Formative Feedback Essays


Formative feedback: Feedback for learning | Formative feedback and course design | Reflecting on feedback | Principles of Feedback | Types of feedback | Support for staff around giving effective feedback | Sustainable feedback | Closing the feedback loop | In Practice | Resources

Feedback is an essential element of the learning process. In its many forms, feedback allows students to reflect on their learning; clarifies areas where students can improve; and provides students the opportunity to self-assess their skills and capabilities. It can be provided individually or to groups, not only by academic staff but by self-assessment, fellow students and Personal and Academic Support Tutors.

The University’s new Principles of Feedback define feedback as follows:
Feedback exists in any process, activity or information that enhances learning by providing students with the opportunity to reflect on their current or recent level of attainment. It can be provided individually or to groups. It can take many forms. It is responsive to the developmental expectations of particular programmes and disciplines. Detailed opportunities for the receipt of feedback by students will therefore vary across the University, and at different stages of students’ programmes.

Formative feedback: Feedback for learning

As feedback is designed to enhance student learning, it is insufficient to only provide feedback at the end of the module that simply tells students where they’ve gone wrong. To be effective, feedback needs to be a two-way dialogue which helps motivate students – although not all students need the same type of feedback. Students need ongoing formal and informal feedback on their work (both assessed and non-assessed) throughout each module, along with support on how to use it. It is important to make sure students are aware that you are giving them feedback. This should be fairly clear when using written feedback, but remember formative feedback may not always be written down.

Students also need the opportunity to give teachers feedback on what they have learned so you know your teaching is helping them to achieve the intended learning outcomes for your course and can adapt your teaching where necessary (for example spending more time on a particular theory if students are struggling to understand it). Feedback should therefore be a continuous process of conversation and reflection.

This is where formative feedback comes in. Formative feedback is feedback 'for' learning. It is often provided to students during the course of a module so they are able to use it to improve the way they learn and enhance their future academic performance. It can also form part of the feedback at the end of module, where it 'feeds forward' to future modules. Providing shorter bursts of formative feedback, for example in response to mini-tasks, also helps to develop a continuous conversation between students and academics that supports students to become reflective learners.

Summative feedback is 'feedback on learning'. It commonly comments on what was done well or badly in work already done and is often module-specific.

Feedback and course design

Feedback needs to be tied in with wider course design and formative assessment structures to ensure that the course is structured in a way that allows students to reflect on and use the feedback they receive. There is no point in returning feedback within three weeks for example if students are expected to submit another similar assessment within two weeks. Thinking about feedback when designing your module (and of course, in the context of your other departmental modules) will ensure that it is useful for students and sustainable for academics.

Feedforward highlights those aspects of feedback which particularly point towards what to do next, rather than looking backwards at what has (or has not) already been achieved by students. Summative assessment tends to take place at the end of a module, but this does not mean that it cannot be accompanied by formative as well as summative feedback to enhance learning. Feedforward can encourage students to think about how they might use their learning from their summative assessment in their next module, and will therefore also help them to consider the course as a coherent whole.

A student view of feedback

"After the feedback I had more confidence and progressed further knowing what I was doing well/badly."
"I really appreciate feedback that gives me different things to try and experiment with, rather than being told what to do!"

(Students quoted in The Feedback Handbook, School of Architecture)

Reflecting on feedback

Feedback is most useful when students are given the chance to reflect on it and think about changes they can make as a result of the comments. This will help them to develop the skills of independent and reflective learning that are part of the Sheffield Graduate attributes. It is important to remember that many students have had little experience of the process of reflection, so will need support in doing this, and even those who have done this before may be receiving different types of feedback that they are less familiar with.
Personal tutors can play a key role in providing guidance here. The added advantage is that the personal tutor can support the student to reflect holistically on all of the feedback they have received within a module/course, rather than being limited to one assessment. Personal tutors should therefore work with students during their tutoring sessions to explore feedback from across the course, highlight what the student is doing well, and identify what they can do to improve as a result of the comments.

