Education research reading: effective feedback

After warning months ago that there would be more posts about my research reading, but I didn’t follow through. Finally here is a “Research Reading” post. This one is about how feedback helps students learn. I’ll discuss several papers which list principles/challenges for providing effective feedback.

Gibbs, G and Simpson, C (2004) The conditions under which assessment supports student learning, Learning and teaching in higher education, 1, 3-31

In this paper, the authors put together 10 conditions under which assessment helps students to learn, as gleaned from the research literature at the time and their own experience with actual students. The point is that assessment does drive learning in the sense that many students won’t engage with a course unless there is some sort of assessment. However, assessment doesn’t always drive the sort of learning that you want, and sometimes actually prevents people from learning. The nature of the assessments themselves can affect the amount of study, the focus of the study and the quality of the study. Also, and more importantly, the nature of feedback on the assessments makes a huge difference to whether and what students learn. They collect together 10 conditions around these themes under which assessment helps students learn. (These are quoted verbatim from various pages across the paper, with my translations and paraphrases beneath):

  1. Sufficient assessed tasks are provided for students to capture sufficient study time
    Since students often don’t study unless there are assessed tasks to do, there need to be enough assessed tasks to make them study enough. One big one at the end will usually not be enough since they’ll only study nearby to it.
  2. These tasks are engaged with by students, orienting them to allocate appropriate amounts of time and effort to the most important aspects of the course.
    Students will glean what is important to learn from your assignments, so make sure the assignments allow them to engage with the most important things in the course.
  3. Tackling the assessed task engages students in productive learning activity of an appropriate kind.
    Many assessed tasks encourage students to do activities that either aren’t productive (like endless searching online) or aren’t appropriate.
  4. Sufficient feedback is provided, both often enough and in enough detail.
    Students need feedback often so they can use it to learn and improve. A numerical grade only, or a comment like “check solutions” are not enough detail!
  5. The feedback focuses on students’ performance, on their learning and on actions under the students’ control, rather than on the students themselves and on their characteristics.
    Too often we tell students about whether they are smart or lazy, especially when we do it face to face.
  6. The feedback is timely in that it is received by students while it still matters to them and in time for them to pay attention to further learning or receive further assistance.
    Feedback on Topic 1 after you’ve already moved onto Topic 2 is effectively useless. Not receiving feedback on Assignment 1 before they do Assignment 2 defeats the whole point of feedback!
  7. Feedback is appropriate to the purpose of the assignment and to its criteria for success.
    Too often we give feedback on things not actually listed in the assignment criteria, or which will not actually improve student marks in future.
  8. Feedback is appropriate, in relation to students’ understanding of what they are supposed to be doing.
    Students often don’t know what the assignment is for or what your expectations are. To say “give reasons” is meaningless if they thought they did, or if they didn’t realise that was part of the purpose! So sometimes feedback needs to tell them what the purpose actually is.
  9. Feedback is received and attended to.
    How you do this is tricky, but there is evidence to suggest that students will be more likely to read their feedback if you don’t put a grade on it.
  10. Feedback is acted upon by the student.
    The best-case scenario is if you let them fix up their assignment or do a followup task so they can actually use the feedback straight away.

One thing I particularly like about this paper is its grounding in the experience of the actual student. Feedback is seen in the light of how the student responds to it and whether this response is producing the learning you and they hope for. This is an important perspective to hold on to when you are planning any teaching! I particularly like the idea that your feedback might be completely invalidated by the student’s own beliefs about what the purpose of the task is, and that therefore sometimes what they need is to be given feedback about what the task is actually for.

Nicol, DJ and Macfarlane-Dick, D (2006) Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice, Studies in Higher Education, 31, 199-218

Just as the title so clearly states, the author put forward a model of how students use feedback, and then list seven principles of good feedback.

The big idea is that students already have their own internal feedback process. All external information, including our feedback to them, is processed through their existing understanding, their goals, their motivations and their beliefs, and then produces internal feedback on how to act. The key idea is that our feedback to them is processed in exactly the same way as any other external information — it has to be processed and turned into internal feedback before it produces action. When you think about it, this is pretty obvious, but it still sounds revolutionary!

