What is feedback?

Think of feedback as any response you make to students' efforts. Sometimes the feedback is written as and when you mark students' work; sometimes it is face to face as in a tutoring session. Marks, reports and annotations or comments on written assignments are the most obvious types of feedback that spring to mind.

In fact, consciously or unconsciously, we are giving students feedback all the time: facial expressions, tone of voice, and especially words all say a lot about our expectations and the quality of the responses to those expectations. In some cases, even the failure to provide feedback is a form of feedback; it could be saying, 'You are not important enough for me to spend my time on.'

It is also useful to think about how students' reactions to our feedback can, in turn, serve as feedback to us, telling us about the quality of our feedback to them, and about how the course is going more generally.

Types of feedback

Feedback is sometimes distinguished from feedforward.

  • Feedback is intended to explain how a final grade was assigned
  • Feedforward is made earlier in the process and is intended to point student in the right direction for completion.

However, there's nothing that says you can't include both types of information in any comments you make. Even grade-related comments are useful if they help the student to understand what to learn from the current assignment and how to do better in the next one.

In a similar way, feedback can also be distinguished as either formative or summative:

  • Formative feedback is diagnostic information given before the work is completed. Like feedforward, it is intended to help the student revise and improve the work.
  • Summative feedback is a final analysis of the work, on which final grades are based. It can also point toward improving future work of the same type.

Why is feedback so important?

In a technical psychological sense, there is little learning without feedback. However there is more learning if the following conditions surround it:

  • Feedback contributes to learning when it is noticed
  • Feedback contributes even more to learning when the learner reflects on the lessons for next time
  • Feedback containing advice originating from the student's own recent work is more likely to be given attention, understood and acted upon
  • Feedback can fuel constructive reflection by the learner.

Feedback on performance is so important that Gibbs and Simpson (2004) said that feedback to the students on their assignments was the single most powerful influence on student achievement. In fact, an item about the importance and quality of feedback shows up on almost all student evaluations of teaching. So in this chapter we will look at some strategies for giving students feedback in ways that will be the most helpful in improving their learning.

Feedback from the student's perspective

One problem we often have as instructors is seeing our feedback from the student's perspective. What seems very clear to us is not always seen that way by the students. In the comments that follow, three students reveal what they think about the feedback they get from their instructors.

Neha – Information value of feedback

"I'm taking a course in writing, but the instructor's comments are all abbreviations! Like, what does 'AWK' mean, anyway? She gives me a grade, but I don't see where it came from. How can I do better if I don't understand?"

Jack – Diagnostic value of feedback

"My instructor gives great feedback on our work. He has a list of common mistakes that tells us what do to about them. He uses the terms to mark. That way, I know how to correct my own mistakes."

Dan – The timing of feedback

"I had an instructor who gave us assignments, but didn't give us feedback until it was too late. What good was that?! The instructor blamed it on having to check his marking with the course supervisor."

The bottom line in the above set of examples is that in giving feedback of any type, you should remember that there is another party to the communication. While you're marking student work, try to imagine you are having a conversation with another person; this might help your feedback come across to them as words from a real person who is trying to help them do better. Your comments should help that other person understand not just what he or she did wrong, but what could be done the next time to do better. And it needs to be provided in a timeframe that allows that feedforward concept to work.

Your personal context and characteristics

As we have seen before, the position you hold with respect to a course may also alter your concerns about giving feedback. For example:

  • Are there colleagues with whom you need to be consistent?
  • What is your natural tendency as a feedback-giver? Is this kind of feedback always what is likely to help students the most?

Make a note of your thoughts on the following question, then consider our own suggestions.

What specific factors might you have to take into account when giving feedback?

Our thoughts:
If you are one of several people delivering a module, it is important to be consistent with one another and with the course leader's intentions, both in terms of the quantity of feedback and the consistency of the message. Failure to do this can be confusing and unfair to students. If you have a tendency to give very detailed feedback, you might consider whether this is really helpful. Too much detail could discourage your students from adequately critiquing their own work before handing it in.