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Feedback on assessment

Improving feedback and providing a link between formative and summative assessment was the subject of a workshop in the Assessment Theme. 

Within that workshop, Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick suggest that feedback has been under-conceptualised and that, despite attempts by some authors, feedback obstinately focuses on a 'transmission' perspective, with teachers, sometimes erroneously, assuming that the messages they send to students about assessment tasks are fully received and understood.

Sadler identified three conditions necessary for students to benefit from feedback. The student must:

  1. possess a concept of the goal/standard or reference level being aimed for
  2. compare the actual (or current) level of performance with that goal or standard
  3. engage in appropriate action which leads to some closure of the gap.

The problem comes when the student is unable to move to c, possibly because the information given under b is too vague or not clearly and unequivocally understood by the student e.g. 'this essay is not sufficiently analytical'.

The argument is, therefore, that students must possess some of the same evaluative skills as the teacher and thus that teachers should focus their efforts on strengthening the skills of self-assessment in their students. Read more about a conceptual model of formative assessment and feedback.

In his paper for the G21C Enhancement Theme, The Foundation for graduate attributes: developing self-regulation through self and peer assessment, David Nicol offers a practical approach to the problem of ensuring students achieve desired graduate attributes. He bases much of his paper around the Australian experience of designing and implementing graduate attributes within a teaching and learning context, noting how the aspirational attributes of a Melbourne University graduate can be summarised by the idea of autonomy or self regulation.

He argues that such self-regulation requires that students have regular opportunities to:

  1. Critically evaluate the quality and impact of their own work during and after its production (for example, academic texts, problem solutions, designs)
  2. Critically evaluate the quality and impact of the work of their peers.

In other words, self and peer-assessment, which involve significant amounts of feedback. Indeed, what Nicol calls 'high impact assessment and feedback activities' (after Kuh) are characterised by students:

  • reflecting on and assessing the quality of their own work
  • engaging in peer review of each other's work
  • determining criteria to apply to their own work
  • identifying their own learning needs and setting their own learning goals
  • engaging in collaborative projects where they give each other feedback
  • creating problems or issues that they go on to address
  • reflecting on and evaluating their own learning to build a portfolio
  • devising their own module (for example, in collaboration with academic staff).

From these, he says, curriculum designers should be able to create learning experiences in ways that develop in students the desired graduate attributes.

Nicol offers examples from a social science discipline and from mathematics to show how the use of self- and peer-assessment, fine-tuned to the subject discipline, would work in practice, and it is this practical approach that is important.

Too often, he contends, graduate attributes are set as aspirational targets (developing autonomy, independent learning etc) at national or institutional level, but without any practical advice on how they might be achieved.   Further details are available in David's presentation Assessment for 21st Century: Enhancing Graduate attributes.

One of the publications for the G21C Enhancement Theme centred on developing students' ability to construct feedback. The paper argues that feedback must be conceptualised as a dialogue and not a one-way transmission process and that students need direct practice in assessing work and generating feedback on it.

The paper makes a case for peer feedback: it can add significantly to the amount and variety of feedback students receive, without a corresponding increase in teacher workload. As well as increasing quantity, peer feedback can also address the issue of timeliness and may provide a discourse that is more understandable than that provided by the teacher.

The role of students as constructors of feedback is examined, suggesting that peer feedback encourages active learning and engagement with criteria and standards; that there are benefits to reciprocity as comments are often made and received on the same piece of work; that disciplinary expertise is built and skills of self assessment and preparation for professional life are developed. It argues that peer assessment moves us away from assessment as a private activity. Finally, the paper offers suggestions on implementing peer feedback and examples from practice, while warning that to gain maximum learning benefit it is better not to use peers as surrogate markers, especially in the context of final grading.

Another publication for the G21C Theme explored four 'recent' (between 2008 and 2010) papers on assessment and feedback with significant implications for practice. The papers shared common approaches to quality feedback.

