Stephen Swithenby

  • Refocusing feedback

    Convenor: Stephen Swithenby, Open University


    Themes: course and programme design, learning and teaching methods, assessment, Implementing and managing change and innovation

    • Overview
    • Paper 1: Refocusing written feedback
    • Paper 2: Using assessment within course structure to drive student engagement with the learning process
    • Paper 3: Effective feedback through overt use of criteria and target setting
    • References


    This paper builds on previous ISL discussions of the influence of assessment on learning and the growing understanding of the crucial role that is played by perceptions and practice of feedback. The central role of feedback is widely acknowledged not only in the literature (see, for example, Gibbs and Simpson, 2005) but also in the time and energy spent in providing it. However, practice has not always been informed by a clear understanding of how feedback can engage students and impact on learning.

    The symposium will provide an introduction to theoretical and empirical notions about the ways in which feedback can promote learning and will then analyse common problems encountered in practice; the demands of time, the focus on marks, modularity etc. It will be argued that both students and staff tend to focus on feedback as a commentary on past achievement rather than as a mechanism for direction of future learning. These tendencies are deeply ingrained and we will comment on the methods by which a refocusing of feedback can be achieved. This will be done through studies carried out at three UK universities – Sheffield Hallam University SHU, the Open University OU, and Nottingham Trent University NTU - within the scope of UK Government funded teaching and learning projects.

    A study by Evelyn Brown and Chris Glover raises awareness of the role of written feedback. Using a code previously reported at ISL 2004, they have demonstrated that the large majority of such feedback at the OU and SHU is focused on justifying marks and is of limited value in guiding future learning. They highlight the gap in discourse between teacher and learner. There are implications for the design of assignments that invite more effective feedback and the briefing of tutors about giving feedback.

    A study by John Mills, Chris Glover and Valda Stevens looks at the impact of course and assessment design in providing the opportunity for effective feedback. It describes reforms undertaken at the OU and SHU in response to detailed theoretically-referenced diagnosis of existing assessment practice. They show how this has led to the introduction of peer assessment at SHU and modified feedback formats at the OU. These changes are evaluated. This paper provides evidence of how practice reform can be assisted by a robust diagnostic process.

    A study by Colin Hughes describes a different type of reform. In this case the focus is on being explicit about the linkage between performance and the grades achieved. Students are engaged in a dialogue about their work which makes clearer the changes they need to make to improve their performance. This reform exploits the focus on marks to drive future action and achievement. (To be refined)

    Paper 1: Refocusing written feedback

    Evelyn Brown, Open University and Chris Glover, Sheffield Hallam University

    Assessment has the potential to support students’ learning if it is accompanied by feedback that enables students to enhance their future understanding and achievement, i.e. if it feeds forward. Good feedback should help to clarify what good performance is, encourage positive motivational beliefs and self-esteem, and provide students with opportunities to close the gap between their own performance and the desired performance (Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2004; Sadler, 1989). It is more likely to be effective in enabling students to close the performance gap if it relates appropriately to a shared understanding between students and their assessors of the assessment criteria and is sufficiently detailed for students to be able to be able to understand it and how to use it (Gibbs & Simpson, 2005).

    Student surveys at Sheffield Hallam University (SHU) and the Open University (OU) suggest that students regard individualised feedback on their work to be more valuable than generic feedback and that they value written feedback more highly than oral feedback. Such comments were made in the context of general satisfaction with the feedback.

    However, and is spite of these generally favourable attitudes, there was very limited evidence that science students at the OU and SHU engaged fully with the written feedback provided. In response to this worrying data, the formative potential of the written feedback on assignments on several courses was studied by analysing the type and depth of the feedback using a coding system described previously (Brown, Gibbs & Glover, 2003). The outcomes of the analysis have been used to identify areas where written feedback practice could be improved with the potential for more effective learning.

    A disproportionately large amount of the feedback appeared to serve mainly to justify the students’ grades. Although it clarified what good performance was in relation to the students’ work, there was limited potential to feed forward to future work. Students were usually provided with information on how to close the performance gap, but explanatory detail was often lacking. It was simply assumed that students would understand the relevance of the comments and know how to use them. In some instances a shared understanding between the students and their assessors of the assessment criteria appeared to be lacking. In other instances the students received messages that were enigmatic or which obfuscated the key criteria against which students were being assessed. The data also suggested that the depth and volume of feedback received bore no relationship to the quality of students’ work. The data to support these conclusions will be presented.

    An informed understanding of the various and distinct roles of written feedback and the overt and hidden messages that it is giving can enable teachers to improve their practice. They are able to refocus the design of assessment tasks in order to enhance the formative potential of students’ assessment, and having done so, can refocus the type of feedback they provide.

