Formative assessment and feedback

This page addresses feedback from tutors to students intended to help students learn; the use of feedback from students to teachers (intended to enhance teaching) is discussed on the Evaluating your teaching page.

The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) says:

Formative assessment has a developmental purpose and is designed to help learners learn more effectively by giving them feedback on their performance and on how it can be improved and/or maintained (QAA, 2006, p35).

Formative assessment is usually contrasted with summative assessment:

Summative assessment is used to indicate the extent of a learner's success in meeting the assessment criteria used to gauge the intended learning outcomes of a module or programme (QAA, 2006, p36).

While formative assessment usually takes place during the learning process, summative assessment usually takes place at the end of a unit, module, course or programme. Central to formative assessment is the feedback given to learners:

Feedback... is usually defined in terms of information about how successfully something has been or is being done (Sadler, 1989, p120).

Good feedback practice is… anything that might strengthen the student’s capacity to self-regulate their own performance (Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2006, p205).

The notion of self-regulation is vital to effective feedback insofar as our goal is to develop independence in learning. Self-regulation means the student has internalised an idea of what good performance is, is able to compare his or her own work with that standard, and knows what needs to be done to meet the standard (Sadler, 1989, cited in Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2006). Independent learning requires self-regulation. Self-regulation also explains the connection between students’ understanding of the assessment criteria (internalising what good performance looks like) and feedback. We’ll look at this in the Oxford context in the next section.

Oxford information

Undergraduate student concerns

Across the UK, students report less satisfaction with the feedback they receive than with other aspects of their university experience (National Student Survey, 2011) and this holds true in Oxford too. Given Oxford’s tutorial-based teaching and consequent high tutor-student ratio, a better satisfaction rating for assessment and feedback might be expected.

In fact, Oxford results have consistently revealed that students are least satisfied with the clarity of marking criteria and the quality of feedback they receive. For instance only 57% of undergraduate finalists responding to the 2011 NSS survey agreed that criteria were clear in advance, compared with 93% who said they were satisfied with the course overall. Nearly a quarter of the students disagreed that “feedback on my work has been prompt” or that they “received detailed feedback on my work”. Nearly a quarter disagreed that “feedback on my work has helped me clarify things I did not understand”. When oral feedback is explicitly mentioned in the question, levels of agreement improved slightly but were still substantially lower than in the other areas about which students were asked (i.e. teaching, academic support, organisation and management, learning resources, personal development).

With the intention of supplementing earlier NSS data, Oxford University Student Union’s (OUSU) Initial Response to Oxford’s Review of its Teaching Model obtained more than 400 students’ views on teaching at the University through a large scale focus group exercise in Trinity Term 2010. Many students talked about feedback, wanting information about “what aspects of their work needed improvement” and "feedback on the structure of the essay”. Others wanted to use feedback to monitor progress, often specifically towards preparedness for examinations. Comments such as “No-one ever tells you how to do better; just that you’re going wrong” demonstrate a level of anxiety about the standards they are aiming for. Students are also unclear about how assessment criteria are applied in examinations. In Humanities and Social Sciences, especially, they find it difficult to see tutorial essays as authentic preparation for examination essays; tutorial essays are written over a week, which is different to completing an essay in an hour under exam conditions. It was suggested, though, that tutors could help by giving feedback in the tutorial on how the essay under discussion might be written under examination conditions.

It may help if tutors promote an understanding of tutorial work as developing deep understanding of the subject area, rather than the ability to pass examinations; if the former is in place the latter will be a natural consequence. Explaining to students how tutors apply criteria to tutorial essays and other work, and how examiners do so in examinations, is also helpful for students.

Relationship between feedback and clarity of marking criteria

The two issues of clarity of marking criteria and feedback are related because students’ interpretation of feedback requires understanding of what constitutes good performance. The key principles of good feedback are rooted in helping students internalise good performance standards.