Principles of Feedback

The University's Principles of Feedback outline six key principles around feedback for staff and students:

  1. Student engagement with feedback is promoted
  2. Feedback is for learning
  3. Feedback is clearly communicated to students
  4. Feedback is timely
  5. Feedback is consistently delivered
  6. Feedback quality is maintained

Looking at these principles, it is clear that there are responsibilities for both students and staff around ensuring effective feedback. Our Commitment sets out the responsibilities of both staff and students in terms of giving, receiving and using feedback. Part of the challenge in providing feedback is that students and academics may not always understand it in the same way. This is particularly evident in the transition from the secondary to postsecondary environment. Students may have received, for example, comments on a draft essay in its entirety at school as opposed to feedback aimed at developing a more independent learner at the university level, which would focus specifically on an essay plan.

Worth considering: You may want to include a section on what feedback to expect when discussing learning and teaching in pre-arrival and induction materials.

Engaging students in the feedback process can be helped by providing students with consistent and clear information on what feedback is, when they will receive it, what type they can expect and how they can use it to reflect on their learning and improve performance. It will also help students to understand their own responsibilities and develop techniques around using feedback to further their learning. By clarifying expectations, this may help address general concerns raised in the National Student Survey regarding dissatisfaction with the speed and quality of feedback at universities.

Departmental processes should also support this engagement in providing and using feedback to ensure consistent quality of feedback across different modules and courses. Senior staff have a role in promoting the importance of feedback in their departments, for example through induction, and through the Annual Reflection process.

Feedback should be accessible, clear, legible, and unambiguous. It is important to make sure that your feedback is fair and honest, and not overly positive or negative. Remember to include positive feedback on points to continue, as well as those to improve.

Students say:
“If you get feedback from one project to the next…you know whether to try harder and if you need to do more or change the way you have been working.”
1st Year Student, The Feedback Handbook, School of Architecture

Types of feedback

The range of feedback includes:

  • one-to-one individual feedback
  • generic feedback
  • peer feedback
  • informal feedback
  • self-evaluation to submit along with the assessment

Tutors and peers can use a variety of methods to deliver these types of feedback:

  • written feedback (eg typed comments sheet for an essay)
  • annotation of a text (ie Grademark on Turnitin)
  • oral feedback (either in discussion with the student or as a recorded audio podcast)
  • seminar discussion
  • conversation with research supervisor

Feedback from students, especially through the National Student Survey, shows a strong desire for online feedback. Although some departments have moved to online submission for assessments, fewer have adopted online feedback techniques. There is a clear imperative for more departments to move to online feedback – at its most basic level (for example through Grademark) it reduces the problem of illegible handwriting. It also makes it easier for students to collect feedback. For more information, see “Use of technology for assessment and feedback”.

Worth considering: Any feedback that you give, whether formal or informal, should not be personal. A good way to ensure this in formal assessment is to use the marking criteria as a framework for providing feedback. Similarly, if you have kept your feedback clear, concise and objective you should not take any emotional reaction from your students to the feedback you give as a personal slight on yourself.

Support for staff around giving effective feedback

Further information and guidance about giving effective feedback, including the use of the ‘feedback sandwich’ can be found here.

The Professional Development Team can provide support around issues such as curriculum design, moderation and assessment criteria for your department or faculty around assessment and feedback if this has been identified as a key issue. The Team also provide support for new academics through the Certificate in Learning and Teaching (CiLT) and for postgraduate students involved in assessment and feedback through the session on the Sheffield Teaching Assistant (STA).

You might also be interested in the Supporting the Supporters session on assessment and feedback.

Departments also have a role in providing support for new staff and when they make any changes to feedback processes.

You may also want to point students towards the study skills workshops provided by 301 or similar sessions run by your department.

Sustainable feedback

One of the major concerns from academics is around the sustainability of delivering feedback within three weeks while maintaining the quality of that feedback. It is therefore important to consider techniques to make the feedback process more efficient while still maintaining its usefulness to students and feasibility for staff:

  • online feedback is a very efficient form of feedback, as it enables you to use marking spreadsheets with standard comments that can be copied into your feedback form and then tailored to the specific assignment if necessary. Developing a bank of comments (for example in Turnitin) could also be used to support the moderation process
  •  generic feedback is particularly effective, especially if a number of assignments from a group of students have similar errors in them. This can be delivered to students as part of group tutorials (where you can also give them advice for how to improve), or posted online in MOLE, and saves having to repeat the same comment several times
  • there are a number of advantages to audio feedback – it is much easier to sound enthusiastic and encouraging when giving audio feedback, students can listen again to the feedback, and it can help to reduce the amount of marking that needs to be done in front of the computer.

