback on summative assessment is provided in written form but we also have tools (via Turnitin) to enhance formal written feedback with an audio recording. Formative feedback is sometimes offered verbally and, in the case of peer-assessment, feedback comes from other students (see our SPARKPlus pilot study for example). Working with a module tutor or a Personal Academic Tutor, students can use dialogue to understand feedback and to use it for improving their academic performance.

The Higher Education Academy’s Feedback Toolkit offers many discussions and resources for the effective use of feedback to support learners.

Also, the Higher Education Academy produced card-sorting activity called ‘What is Feedback’, which might be useful to do with a small group of colleagues.

How can we used feedback as ‘advice for action’?

Whitelock (2010) coined the term ‘advice for action’ when proposing good feedback practice. Indeed, the literature suggests that good feedback should highlight what the student has achieved and what they need to do moving forward (Gibb & Simpson, 2004). Good feedback should help students figure out how to correct any problems themselves (Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2006). One example cited by these authors is ‘go back to page 35 in the text and rethink how you would explain this point in future’.

Timeliness of feedback

The timeliness of feedback is an important consideration when thinking about using feedback to improve performance. Page 14 of the Higher Education Academy’s Feedback Toolkit outlines a few strategies to ensure that feedback is provided in a timely way.

Providing feedback online

Please refer to the Submitting and Grading Electronically section of the Assessment & Feedback Portal for more information about using the University’s Virtual Learning Environment (called NILE) for assessment.

As a tutor there are several options available to you for online submission, feedback and grading. You can leave feedback online, or you can also provide grades through the tools in NILE. You will still need to pass grades to Student Records in the usual way.

For more information, see 10 Ideas for Enhancing Feedback with Technology from the Higher Education Academy.

How do we know that feedback works?

Ideally, we would be able to know that feedback is effective when a student’s performance improves over time. However, with so many other factors in one’s learning context, it is difficult to isolate the impact of feedback on a student’s progress. One way to understand whether feedback is effective is to ask students for feedback on your feedback and for insights into their learning processes. This sort of reflective, metacognitive work features increasingly in assessment because it also enables students to develop skills for self-regulation and to understand the role of reflection in learning.

The Higher Education Academy’s Feedback Toolkit offers sections related to the effectiveness of feedback.

The use of dialogue around feedback is important for engaging students in the feedback process.

The Higher Education Academy has 10 strategies to engage students with feedback.

How do students use feedback?

Medland (n.d.) suggests there are several reasons why students don’t use feedback:

Why don’t/can’t students act on feedback?

  • Heavy workload
  • Illegible handwriting
  • Not sufficiently timely
  • Unable to understand the feedback / interpret comments incorrectly
  • Grades can draw attention away from feedback comments
  • Lack of shared understanding re: assessment criteria
  • Lack of shared understanding re: HE/disciplinary jargon
  • Lack of guidance for improving learning (focus on justifying grade/diagnosing problem)
  • Lack of explanation of what the student has done wrong
  • Inconsistency between different courses/disciplines
  • Feedback appears disembodied from the student’s work
  • Conflict between staff conceptions of the purpose of feedback, their pedagogical intentions and the requirements of the system

Understanding, from a student’s perspective, how feedback is used, is one way that feedback from students can enhance your teaching practice. Nicol (2009) suggested that teachers need to find ways of generating ongoing feedback from students. Ideas offered in Nicols’ paper include:

  • Structuring learning tasks so the students generate regular output that can be monitored by teaching staff
  • Creating opportunities for dialogue in class to work through troublesome concepts
  • Providing opportunities for students to self-assess and reflect on their progress
  • Offering to be a member of online and social communities to address questions and to provide academic expertise

The Feedback Toolkit from the Higher Education Academy offers more insights into how students use feedback.

How can we ensure feedback is accessible?

The Higher Education Academy’s Feedback Toolkit offers some discussion and strategies for making feedback accessible.

The University’s Learning Technology Team is working on a project to standardise the accessibility options with the Virtual Learning Environment (NILE).

The University’s ASSIST Team can offer advice on accessibility options for learners with specific requirements.

How do we provide high-quality feedback with a full workload?

The Higher Education Academy’s Feedback Toolkit offers strategies for providing timely feedback, while managing a busy workload.