Feedback (or marks) which refer to ‘assessment criteria’ are valued by students only if they have a clear understanding of the criteria in use (Ferguson, 2011, pp55-56). Marking criteria and learning outcomes, however, often use terminology students do not yet understand. Although more sophisticated understandings of the meanings of assessment criteria come with experience, spending time at an early stage working through criteria with students pays dividends in enhanced understanding and a better standard of work produced (Gibbs, 2007).

Some terminology used in the marking criteria of two disciplines at Oxford (Economics, History)

Analysis (competent, skilful)

Argument (incisive, sophisticated)

Breadth of reference

Cogent organisation

Critical evaluation

Critical thought

Engagement

Evidence of extensive reading

Insight

Intelligent preparation

Originality

Solidly competent work

Sophistication

Structure (clear, logical)

Style (clear, elegant)

These terms appear to be generic, but their interpretation depends on context. Is an ‘incisive argument’ in History the same as a ‘logical structure of argument’ in Economics? Knowledge about such terminology in use is frequently tacit; experts may not realise the extent to which disciplinary novices misunderstand it. If feedback on an essay aiming to meet these criteria is to be effective in bringing about improvement, the tutorial discussion must develop shared understandings of complex concepts such as “critical evaluation”, “incisive argument” and “originality”.

See Ideas and tools (below) for examples of exercises to develop students’ understanding of assessment criteria.

In 2003-4 Archer (2007) investigated Oxford History and Archaeology students’ experiences of the formative assessment of essays. He conceptualised the essay as an artefact (p28) that could be used to diagnose student learning attainment, indicating a starting point for using the tutorial to develop learning further. Archer’s findings indicate that student’ essay-writing benefits from explicit student-tutor discussion (and mutual understanding) of various points:

  • What are tutorial essays for? Tutors say, a means for students to “organise themselves intellectually (p9)” or opportunities for practice in analysis, argument formulation and marshalling evidence (p11), whilst students often see them as being about subject knowledge (p9).
  • How did the student use the reading lists?
  • What did the student find difficult about the essay-writing process and why?
  • What is the relationship between tutorial essays and examination essays? Students who see the purpose of the tutorial as coverage of the material also see essays as revision material for examinations; tutors tend not to endorse this view (p11).
  • What makes a good Archaeology/History essay?
  • What does the student understand by the tutor’s comments on the essay?

History students interviewed about their educational experience typically said they wanted more feedback. However this was rarely expressed in terms of wanting a grade, rather they asked for “more advice on style and structure” (Archer, 2006).

Does feedback require giving a mark?

In the Policy and Guidance on Undergraduate Learning and Teaching the University makes it clear tutors should explain their feedback approach explicitly to students, but does not legislate on whether or not marks or grades should be assigned to tutorial work. Paragraph 3.10 states:

The scale and extent of feedback provided through tutorial teaching is a core element of the collegiate University’s learning support for undergraduates. Tutorial teaching provides regular and substantial feedback and formative assessment, although it is acknowledged that the precise form will vary from one subject to another, and from tutor to tutor. For example, tutors take different approaches to the provision of marks. Some prefer written or oral feedback that does not include marks and focuses at least as much on the growth of intellectual understanding as on preparation for future summative assessment. Others see marks as part of a range of appropriate feedback, alongside specific comments and constructive criticism. [...] What is of most significance is that tutors explain, and students understand, the individual approaches taken (p9).

The Commission of Inquiry’s (COI) report, published in 1997, stated that “undergraduates are entitled to effective and helpful written comments on their work” and “marking with grades is not always appropriate” (paragraph 9.37). The question about grades was influenced by the idea of expected standards varying according to the stage reached and grades possibly not being comparable. Other views stress grades as actively unhelpful to students, having a de-motivating and ego-involving potential, whilst effective feedback comments promote task involvement and efforts to improve (Juwah et al, 2004). The Commission’s recommendation "that undergraduates be better informed on the grading and commenting on tutorial work” (COI, 1997, Recommendation 55) suggests tutors should discuss explicitly with students their reasoning and approaches to feedback and marking.