Closing the feedback loop

In addition to feedback for students, academic staff can use student evaluations of their modules as a means of assessment and feedback. This provides the opportunity to look at what students have said about the module and allow you to modify it so that learning outcomes are more explicit in response to evaluation. This is a way of closing the feedback loop as it shows how you are acting on the feedback from modules to improve teaching.

Further information about how you might approach this can be found in the Student Evaluation of Modules section in the Toolkit.


Example:School of Architecture Feedback Handbook

In 2012, the School of Architecture developed The Feedback Handbook. In creating the Handbook, the School recognises that having the resource does not necessarily solve all the problems; good feedback practice still has to be applied by all staff for improvements to be seen.

This is a useful resource for other departments to adapt to their purposes. For anyone wishing to develop a similar resource, Ian Hicklin, Director of Teaching and Learning, suggests:

  • use student cohorts as resource for building content, identifying issues, what works and what doesn't;
  • make sure the student voice is represented in the resource;
  • think about the questions that arise regarding feedback and try to answer them in the Handbook;
  • consider how it might be used early on;
  • don't underestimate the time commitment.

Example:Detailed programme of assessment and feedback

Dr Richard Rowe, Department of Psychology

To address student concerns regarding timeliness of feedback, the Department of Psychology developed a document for students detailing the programme of assessment and feedback provided by all modules. The Department also clarified which pieces of feedback were relevant to future assignments.

Example: Feedback reminder notices

The Department of Civil and Structural Engineering's monitoring process ensures the return of feedback within a three-week period. Staff who have not returned feedback after two weeks receive a reminder. If needed, the Head of Department will follow up if feedback has not been returned after three weeks.

Example:Outline of feedback and how to use it

The Department of Philosophy outlines the types of feedback available at various levels throughout the academic programme. It also provides suggestions on how to use the feedback.


Example:Using recorded audio to give student feedback (Learning and Teaching Technology Talk) Duration: (3:47)

Dr Verity Brack, The Institute for Lifelong Learning, School of Education, describes how she records verbal feedback using a portable digital voice recorder, which she returns to her students as an audio file. This approach offers several advantages:

  • more detailed feedback
  • rapid response
  • easier to achieve
  • saves time (no typing)

Example: Developing research-based feedback policies and practices that are valid in a specific departmental context

Dr Robert McKay, Senate Award Fellow, School of English Language, Literature and Linguistics

A year-long research project on feedback was undertaken by the School of English Language, Literature and Linguistics, involving many interviews and qualitative analysis of what staff aim to achieve with feedback and how well this matched with students' understandings and actions in response to feedback. On the basis of this project, a set of feedback guidelines and a new design for the feedback comment sheet were produced to help staff produce feedback that was accessible to students and effective.

Example: Making sure students recognise when they are receiving feedback

One of the key challenges faced by the Department of Landscape is in students recognising that they are receiving formative feedback throughout a module, in the form of tutorials and interim and final project reviews. The department is experimenting with a system whereby students are required to keep a personal record (in the format of a journal) of their formative feedback and to use this to guide their learning and discussions at subsequent tutorials. Staff members are also encouraged to review this record as part of the overall summative assessment. This approach has significant benefits in terms of encouraging students to engage more directly with their own learning experience and to be more reflective and actively engaged in the feedback that they are receiving.

Example: Raising student awareness of feedback

The Department of Materials Science and Engineering has been taking action to raise students’ awareness of the feedback they receive, e.g. tutors flag to students when they are giving them feedback in tutorials, there are feedback cover sheets on assignments, and notices in the general office highlight where to collect feedback. In addition, a significant number of modules now have online formative assessment exercises which give the students immediate feedback and results. Feedback on practicals is currently given via MOLE for cross-faculty practicals. This practise will be incorporated into departmental practicals (where applicable) from next academic year. This is particularly useful where teaching large numbers of students.


Feedback for project level students: Ensuring all students get good feedback (Click on Session 9 for recording - second presentation of two).

Presentation by Dr Brad Wynne, Dr Clair Hinchcliffe and Dr Plato Kapranos (Department of Materials Science and Engineering) at the Learning and Teaching Conference, 2013.

