As teachers we feedback to students all the time in a range of different ways. It is interesting, however, that we tend to think of feedback solely as the written comments we make on assessed work. While this is to some extent inevitable given the time consuming nature of producing this kind of feedback, it nevertheless can disguise all the other ways we feedback to students. In other words, feedback is not simply about explaining a grade that has been given on assessed work after the assessment has been completed however much it may seem like this.

As the following table shows, in practice feedback on student work can take a number of forms each with a distinct role to play in student learning and each with its own advantages and drawbacks.

Form of Feedback Role in Student Learning  Advantages Drawbacks
The mark given to piece of work.
  • Indication of level of performance
  • Allow direct comparison with peers
  • Clear indicator of achievement
  • Gives no indication of how to improve
  • May direct attention away from written comments
Written comments on individual pieces of work.
  • Provides qualitative feedback specific to the students’s work.
  • Guides improvement
  • Permanent record of feedback
  • Can be very time consuming to produce
  • Students may not collect or read it.
Verbal advice/comment given to individual students about their work
  • Provides qualitative feedback specific to the student’s work.
  • Guides improvement.
  • Can be immediate.
  • Can be quick to produce.
  • No permanent record of feedback.
  • Could be forgotten or misunderstood.
Written or verbal comments given to groups of students.
  • Outlines general tendencies across the work of a cohort.
  • Offers guidelines on how to improve.
  • Time-efficient
  • Cannot ensure parity of understanding.
  • Not tailored to the work of individual students.
Automatically produced feedback on learning or assessment tasks generated through VLEs such as Blackboard.
  • Indicates performance on set tasks.
  • Can highlight areas that need improvement.
  • Time-efficient.
  • Immediate.
  • Highlights strengths and weaknesses.
  • Geared to individual student.
  • Allows only limited feedback.
  • Can only be used for limited range of VLE based tasks.
  • Can seem impersonal.
Structured feedback from peers given in the context of learning activities and assessment events.
  • Locates learning in its social context.
  • Provides qualitative feedback specific to the student’s work.
  • Immediate.
  • Time-efficient.
  • Geared to individual student.
  • Can take a lot of planning and managing.
  • Students may not see the value in it.

Each of these forms of feedback serves a distinct purpose and none are sufficient in themselves to guide student learning. Feedback is fundamental to the ways we can enable students to develop the skills of self-assessment essential to the production of high-quality work.

This model involves a threefold process wherein feedback is central to improvement. Constructive feedback can help students to close the gap and thus, in principle, improve levels of attainment and, as such, should be an integral part of the learning and teaching strategy of a programme or module. In order for feedback to be constructive, however, there are certain principles which should be borne in mind. These are set out in the following table:

Feedback strategies should: Feedback strategies should not:
  • provide feedback as quickly as possible
  • where possible offer immediate feedback (e.g. classroom and computer generated)
  • offer ways of improving
  • comment on strengths as well as on weaknesses
  • relate to the work, not the student.
  • be restricted to marks and grades
  • generate feedback only after the module is complete
  • focus on weaknesses without offering guidelines for improvement
  • criticise the student rather than comment on the work