One argued strongly for peer appraisal and feedback as the only effective method, an idea that was supported by another which reported on a video-ed tutorial that was observed by a small group of students on the same course. The learning of the small group was as good as that of the student receiving the one-to-one advice. However, it was emphasised that this would be the case only if the group engaged in active/constructive/interactive observing rather than simply sitting and watching the video.

A third paper saw the role of feedback as part of a wider, ongoing and cyclical system. It argued that producing feedback is cognitively more demanding than receiving it, which is why students should be involved and engaged with producing it. This idea was supported by the fourth paper, which reported evidence to show how feedback was received differently by high- and low-achieving students; the former internalising it and the latter accepting it at face value.

The job of teachers, the authors argue, is to move all students from a position of teacher regulation to internal regulation; otherwise there is a danger that students will be trapped in a dependency relationship.

In the Reflections on Assessment workshop dedicated to formative assessment, seven broad provisional principles of good feedback practices were identified. They are that it:

  1. Facilitates the development of self-assessment (reflection) in learning.
  2. Encourages teacher and peer dialogue around learning.
  3. Helps clarify what good performance is (goals, criteria, and expected standards).
  4. Provides opportunities to close the gap between current and desired performance.
  5. Delivers high quality information to students about their learning.
  6. Encourages positive motivational beliefs and self-esteem.
  7. Provides information to teachers that can be used to help shape the teaching.

Knight and Yorke offered what they called the essential components of effective formative assessment, looking at the issue from both the teacher's and the student's perspective arguing that:


  1. are aware of:
    • the epistemology of the discipline
    • stages of student intellectual and moral development
    • the individual student's knowledge and stage of intellectual development
    • the psychology of giving and receiving feedback

  2. provide:
    • tasks sufficient in number to create opportunities for giving feedback on all key
    • module/programme learning outcomes
    • tasks of progressively graded difficulty, appropriate to the students
    • criteria against which performance(s) will be judged

  3. communicate with students:
    • clearly regarding the standards expected of students
    • in a timely manner
    • highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of presented work (and not of the students themselves)
    • indicating how their work might subsequently develop.


  1. understand what is expected of them (with reference, inter alia, to the assessment criteria)
  2. elicit the meaning from formative comment
  3. act on the basis of their developed understandings.

Another approach to creating effective formative assessment was provided by Randy Swing from the USA in his report understanding the economies of feedback: balancing supply and demand, who suggested, using an analogy from economics, that currently the demand for formative feedback from students was far less than its supply from teachers and that this disequilibrium resulted in a reduced 'price', that is to say it was not valued. The answer was to increase student desire for feedback, that is to say, shift the demand curve to the right.

This can be done, Dr Swing said, using the following five ideas:

  1. Provide feedback that allows students to compare themselves with their peers in non-threatening ways.
  2. Focus on formative feedback rather than summative feedback.
  3. Leverage the power of peers.
  4. Role model your own demand for and willingness to seek external feedback.
  5. Use rituals to establish high expectations.

It is argued that technology can be used to improve individualised feedback on assessment. Formative assessment and feedback using CAA was explored in the Reflections on Assessment Theme. This included reference to a formative assessment system developed at John Moores University using a Microsoft Marking Assistant. In the post workshop report on 'Assessing Online', Mary McCulloch writes about the experiences of participants in using CAA within a formative assessment context, quoting the 'low stakes' environment as a way of providing instant feedback in an unthreatening way.

There was discussion around the use of multiple choice questions and 'on-demand' tests that also provide instant feedback as well as a reflective approach to self-paced learning. In contrast, mention was made of the negative effects of a close association of the feedback provided on students' work with the grades awarded to them on the basis of that work. It was suggested that CAA might be one way of uncoupling feedback from the subsequent grades awarded.

The example of Wolverhampton University and the way staff there use technology to apply SMS text and VLEs to support 'at risk' students. Another example of recent developments are included in a case study by the Open University looking at personalised integrated learning support.