The COI Report (1997) responded to Oxford undergraduates’ complaints “that tutors did not provide enough feedback on essays, either by giving an overall grade for an essay or by making specific comments on the content of an essay (paragraph 9.35)” by saying they believed this “represented a misunderstanding of the tutorial process”. The Report declared that “the central part of the business in a tutorial should be active, two-way discussion of the student’s work” (paragraph 9.36).

Feedback takes place at the point of learning, i.e. in the classroom, the tutorial or the lecture. Considered in this light, we can interpret the ‘two-way discussion’ recommended by the Commission as the tutor continuing the assessment which began with reading the essay, and supplementing it by questioning the student and giving oral feedback. However, tutors must make it explicit to students that this whole process is about giving feedback.

Collections

In addition to weekly tutorials, Collections (college examinations) offer an opportunity for formative assessment and constructive feedback. Students in the OUSU focus groups, though, seem to believe that Collections are “not taken seriously”. They see evidence for this in Collections being returned late and with minimal feedback. Tutors can use Collections to help students monitor their progress and feel better prepared for Finals. The University’s Policy and Guidance on Undergraduate Learning and Teaching makes it clear tutors must ensure students both understand the purpose of Collections and receive feedback on these written examinations “within a reasonable timescale”. It seems reasonable to expect that students receive feedback very soon after the examination; this is critical because, other than by Collections, explicit preparation for writing examination essays is difficult to provide.

Feedback on taught master’s programmes

Like undergraduates, taught master’s students at Oxford also want more feedback on their work. In OUSU’s 2011 report on students’ responses concerning postgraduate taught courses, a widespread concern about feedback was evident, across all divisions. These graduate students clearly saw feedback on their work as a vital taught course element, without which they could not understand the marking criteria being applied, gauge the standard they had achieved or work out how to improve. Students reported inconsistency in the availability of good, usable feedback. On short, one-year courses, they needed early feedback to determine tutors’ expectations, establish whether they were meeting the requirements and understand how to improve. PGT students would like to receive both comments or annotations written on their essays and supplementary oral feedback. They found it de-motivating to receive inadequate feedback or none.

On most courses there was concern over the timing of assignments, both in terms of uneven workloads from term to term, and because it was difficult to use learning gained from feedback on one assignment to understand and meet the requirements on the next one. In particular, it was a problem for some students that feedback was rarely given on assignments being assessed summatively, even if they occurred early in the course, because of sensitivity over contact between students and examiners.

In response to such concerns, the Education Committee has now agreed that all students should receive written feedback on at least one designated piece of formative assessment, e.g. essay or assignment, during the course of the first term, with the purpose of:

  • providing guidance to students for whom extended pieces of writing are unfamiliar forms of assessment;
  • indicating to students their areas of strength and weakness in relation to the assessment task;
  • providing course members with an indication of the expectations and standards towards which they are working.

In addition the Education Committee has established the principle that limited feedback must be given to students on any elements of summative assessment which are undertaken prior to the final term of the course.

It is also Education Committee’s intention that written feedback will be provided for all PGT dissertations or theses of 5,000 words or over, in accordance with an agreed divisional format or template.

Feedback to postgraduate research students

Research students also benefit from regular feedback. The stages of Transfer and Confirmation of Status are important occasions for formal feedback but doctoral students also express the need for regular formative feedback which enables them to understand whether they are progressing sufficiently and attaining expected standards in their work. See Giving and receiving feedback (with DPhil students).

Ideas and tools

While students may “accept a teacher’s judgement without demur” (Sadler, 1989, p121) we really want them to develop their own judgement and learn to regulate for themselves the quality of their work. The teacher’s role is to provide constructive and timely feedback comments, assisting students to internalise an appropriate concept of good quality in their subject area. “Students have to be able to judge the quality of what they are producing and be able to regulate what they are doing during the doing of it” (p121). Thus feedback is teaching.