    Paper 2: Using assessment within course structure to drive student engagement with the learning process

    John Mills and Chris Glover (Sheffield Hallam University) and Valda Stevens (Open University)

    There is an increasing awareness at institutional and policy level that assessment can be used not only for the measurement of student learning but also as a key factor in influencing the overall student learning experience. Learning outcomes, key skills and employability must all be considered in assessment design. This has prompted a reappraisal and redesign of assessment practice. The paper presents the results of two studies with students on science modules at two universities. These have resulted in refocused assessment practice with increased student involvement in assessment, and a redesign of the feedback provided to students. Both are intended to add value to the learning experience.

    At Sheffield Hallam University a second year undergraduate (level 5) module Microbiology 2, was rewritten to involve students in peer assessment of the four major case studies. Students should benefit from this enhanced engagement in the learning process. Working in groups, they will understand better their own strengths and weaknesses, receive immediate feedback, have the opportunity to debate with their peers, and gain an insight into the assessment process so that they can improve their marks in the future. The process offers efficiency gains as the number of staff required to run the case studies reduces from four to one and staff marking of the reports generated is eliminated. Data on the evaluation of this reform and information on the ways in which the process was carried out will be reported.

    At the Open University the use that students make of written feedback has been examined and changes made to the assessment processes associated with the feedback. The aim has been to provide feedback that has a greater formative value and feeds forward to students' future work. Data will be provided on three such reforms. In order to encourage students to engage in reading and to respond to guidance in the development of appropriate skills, the first formative assignment of the level 4 module Discovering Science has been amended so that all feedback is through tutor comments and no numerical score is given. In the level 5 module Biology, Uniformity and Diversity student notes are provided for each student, in addition to comments on the script and an overall summary of the tutor marked assignment. These student notes have been enhanced to encourage students to focus on learning rather than on marks through an overt linkage between the skills required in the present work and the demands of future assignments and the examination. The level 5 module The Physical World and level 6 module The Energetic Universe have introduced a new method of summarising student performance that indicates explicitly and pointedly strengths, areas for improvement and suggestions for the future. Here again the aim is to refocus students so that they engage more effectively with the feedback. The evaluation of these reforms will be presented

    These changes to assessment practice and the diagnostic processes that have generated then are encouraging staff to refocus their approach to assessment so that it becomes a more effective means of guiding the learning process.

    Paper 3: Effective feedback through overt use of criteria and target setting

    Colin Hughes (Nottingham Trent University)

    Academic staff spend an enormous amount of time giving feedback and there is evidence that the vast majority of students read it, or at least some of it. But, do they understand it? Do they know how the mark and the feedback relate to the generic grade criteria? Did they understand the task-specific criteria? But perhaps most importantly of all are they able to make effective use of the feedback.

    The EFEL (Effective Feedback, Enhanced Learning) project at Nottingham Trent University and De Montfort University has worked on a number of strategies to help students better understand the assessment and learning process. For example, workshops have been organised to clarify the meaning of generic grade criteria and materials written to exemplify various grades or levels of achievement when writing scientific reports. There has also been a great deal of effort made to ensure that staff make the assessment criteria clear on individual tasks, through production of task-specific assessment sheets (TSASs) and by provision of mark allocations for tasks at the point of setting. These strategies have made the assessment process more open for both students and staff.

    The mechanisms that staff use to give feedback to students include comments in the margins, summary comments and the use of specific forms related to the task-specific criteria. All staff give feedback but there is evidence that the quality varies. Students interact with this feedback to different extents. Our research indicates that all of them take note of the mark, the vast majority read the summary comments or feedback on assessment forms, while a sizeable majority also read comments on scripts.

    The EFEL project has been empowering students to use their improved knowledge of generic and task-specific criteria to interact with the feedback they receive and to set themselves targets for future tasks. The results of this initiative within modules and across modules and the steps in enabling it to happen effectively will be introduced and discussed.


    • Brown, E, Gibbs, G and Glover, C (2003) Evaluating tools for investigating the impact of assessment regimes on student learning. BEE-j Volume 2 (November). Available on
    • Gibbs, G and Simpson, C (2005) Does your assessment support your students’ learning?Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 1 (1), in press.
    • Nicol, D and Macfarlane-Dick, D (2004) Rethinking formative assessment in HE: a theoretical model and seven principles of good feedback practice. In: Juwah, C, Macfarlane-Dick, D, Matthew, R, Nicol, D, Ross, D and Smith, B, Enhancing Student Learning through Effective Feedback, Higher Education Academy Generic Centre, June 2004. Available at
    • Sadler, DR (1989) Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems.Instructional Science, 18, pp. 119-144.