David Carless

  • Developing sustainable feedback

    Dr David Carless, University of Hong Kong

    Research seminar

    Themes: assessment methods

    Monday 7 September 2009, 15.45 - 16.45 in room G65

    The provision of effective feedback to students has been a challenge for a number of years. Student surveys have repeatedly indicated that feedback is one of the aspects of the student experience that is rated the least highly. The research base also indicates problems with feedback: difficult to interpret, insufficiently timely or lacking specific advice to improve.

    This paper suggests that the concept of feedback is in need of some rethinking. For example, if we adopt a rather one-way transmissional view of feedback, in other words tutors simply making comments on completed student assignments, then many of the limitations sketched above are likely to reoccur. The presentation seeks to build on increasing interest in the area of feedback and some promising recent developments, for example, a model of feedback and self-regulated learning (Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2006); and a dialogic model of feedback (Beaumont et al. 2008). Most pertinent is Hounsell’s (2007) chapter on sustainable feedback which addresses three interwoven strands: potential impact of feedback; enhancing the student role in feedback; and integrating guidance and feedback. For the purposes of this paper, I define sustainable feedback as that which can support and inform the student on the current task whilst in turn developing the ability to self-regulate performance on future tasks.

    Whilst this presentation of work in progress is mainly at a conceptual level, it also uses data from an ongoing research project to illustrate some of the issues. The Student Assessment and Feedback Enhancement (SAFE) project involves in-depth interviews with award-winning university teachers about their feedback practices; and focus group interviews with students from ten disciplines. A notable finding from interviews with the teachers is the relative labour-intensiveness of their feedback practices (e.g. individual or small group tutorials) which are unlikely to be transferable to more than a minority of other staff.

    Following from this, I argue that feedback needs to be seen within the wider ambit of assessment regimes. Boud’s (2000) notion of sustainable assessment is used to sketch how feedback might be profitably integrated with other strategies for reconfiguring assessment. I outline some key dimensions of sustainable feedback, highlighting the pivotal role of student self-regulation in the improvement of student learning. It is suggested that the development of sustainable feedback depends on a number of key factors: student engagement; staff capacity; and institutional commitment. I share some thoughts on how an agenda for sustainable feedback might be developed, the myriad challenges arising and some possible ways forward.


    • Beaumont, C., O’Doherty, M. & Shannon, L. (2008) Staff and student perceptions of feedback quality in the context of widening participation. Higher Education Academy Report.
    • Boud, D. (2000) Sustainable assessment: rethinking assessment for the learning society, Studies in continuing education, 22(2), 151-167.
    • Hounsell, D. (2007) Towards more sustainable feedback to students. In Boud, D. & Falchikov, N. (eds.) Rethinking assessment in higher education. London: Routledge.
    • Nicol, D. & Macfarlane-Dick, D. (2006) Formative assessment and self-regulated learning, Studies in Higher Education, 31(2), 199-218.