Tutor’s role

A teacher conveys disciplinary standards in several different ways:

  • As a role model, i.e. through demonstrating (modelling) disciplinary practice. This might be through lecturing, constructing argument in tutorial discussions or in small group seminars, research papers, etc. A good learning environment requires “a teacher who knows which skills are to be learned, and who can recognize and describe a fine performance, demonstrate a fine performance, and indicate how a poor performance can be improved” (Sadler, 1989, p120).
  • As a judge, through both written and oral feedback. Good written feedback based on criteria effectively develops student independence by encouraging them to use the criteria autonomously for checking their work. Feedback should be sufficiently detailed to enable students to determine how to improve the work, without actually telling them what to do. Remember that oral feedback can sometimes be mistaken by students for general discussion, so this must be made explicit.
  • As one of the subject experts who set the assessment criteria. If criteria genuinely encapsulate the qualities, skills, knowledge and understanding that characterise graduates in the discipline, at a level which helps students to understand what they are aiming for without prescriptive detail, they help students develop independence as learners with skills to regulate the standard of their work.
  • As a fellow learner. Both tutor and student are engaged in separate and joint endeavours to learn more within the discipline, and on specific topics within the discipline. Be open-minded and prepared to both learn and teach when you interact.

Challenge facing students

Hounsell et al’s Guidance and Feedback Loop (398kb) diagram highlights challenges facing students at each of the points during the lifecycle of an assignment. Difficulties can occur at each of several steps:

  1. Correct conception of task, assignment or goal (e.g. what does ‘critical analysis’ mean?) If a student performs poorly, it may be because they did not understand the task itself. Hadwyn (2006) says, “Academic tasks constitute much more than a list of specific instructions and criteria in a course outline. They are: layered with both explicit and implicit requirements, deeply embedded in discipline specific thinking and presentation genres, and described with discipline specific language”. Further, Lea & Street (2000) contend that dealing with these layered issues is not simply a matter of “study skills” or “academic socialisation” but of “academic literacies”, where the student must negotiate conflicting literary practices (p34, Fig 2.1).
  2. Devising appropriate strategies for achieving the goal (e.g. understanding and using a reading list).
  3. Completing the task as understood. Seeking clarification when needed.
  4. Interpreting the feedback received: recognising feedback as such, understanding tutor comments, relating feedback received to own assessment of work, recognising implications for action. Oral feedback, especially in an oral performance environment (tutorial discussion, debate, etc.) can be just as important as written feedback. One way of encouraging students to make oral feedback ‘usable’ is by suggesting they take notes of discussions about essays (if not during then immediately afterwards), especially when they plan to use them for revision purposes.
  5. Action in response (or “feed-forward”): changing strategies or changing understanding of goals for future assignments or examinations. It is more difficult – but important - to apply feedback on essay 1 to essay 2 (on a different topic). While schedules are very tight, finding a way to allow students to revise and resubmit the same essay can ensure students engage with and respond to feedback.

