This investigation will focus on the issues surrounding how tutors give feedback and how students use feedback; specifically:

  • Different types of feedback
  • The need for formative feedback that allows students to improve on their work
  • How the students’ interpretation of feedback can affect their ability to use it meaningfully.
Literature review of
theories of assessment and feedback

Assessment is one of the procedures that can be used to assess student’s performance. One objective perspective interprets feedback as a mechanism to see to what extent a student understands a specific aspect of a course or module. It then checks whether the student has achieved this objective. It uses tasks or exercises and assigns marks or grades based on quantitative results (Ioannou-Georgiou & Pavlou, 2003). The limitations of this perspective are that feedback simply provides a measurement of achievement rather than providing an opportunity for improvement. Feedback can be defined as ‘information about the gap between the actual level and the reference level of a system parameter which is used to alter the gap in some way’ (Ramaprasad, 1983). To put it differently, feedback may serve as a supportive bridge which allows learners to move from where they are at the particular moment of their learning to where whey are expected to be, by their teacher or programme. So feedback should be provided in a way that promotes learning and facilitates improvement (UoS, 2012a).

Principles of good feedback include comments that help students develop appropriate skills and those that actively encourage further learning. As well as comments that are motivational (Brown & Glover, 2006; Chickering & Gamson, 1991). To be useful, it has to be provided promptly (Gibbs, 2006), it needs to be of good quality, and it needs to ensure the quality of student engagement with it. It also needs to be structured around the goals of the assignment and be clearly related to the criteria and standards required (Gibbs, 2006).

Combining feedback with summative assessment can prove to be counter-productive for students, as they have a tendency to look at their marks alone, and not read the feedback (Crooks, 1988). In this study, when students did read the feedback, they felt negatively towards it or did not take in its importance. Moreover, they were not motivated to reflect on it, as they could no longer apply the feedback to the assignment in order to improve on their work. Thus the learning opportunities were lost.

Feedback given without marks may mean students are more likely to engage with it as it is the only indication of how they are progressing. This method was found to have significant positive impact on the students’ performance in relation to the learning outcomes (Black & Wiliam, 1998).

Distinctions between
formative and summative assessment

Formative assessment may be characterised as assessment which is ‘an integral part of instruction that informs and guides teachers as they make instructional decisions’ (PSSM, 2000). It is an assessment ‘done for students to guide and enhance their learning’ (PSSM, 2000) and provides a platform for life-long learning. Summative assessment is designed to measure students’ performance and achievements at the end of a module or course (Biggs & Tang, 2011). This type of assessment is often considered as assessment ‘done to students’ (UoS, 2012b; Gibbs, 2012).

Formative assessment also allows learners to self-evaluate and monitor their progress and performance, as learning involves challenging assumptions. Formative assessment may improve and accelerate leaning and ‘feed forward’ to the next task and should encourage a dialogue of learning between students and tutors (Hall & Burke, 2003; Price et al, 2010; Falchikov, 2007).

Finally, summative assessment is usually associated with ‘quantitative’ feedback (grades) to teachers and students, whereas formative assessment is likely to be associated with ‘qualitative’ feedback. But it is important to remember that feedback is of little help if it is not immediately applicable (i.e. is provided too late, when no further changes to the work are allowed). Therefore it is not just the amount and quality of feedback that is crucial for the learners but also the appropriate timing of it (Price et al, 2010). All of the above indicates that formative assessment with an opportunity to reflect on feedback and then re-submit the work before summative assessment, should play a much bigger role in Higher Education (Boud, 2000; Gibbs & Simpson, 2004).

Benefits of the appropriate use of
peer- and self-assessment (to feedback)

It is stated in the University Assessment Handbook (UoS, 2012b), that ‘feedback from peers and self-assessment practices can play a powerful role in learning by encouraging reassessment of personal beliefs and interpretations’. Involving students in critical self-evaluation of their work, possibly through a reflective statement at the point of submission enables students to engage meaningfully with their feedback (UoS, 2012b). In order for students to gain maximum advantage from their feedback, three important points must be understood: (1) students must be able to understand the criteria they are being assessed by, (2) have the ability to compare their own work against these criteria and, (3) must be able to take the necessary steps in order to ‘close the gap’ (Sadler, 1989; Taras, 2002; Holmes & Papagoergiou, 2009).

A potential barrier to students achieving these three points is highlighted by Sadler (1989), who notes, that in order for the students to be able to achieve these steps they must already possess some of the same evaluative skills as their teacher (Sadler, 1989). This assertion has led many researchers to emphasise the need to improve students’ understanding and skills in self-assessment and peer assessment (O’Donovan et al, 2004; Taras, 2002; Holmes & Papagoergiou, 2009).

Students who practice self-assessment (with or without prior peer and tutor feedback), are more able to identify gaps in their understanding of the learning criteria and exercise judgement in closing these than those who have not practiced self-assessment (Tan, 2007; Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2006). This is further enhanced by the practice of peer feedback in strengthening students’ understanding, their ability to evaluate and make judgements, and to create meaning within a shared dialogue of learning (Falchikov, 2007).