 Innovative feedback strategies and approaches to clinical feedback in clinical practice - Click 23f in the “Download” box (PDF)

Master Class presentation by Dr Helen Griffiths (Senate Award Fellow, Orthoptics) and Ms Margaret Freeman (Human Communication Sciences) at the 6th Annual Learning and Teaching Conference 2012

Audio recording of Masterclass - Duration: (42.57)

 Evaluating and improving student achievement based on pre-set criteria - Click 24 in the “Downloads” box

 The Higher Education Academy provides links to a variety of feedback resources.

 Enhancing student engagement with feedback - best practice guides, Sheffield Hallam University

In a 2013 survey from English Journal, participating students indicated that writing improvement suggestions on their work during the development stage of writing was more important than constructive feedback after the assignment had already been turned in. Eighty percent of students were most interested in their final grade after they had already submitted their work. When asked about feedback during the writing process, however, a staggering ninety-two percent of students said that “edits to improve writing” would be the most useful type of feedback—with just four percent of students interested in the potential grade their draft would receive.

What does this mean for teachers? If the survey is an accurate representation of the student population as a whole, the time teachers spend painstakingly grading and providing thoughtful feedback to students on their final drafts isn’t as useful as they thought. Constructive feedback is critical to the learning process but is most effective when provided to students when they’re able to incorporate that feedback. Sure, your students might remember your suggestions on their next assignment, but wouldn’t they learn more if they had access to that insight during the writing process?

This is where formative assessment comes in: A powerful tool that helps educators direct their time and resources into what matters most for their students. It’s fluid and flexible; responsive, rather than rigid. By placing as much emphasis on formative assessment as summative, teachers are better equipped to establish a curriculum that meets the individual needs of their students. Check out some of our suggestions for how you can incorporate formative assessment in your writing classes.

Turn Your Students into Essay Graders

Have your students critique and provide a grade for an essay at the start of a semester or the school year. Choose a piece that has a variety of issues. For example grammar, structure, cohesion etc. Ask students to provide detailed comments on where the essay went wrong, and see if students can organize these comments by the types of mistakes that were made. Moreover, have them identify important elements like the thesis, topic sentences, in-text citations, use of evidence, and analysis etc. By checking their knowledge of essay essentials you can get a pulse on what components of a successful essay they can identify, and what gaps need to be closed throughout the year/semester. If you do this before engaging in peer review, you can also demonstrate feedback and critique standards expected of them. 

Create a Structured Peer Review Process

Peer review allows students to learn through teaching. By having students share and correct peer papers, writing instructors can gain insight into where students are struggling to identify common errors—in their classmates’ work, and in their own work. Have students submit essays and devise a system to distribute them anonymously. (This will help alleviate some of the stress or embarrassment some students may feel in sharing their work.) For a truly formative experience, simply ask students to improve the paper as much as possible—refrain from passing out a rubric or sharing common mistakes. This way, you’ll be able to pinpoint what types of writing errors your students are failing to identify from square one. You can also try digital peer review.

Do Simple Checks

Formative assessment doesn’t have to take the form of an “assignment”—it can be as simple as checking in with students after a lesson. Consider using exit slips for a quick way to assess student learning. Develop comprehensive questions based on the lesson’s learning objectives, and give students five minutes at the end of class to write a short answer. By looking at the responses as a group, you’ll be able to get an idea of how many students grasped the objectives.

Mistakes vs. Errors

Traditional assessment involves providing feedback and an appropriate grade—and identifying classwide information gaps in order to improve lesson delivery. By reframing your assessment process to identify errors, rather than mistakes, you can get a better grasp of where students are struggling. It's one thing to say “this is incorrect,” and another to say “this is how this is incorrect.” Check out this list of different types of writing errors to guide your assessment strategy:

  • Factual errors focus on incorrect information.
  • Procedural errors involve problems with applying routines, rules, or procedures.
  • Transformation errors occur when students are asked to apply what they have been taught to a novel situation.
  • Misconceptions are inaccurate beliefs that are clung to despite instruction.

WriteLab & Formative Assessment

WriteLab helps teachers implement formative assessments in their classroom by providing student data on the final product and the process. While WriteLab helps students improve their writing before submitting it, it also makes student progress visible. With WriteLab’s feedback, a student’s final draft may be free of many of its original mistakes, but teachers still have access to the suggestions the program made before submittal.  WriteLab gives your students the kind of assessment they really want—helpful suggestions during their writing process. Learn more about how WriteLab works. 

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