Tools

  • Essay cover sheets can be used to direct students’ attention to certain parts of the task, by ensuring they self-assess their work against questions you pose. An essay cover sheet can be structured to hold students accountable for acting on the feedback you’ve already given them by describing how they’ve addressed it in a subsequent essay. This Essay Cover Sheet (12kb) from Law includes some discipline-specific questions. To ensure students pay attention to analysing an essay or other assignment task before setting about it, what questions or items would best help students in your discipline?
  • Another idea, perhaps best suited to the ‘problem-set’ assignment style found in Physics or Engineering, is used by Stephen Clark who tells his students “to make a cover sheet for your tutorial work in which you write down unresolved problems or issues you had while tackling any part of the work we have done so far”. This “unstructured” cover sheet approach, i.e. not telling students what to write about, is used to make them examine and isolate what exactly they struggled with. Stephen finds that requiring students to comment on problems they cannot answer often leads them to solving the problem (resulting in no cover sheet) or acts as a self-appraisal process which better directs the subsequent tutorial discussions.
  • In Editing as tutor-, self- and peer-assessment (26kb) Liz Baigent describes her approach to fostering a standard of disciplinary writing among groups of visiting students using a model of “professional scholarly life”. Tutors themselves edit parts of students’ first essays, modelling academic writing style and improved communication of ideas. Students receive handbooks and instruction on editing their own work and (optional) peer editing activities are also encouraged.
  • Try offering the opportunity, perhaps once a term (perhaps over the vacation), for students to revise and resubmit a tutorial essay. Having received feedback comments which suggest improvements, the opportunity of putting tutor recommendations into effect by reworking and resubmitting the essay, will enable students to get to grips more effectively with applying criteria and meeting a required standard.
  • See Gibbs, Student understanding of assessment standards (34kb), which, in the context of comparing Oxford’s approach to assessment with that of other UK universities, also includes an example of an exercise which involved students marking and discussing assignments, as well as comparison of the subsequent end-of-course assessments for participant students against those of a control group.
  • See illuminatio 2012 (1,340kb). Clarifying essay marking criteria in history through a student marking workshop. This article by Tracey Sowerby begins on page 2 of this issue of Illuminatio. It discusses using “a pool of anonymised essays by former students who have given their permission” to give students experience of applying criteria to marking another person’s work, then applying the same guidelines to a critical appraisal of their own work.
  • Understanding Coursework Requirements & Assessment Criteria (173kb) gives a number of Oxford examples of suitable activities for helping students to understand requirements and criteria at different stages of their courses.
  • In 2006, Archer compared assessment practice in his Faculty with Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick’s (2006) "Seven Principles" - see Feedback principles in action? The Oxford History Faculty (461kb) . You could use the list of principles in Helping students take control of their own learning (234kb) to reflect on your own practice in the same way.
  • Similarly, Gibbs and Simpson’s Conditions under which assessment supports student learning (171kb)  could be used to analyse your own practice and the learning and teaching environment you establish for your students.
  • In this Extract from the Code of Practice on assessment of students (104kb)  the QAA lists a number of assessment examples intended to help tutors ensure student learning is supported.

Insights from research and literature

Students’ responses to feedback

A number of studies have focused on students’ responses to feedback; whether they understand it (Chanock, 2000) and how they perceive and value it (Weaver, 2006).

Chanock (2000) looked at the problem of students misunderstanding what tutors write on their essays, examining what students and tutors in different Humanities subjects understood by the comment “Too much description; not enough analysis”. She found terminology was frequently understood differently by academics in different disciplines, and students often failed to interpret such comments in the way their tutor intended. Chanock concluded by recommending:

explanation needs to be accompanied by models and these are already to hand. When a lecturer explores a question in the classroom; when a tutorial group goes to work on a document; when a student reads an article; all of these are models of analysis in the discipline. What is often lacking is some explicit commentary by the teacher, drawing students’ attention to how exactly this activity or this reading exemplifies the process of analysis. Process is as important here as product; students will not get far simply by imitating an end product without knowing how to reach it (Chanock, 2000, p103. Emphasis added).

Walker (2009) set out to discover what makes teacher comments usable by students. She identified three categories of comments:

  • about content;
  • about the student’s development of skill (e.g. in analysis, in structuring argument, etc.); or
  • designed to motivate the student.

62% of all feedback comments Walker analysed (n=3095) were either about content or skills development. 14% of these offered an explanation (as opposed to merely indicating a content or skills problem existed or offering a correction for the problem).

Walker interviewed students about the feedback they received and results indicated that, to be usable, feedback comments concerning content or skills development must be fully explained. Overall, her students found skills development comments more usable than those in other categories: respondents said about two-thirds of these comments were “useful/ helpful for future work”.

Motivating comments were seen as being useful in the affective domain, and students were “pleased/encouraged” by 73% of such comments, although 15% of them led to “lack of understanding of the comment and/or need for more explanation or detail”. “Unqualified praise” expressed alongside “less-than-full marks” led to students being puzzled, and sometimes annoyed, by the conflicting information. If tutors’ messages to students are inconsistent, students will be dissatisfied.