Many mechanisms can be employed to enable students to gain maximum advantage from their feedback. Examples include peer marking of student work, group discussions about marking criteria, and analysis of feedback comments, and can be tailored to the given teaching situation (Dochy et al, 1999; Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2006; Orsmond et al, 2002; Taras, 2001, 2005).

Feedback and assessment methods employed by tutors should be designed to enable students to achieve all three of the steps identified by Sadler (1989) that ultimately result in them being able to improve their work in line with the assessment criteria. Research in this specific area is broadly in agreement as to which practices work (Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2006; Orsmond et al, 2002; Taras, 2001). Developing mixed format peer and self assessment processes, supported by informal, formative, and more formalised feedback methods broadly given by tutors, will help ensure students are able to engage in the first two of Sadler’s steps. Additionally to the first two steps, they will also have the ability to complete the final step and ‘close the gap’ between their work and what is required, within the assessment criteria, to get as good a result as they are capable of.

Yaroslav, Julia Berg, Fiona Velez-Colby

Word count: 1211

May 2013


Biggs, J., & Tang, C. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at university (4th ed.). Maidenhead: Open University Press McGraw Hill Education.

Boud, D. (2000). Sustainable assessment: rethinking assessment for the learning society. Studies in Continuing Education, 22(2), 151-167.

Black, P. J., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy and Practice, 5(1), 7-73.

Brown, E., & Glover, C. (2006). Evaluating written feedback. In C. Bryan & K. Clegg (Eds.), Innovative assessment in higher education (pp. 81-91). London: Routledge.

Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1991). Applying the seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Crooks, T. J. (1988). The impact of classroom evaluation practices on students. Review of Educational Research, 58, 438-481.

Dochy, F., Segers, M., & Sluijsmans, D. (1999). The use of self-, peer- and co-assessment: a review. Studies in Higher Education, 24(3), 331-350.

Falchikov, N. (2007). The place of peers in learning and assessment. In D. Boud & N. Falchikov (Eds.), Rethinking assessment in higher education: learning for the longer term (pp. 128–143). London: Routledge.

Gibbs, G. (2006). Why assessment is changing. In C. Bryan & K. Clegg (Eds.), Innovative assessment in higher education. London: Routledge.

Gibbs, G. (2012). Implications of ‘Dimensions of quality’ in a market environment. York: Higher Education Academy.

Gibbs, G., & Simpson, C. (2004). Does your assessment support your students’ learning? London: Centre for Higher Education Practice, Open University.

Hall, K., & Burke, W. M. (2003). Making formative assessment work: effective practice in the primary classroom. London: Open University Press.

Holmes, K., & Papagoergiou, G. (2009). Good, bad and insufficient: students’ expectations, perceptions and uses of feedback. Journal of Hospitality, Leisure, Sport and Tourism Education, 8(1), 85-96.

Ioannou-Georgiou, S., & Pavlou, P. (2003). Assessing young learners. Oxford: Oxford 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.

O’Donovan, B., Price, M., & Rust, C. (2004). Know what I mean?: enhancing student understanding of assessment standards and criteria. Teaching in Higher Education, 9, 325-335.

Orsmond, P., Merry, S., & Reiling, K. (2002). The use of exemplars and formative feedback when using student derived marking criteria in peer and self-assessment. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 27(4), 309-323.

Price, M., Handley, K., Millar, J., & O’Donovan, B. (2010). Feedback: all that effort, but what is the effect? Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 35(3), 277-289.

Principles and Standards for School Mathematics [PSSM]. (2000). The Assessment Principle. Retrieved 29 March, 2013, from http://www.usi.edu/science/math/sallyk/Standards/document/chapter2/assess.htm

Ramaprasad, A. (1983). On the definition of feedback. Behavioural Science, 28, 4-13.

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

Tan, K. (2007). Conceptions of self-assessment: what is needed for long-term learning? In D. Boud & N. Falchikov (Eds.), Rethinking assessment in higher education: learning for the longer term (pp. 114-127). London: Routledge.

Taras, M. (2001). The use of tutor feedback and student self-assessment in summative assessment tasks: towards transparency for students and for tutors. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 26(6), 605-614.

Taras, M. (2002). Using assessment for learning and learning from assessment. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 27(6), 501-510.

Taras, M. (2005). Assessment – summative and formative – some theoretical reflections. British Journal of Educational Studies, 53(4), 466-478.

University of Salford. (2012a). Assessment and Feedback for Taught Awards. Retrieved 8 March, 2013, from http://www.governance.salford.ac.uk/cms/resources/uploads/File/AQA/Assessment_and_Feedback_for_Taught_Awards.pdf

University of Salford. (2012b). University assessment handbook: a guide to assessment design, delivery and feedback.