Their list of seven principles of effective feedback is very similar to Gibbs and Simpson’s paper above, but it is all presented through the lens of students learning to self-regulate. I’ll quote the list verbatim and put my translations and comments in between.
Good feedback practice:

  1. helps clarify what good performance is (goals, criteria, expected standards);
    Students already have their own thoughts about this, and need to a more accurate picture in order to evaluate their own performance. Moreover, the expectations for a task are usually rich and nuanced and so can’t just be expressed in a rubric or handout. The feedback helps to work through those nuances.
  2. facilitates the development of self-assessment (reflection) in learning;
    We need to explicitly provide ways for students to reflect on their work, so that they practice the art of assessing their own work.
  3. delivers high quality information to students about their learning;
    Quality is defined as helping students to take action to close the gap between their current standard and the goal.
  4. encourages teacher and peer dialogue around learning;
    Like under 1, the dialogue helps to sort out the nuances in the expectations. It can be whole-class dialogue if there are logistical issues with talking to every student.
  5. encourages positive motivational beliefs and self-esteem;
    In particular, it focuses on the growth rather than fixed model of intelligence and ability, because a fixed model has been shown to demotivate people.
  6. provides opportunities to close the gap between current and desired performance;
    Tying in with number 3, it’s best if there is actually an opportunity to act on the advice given. For example, resubmitting work or using it for subsequent work.
  7. provides information to teachers that can be used to help shape teaching.
    It’s best if the opportunity of giving feedback allows staff to change their own practices and learn from the students, so feedback is actually asked of the students too!

I particularly like the continued focus in all of these on students learning how to manage the feedback process for themselves, which was mentioned as a condition for effective feedback by Gibbs and Simpson.

Jonsson, A. (2013) Facilitating productive use of feedback in higher education, Active Learning in Higher Education, 14, 63-76

This article is a review of research since 1990 into how students at university use feedback provided by teachers. About 100 studies were reviewed, mostly concerning student response to teachers’ comments on essays. Across all of them, there are many factors that might influence student use of feedback, but the authors identify five major themes common to most of the studies. They pitch them as challenges. Again, I’ll quote them verbatim, but with comments in between.

  1. Feedback needs to be useful.
    Here, “useful” means “able to be used”, funnily enough. If students are going to get the chance to resubmit the task, then they prefer the feedback to be about how to make this task itself better. If the feedback is on the final version of the task, then they prefer it to be about skills they can apply to future assignments.
  2. Students prefer specific, detailed and individualised feedback.
  3. Authoritative feedback is not productive.
    These two challenges are challenges because they work against each other. Students say they want lots of detailed individualised feedback. However, if there is a lot of detailed feedback, the students will often follow the instructions blindly, only making surface changes to the work in order to get incrementally higher grades. Indeed, feedback attached to grades will usually encourage students to use the feedback to guess how the grading was done, rather than to seek to improve qualitatively.
  4. Students may lack strategies for productive use of feedback.
    Students have many non-productive ways to use feedback: they might use it to tell them about their progress but do nothing to improve, they might simply delete the erroneous bit of their assignment, they might be motivated to “work harder” with no strategy for improvement. Basically, they need explicit guidance on how to use feedback to improve.
  5. Students may lack understanding of academic terminology and jargon.
    Students often don’t understand the terminology used to describe assessment criteria, or indeed the subject matter, which renders feedback meaningless. The authors suggest providing model answers with descriptions of why they are good/bad, and providing more opportunities to talk with students.

The authors make the comment that much of the published research seems contradictory, basically meaning that the specific students, the specific teaching situation, and the specific discipline make a big difference to how feedback is used. They also note that almost all of the studies investigated student perception of feedback rather than asking them how they used it or observing them using it.

Sadler, R. D. (1989) Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems, Instructional Science, 18, 119-144

I didn’t actually read this paper, but it too has a list of conditions for feedback to be useful, and it was mentioned in all three of the above papers, so it seems incomplete to leave it out. Sadler lists three things that need to happen for students to close the gap between their current performance and the goal or expectation (this is my paraphrase):

  1. The student must know what standards they are aiming for
  2. The student must be able to assess their current performance in relation to the standards
  3. The student must have strategies to modify their performance

What I find interesting about this list is that the success of feedback rests squarely on the skills of the student, which means the traditional method of telling students where they went wrong only has a chance of affecting the second point, and even then doesn’t help the student learn how to self-assess!


So, we have lists of 3, 5, 7 and 10 conditions under which feedback is useful for learning, with any number of specific recommendations. What do we make of all of it? Well it seems there are two main ideas. The first is that the feedback needs to be practically useable — it has to refer to things they can achieve, in a way that they can act on, and with opportunities to act on it. The second is that students need support to use feedback — they don’t know what assessment is for, or what we are looking for when we give them assessment, so we need to help them learn that. Also, interpreting feedback and putting it into action are specific skills that actually need specific training.

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