What students value most

Students questioned about feedback by Ferguson (2011) said what they found most useful were:

i)     brief written comments throughout the piece of work, and
ii)    a written summary or overview.

It is interesting (and instructive?) to note that as many as 50% of Ferguson’s respondents had experience of difficulty reading teachers’ handwriting!

...What is needed is an explanation of how to improve...
...Brief notes… linked to the work and explicit...
...Highlight… the main issue influencing the grade...
...Short, unexplained responses (‘good’, ‘needs more work’, etc.) were of no value at all...
...ticks or crosses without further explanation were useless...
...Concise remarks… must tell you something constructive... (Ferguson, 2011, p56)

Ferguson also found students expressed a strong preference in their free text responses for ‘personal’ as opposed to ‘non-personal’ feedback (where ‘non-personal’ focused on comparison with grades or criteria and ‘personal’ focused and commented on specific aspects of the individually presented work).

Writing as an Iterative Process

Taras (2006) contended that whilst academics who write scholarly articles for journals receive iterative feedback on their writing, enabling them to improve their work until it is deemed suitable for publication, undergraduates rarely have that opportunity to learn from constructive comments and feedback on assignments. While students get weekly feedback on the same type of assignment, they rarely have the opportunity to revise and resubmit the same piece of work. Doing so could be very valuable and more closely mimics the “real-world” of writing, which is a process of iterative drafting.

The above text was based on:

Archer, IW. (2006) Feedback principles in action? The Oxford History Faculty (545kb). Available from the Learning Institute website.

Archer, IW. (2007) Students' Experiences of the Formative Assessment of Essays (381kb) in History and Archaeology at Oxford. Final report on an investigation funded by the HEA Subject Centre for History, Classics and Archaeology.

Chanock, K. (2000) Comments on Essays: Do students understand what tutors write? Teaching in Higher Education. 5(1), 95-105.

Commission of Inquiry (1997) Commission of Inquiry Report. Oxford: University of Oxford.

Economics Department. Master of Philosophy Economics Programme Specification. University of Oxford.

Ferguson, P. (2011) Student perceptions of quality feedback in teacher education. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 36(1), 51-62.

Hadwyn, A. (2006) Do your students really understand your assignments? Tomorrow’s Professor Mailing List website. Stanford University.

History Faculty. History Marking Criteria. University of Oxford. (Access restricted: Oxford Single Sign-on required)

Juwah, C., Macfarlane-Dick, D., Matthew, B., Nicol, D., Ross, D. & Smith, B. (2004) Enhancing student learning through effective formative feedback. York: Higher Education Academy.

Lea, M. R. & Street, B. V. (2000) “Student Writing and Staff Feedback in Higher Education: An Academic Literacies Approach”. In Lea, M. R. & Stierer, B. (Eds) (2000) Student Writing in Higher Education: New Contexts. Buckingham: SHRE and Open University Press.

Nicol, D.J. & Macfarlane-Dick, D. (2006) Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in Higher Education. 31(2), 199-218.

Oxford University Student Union. (2010) Initial Response to Oxford’s Review of its Teaching Model. Downloaded from: http://issuu.com/ousu/docs/ug_teaching_review_report_2010 on 10 January 2013.

Oxford University Student Union. (2012) Review of Postgraduate Research Student Provision. Downloaded from http://issuu.com/ousu/docs/ousupgr on 24 February 2014.

QAA. (2006) Code of practice for the assurance of academic quality and standards in higher education: Section 6: Assessment of students. Gloucester: Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education.

Sadler, D.R. (1989) Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems. Instructional Science. 18(2), 119-144.

Taras, M. (2006) Do unto others or not: equity in feedback for undergraduates. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education. 31(3), 365-377.

Walker, M. (2009) An investigation into written comments on assignments: do students find them usable? Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. 34(1), 67-78.

Weaver, MR. (2006) Do students value feedback? Student perceptions of tutors’ written responses. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. 31(3), 379-394.

Further reading

Black, P. & Wiliam, D. (1998) Assessment and Classroom Learning. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy and Practice. 5(1), 7-74.