There is a need for more academic support and guidance including diagnostic assessment, especially for Internet and study skills and to enhance the targeting of individualised support. In this context it is felt that PDPs will be useful and the Effective Learning Framework.

One idea proposed in the Integrative Assessment Theme is to introduce 'cumulative coursework', where an assignment evolves over the span of a semester or longer, and can therefore reflect and benefit from the student's improving grasp of the subject matter and from ongoing feedback from tutors, fellow students or placement supervisors and work colleagues.

The University of Dundee has made feedback and assessment an ongoing theme, building on material from relevant Assessment Enhancement Themes and the National Student Survey. One of the outcomes from this work is the development of a Toolkit. The toolkit is shaped by three broad characteristics:

  1. It is best utilised by small groups of staff and students, ideally including module and programme leaders, tutors, class representatives and school presidents. The challenge is to ensure that work done at the local level can be captured and effectively transferred at institutional level.
  2. It aims to be 'light touch' in nature, providing exercises and questions that can  easily provoke discussion or reflection among practitioners and student representatives. The authors are conscious of the need to ensure that 'light touch' does not mean simplistic and that participants engaging with the Toolkit are supported in engaging with meaningful activities.
  3. It has the potential to be integrated within the University's Pg Certificate in Teaching in Higher Education. It is important, however, to ensure that the Toolkit is not perceived as a tool just for new or inexperienced staff.

As part of engaging with the G21C Theme, the Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) has embarked on a journey towards achieving or at least enhancing two specific areas which are intended to have a significant impact on each student's understanding of their own learning (the progress made and standards achieved) and in furnishing them with the ability to recognise and articulate the qualities and attributes they have gained along the way. Enhancing and developing assessment and feedback practice has been, and still is a major initiative for the College. The approach introduced in session 2007-08 sits at the heart of curriculum and project design: it aims to embed assessment as a key learning tool for students to use productively and assessment is no longer viewed as perhaps the least enjoyable part of their studies while at Art College.

Since 2007 a completely new assessment scheme with supporting programme documentation and regulations has been introduced as a key driver for strategic change. The aim was to demystify the assessment process for students and importantly to help students understand how they could use assessment to progress their own learning. Equally important for staff was to simplify processes and make fully explicit what was actually being assessed to ensure transparency and consistency of approach across the whole College.

Assessment and feedback is a high priority across the sector in all subjects given the generally poor results in the national student survey where, somewhat surprisingly given the pedagogical approach, subjects in Art and Design in particular perform very poorly. The challenge is not an issue of standards, robustness, fairness or parity in assessment, but clarity. Students are generally completely unclear regarding how and what is actually being assessed: assessment is viewed as something that happens to them and not necessarily something that contributes positively to their learning.

ECA has now implemented a constructively aligned, directly to learning outcomes grade-based assessment scheme which starts with the premise that assessment should be designed as a main priority to facilitate and support learning while the learning is taking place and not simply to measure the standards achieved at the end of a period of learning. Grade-based formative assessment is used extensively and students are required to fully participate in assessment wherever possible.

Students now more fully understand that formative assessment is simply a 'snapshot in time' and that final summative grades at the end of the year are not derived directly from these. This encourages 'risk-taking' which is an absolutely essential attribute in the creative process. Students now self-evaluate and grade their own work in parallel with the staff assessment and grading of their work. They are also required to write their own feedback in response to tutorial discourse and critique.

Staff have to validate the students written feedback to confirm whether they have understood what was discussed and the actions that should be taken. Where they have not understood, staff can subsequently clarify the areas of misunderstanding. For more details, including the process by which the change to the assessment procedures were made see

At the Robert Gordon's School of Nursing and Midwifery, a web-based object has been created which can be viewed by students in the University's VLE Campus-Moodle. It covers the Why?, What?, Who?, When? and How? of feedback and contains a number of videos, activities and links to students' e-portfolios; all designed to improve understanding of feedback and its role in supporting learning. Also at Robert Gordon, this time in the School of Health Sciences, audio feedback has been successfully trialled for all summative coursework.