Approaches to Delivering Formative Feedback

This annex provides further advice and details good practice on delivering formative feedback.

Principles for the Delivery of Feedback to Students

1.1 Feedback should always be focused on helping students to develop their skills, knowledge and understanding, both subject-specific and transferable, and to identify areas for improvement.  Explaining why a particular assessment mark was awarded may be part of this process as it helps students to understand what constitutes a good piece of work and evaluate their own performance according to those criteria, but it is not the primary purpose of feedback. This has implications for deciding which assessment tasks will involve feedback, and in what form it will be delivered. Assessment for formative purposes usually involves individual feedback to help the students improve their performance in the unit overall. Whether it is appropriate to give detailed individual feedback on summative assessment tasks (rather than generic feedback given to all students on the unit) will depend on the relation of that unit to the students’ work over the rest of the programme.

1.2 Students should receive feedback that is appropriate to different activities and assessment tasks while also recognising the effective use of staff time. Students should receive feedback on their knowledge and understanding of different subjects covered in the programme; so clearly there must be some form of feedback given in every unit. Students should also receive feedback on the different subject-specific and transferable skills involved in their programme, but this need not be delivered separately in every unit. Students are often resistant to less standard forms of feedback (e.g. peer assessment), and do not always recognise as ‘feedback’ verbal comments made, for example, during a practical class. This highlights the importance of communicating the school’s policy on feedback clearly to all students; it is also emphasises the need to introduce students to as many different forms of assessment and feedback as possible at the outset of their programme of study.

1.3 Feedback must be received early enough to influence the next activity or assessment task. The amount of time required to give feedback on a piece of formative assessment will depend on the nature of the assessment task and other programme-specific factors, but feedback must normally be provided within three working weeks of the submission deadline, unless there is a special reason why this deadline cannot be met.  It is essential that feedback is received by the student in good time to influence the next relevant activity or assessment task, which may be part of a different unit. Students must be given a clear statement of when they can expect feedback, so as to help them plan their work. Schools should take an overview of the range of assessment tasks students are required to complete, in different units on the programme, and review the relationship between the various deadlines, to ensure that students are afforded a reasonable opportunity to make best use of feedback.

1.4 Where feedback is directly related to the student’s level of performance, and especially where a piece of work contributes both to the unit mark and is serving formative purposes, it is important that it is closely related to the relevant marking criteria; the use of pro forma feedback sheets can be an effective means of ensuring this. It can also be useful to provide students with examples of work that exhibits the desired attributes, e.g. through an ‘essay bank’ or worked examples.

1.5 Students must be given the opportunity to seek clarification and further advice. Feedback on purely formative assessments is not a one-way process in which the marker simply communicates a judgement to the student; it is an integral part of the process of learning through reflection. Students should always be given the opportunity to seek clarification of the meaning or implications of comments made by the marker of the assessment; this may be provided through individual or group tutorials, or by ensuring that students are able, if they wish, to contact the member of staff during tutorial hours. It may be appropriate to consider how some students (e.g. those who are significantly under-performing) can be actively encouraged to take advantage of the guidance on offer.

1.6 Students should be encouraged to reflect on the feedback they have received, not only in relation to the specific unit but in the context of their programme as a whole. It may be effective to build such reflection into the programme of regular meetings with the personal/academic tutor, e.g. by use of a ‘Progress Review Form’ (delivered through a web-based or hard copy Personal development portfolio (PDP) which expressly asks them to consider what lessons they have learned from the feedback they have received and how they have used this information in their next assignment. Students should also be directed towards appropriate training opportunities.

1.7 Students should be supported in making the best use of feedback. The ability to respond appropriately and effectively to constructive criticism and advice is a skill relevant to any academic discipline and future career. However, students often do not see feedback as a way of improving their future performance; rather they view it as explaining why they received a particular mark. They do not always recognise as ‘feedback’ all the different ways in which they are given comments on their performance and they have to be helped and trained to respond appropriately to feedback; through guidance in student handbooks, introductory sessions at the beginning of their university careers, and through the tutorial system.

1.8 It may be appropriate to withhold feedback as a penalty for the failure by the student to meet the deadline for submission of coursework, as long as there are no extenuating circumstances.

Guidance on the Provision of Feedback to Students - by Assessment

Feedback can be provided through a variety of different mechanisms, and need not necessarily be linked to formal assessment activities.  What is essential is that students receive some form of feedback on key aspects of their performance in every unit, rather than every piece of assessment being expected to have associated feedback.


2.1  Group feedback, following an assessed exercise, highlighting common misconceptions, errors and technical deficiencies and offering advice on how these may be remedied (including links to relevant resources and/or training opportunities) can be delivered electronically, through Blackboard , or incorporated into a class session.  A portion of class time may be set aside for questions on assessment. Depending on the nature of the assessed activity, it can be very effective to base discussion on actual examples of student work (see 1.5).

2.2   Individual students should have the opportunity to seek clarification and further advice on the feedback they have received; as well as making use of a lecturer’s regular tutorial slots, this may be organised through small group sessions, drop-in sessions or by e-mail,.  Where the queries are not too specific to the work of an individual student, they may be posted on the unit’s discussion board in Blackboard, so that other students can also benefit from the response and the lecturer does not have to repeat the same advice many times.

2.3  Structured proformas/templates for markers’ comments help ensure that feedback is clear, readily comprehensible and consistent and they have the additional advantage that copies of the forms can be lodged in student files to aid the writing of references.  The forms should be structured around unit learning outcomes and/or marking criteria, rather than simply offering free text comments, but it is important to provide qualitative feedback rather than simply grading different aspects of the student’s performance.  It is good practice to focus on the positive features of work and on suggestions for improvement, rather than solely on problems and deficiencies. The use of coloured paper will also aid in signalling to the students that this is feedback.

2.4 It can be useful to make examples of student work, properly anonymised, available to students; either examples of good performance, giving students an idea of what they should aim for, or a mixture of all standards of work.  In the latter case, students might be asked to assess the work themselves using the school’s standard marking criteria, or the school might provide a commentary on specific points so that students know what to look for.  This may be particularly effective with first-year students, who need to familiarise themselves with what is expected, or when a new form of assessment is introduced for the first time.

The work could be made available in a school ‘library’ (although this may risk the examples being plagiarised; so it is vital to ensure that a copy is always kept in the school of any work that is lent to students and that work is submitted to Turnitin to identify any plagiarism); it might also be posted on the web, or used as the focus of a class session.  Students should give their permission for their work to be used in this way, and this may be managed through a school statement that it is the default expectation when work is submitted, rather than requiring express permission on each occasion.

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2.5  Where the material covered in a unit is an essential foundation for work in subsequent years, schools should provide feedback on performance in unseen examinations: normally giving general feedback on each separate exam to the cohort. Unit directors should collate information on student performance on exams for the unit, so that they may provide general feedback and advice; this is especially important where a paper is marked by a large number of people.  As with coursework, group feedback, highlighting common misconceptions, errors and technical deficiencies and offering advice on how these may be remedied (including links to relevant resources and/or training opportunities), can be delivered electronically, through Blackboard, or incorporated into a class session.  This will be particularly effective when students have the opportunity to ask questions and discuss the feedback.  Model answers and examples of actual student work can be useful for some subjects.

2.6  When electronic assessment is used it is possible to generate feedback automatically.  Depending on the choice of assessment package and the nature of the exercise, the feedback may be limited to which answers were wrong, rather than detailing why they were wrong.

2.7  The purpose of markers’ comments on scripts is to communicate with other markers and with external examiners. The policy on the provision of taught student access to their examination scripts outlines the responsibilities for schools and individual students around access to examination scripts.  The aim of this provision is to enable students to reflect on their exam performance and to consider how they might improve their preparation for future assessments.

2.8  Schools should develop a mechanism whereby students in particular need of support receive more detailed feedback on their exam performance and suggestions for improvement, delivered through personal tutors.

2.9  For oral and practical exams, it is generally impractical to provide detailed feedback on every aspect of a student’s performance.  It can be most effective to provide students with feedback on two things they did well and two areas for improvement, balancing positive and negative comments and focusing feedback on future performance.

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Presentations, Poster Sessions, Practical Sessions etc.

2.10  Proformas can be helpful by indicating to students both what they have done well and where they need to improve, as well as in  aiding consistency in the marking process.

2.11  Examples of posters can be made available to students; although technically difficult to make examples of presentations available, students can be encouraged to reflect on the marking criteria for such exercises when attending lectures.

2.12  Peer assessment can be very effective, either in conjunction with assessment by the lecturer or, for formative purposes, as the sole form of feedback.  In larger cohorts, where there is insufficient time for every student to make a presentation in class, students may be organised into groups with a designated speaker, chair, audience and rapporteur (who sums up the session, including comments on effective presentation practice, to the rest of the group and to the lecturer) and asked to make their own arrangements.  This encourages all students, not just those making presentations, to focus on what makes for an effective performance.

2.13  In practical sessions, feedback during or immediately afterwards is generally most effective.  When time allows, immediately after a practical assessment students should be talked through the test, and given the opportunity to review the best approaches and common errors.

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2.14  Most feedback on a placement will be informal and oral, delivered during or immediately after a specific task.  However, it is important to supplement this with more formal reviews of progress, at the mid-point and at the end of the placement.  All relevant people should have the opportunity to contribute to the review of the student’s performance and a written record should be kept; this may be a detailed pro forma, or a more basic summary (e.g. two things the student did well and two areas for improvement).

2.15  The review should include an opportunity for the student to record their reflections on their performance  by using some form of electronic PDP resource.

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Designing Assessment to Support Effective Feedback

3.1 Students can be given the opportunity to test their understanding of material covered in class by taking on line e-assessments which provide immediate feedback on their performance. These can be designed to be taken as often as desired and to give feedback on incorrect responses, for particular keys skills or sets of knowledge.  This form of assessment driven feedback provides students with a valuable learning resource. However, care must be taken in both question design and the feedback given, to promote student engagement and learning.

3.2  Within a unit, structured assessment tasks, in which the student begins with relatively straightforward tasks and moves on to more complicated ones (e.g. paper review, evidence analysis, research report), benefiting from feedback on the earlier work, are effective in developing particular skills and understanding.  A ‘portfolio’ approach to assessment, in which the early pieces of work count but can be improved in the light of feedback, can also be effective.

3.3  In some subjects, essays are used to assess simultaneously a range of learning outcomes from basic knowledge and understanding to higher-level analytical skills.  It can be both more effective in terms of delivering feedback and more efficient in terms of marking effort to set up separate tasks to assess different outcomes.

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September 2009, with minor updates July 2011