Revolutions in Biomedicine summer schools students studying in class

What is good feedback?

This question is difficult to answer as what feedback considered to be useful and of good quality might vary from student to student. Having said that, there are some common principles that should be reflected in feedback. Before we look at them it’s good to think of the difference between feedback and feed forward. Feedback provides students with information or a dialogue around their current performance. As discussed in the introduction, this dialogue can be between the student and the teacher, the peers but also the student herself (via the form of self assessment). The concept of feed forward is also extremely important for student learning as it looks ahead to future assignments, i.e. offers advice that can be used to improve future performance.

The principles below are widely referred to within the sector as those most accurately reflecting what good feedback is. They were produced as a result of HEA research by Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick (2004) and are widely used across the sector to benchmark good practice. They focus around creating effective conditions around feedback. They also embody the idea of feedback as a dialogue. Each principle contains some practical examples of how they can be embedded into your feedback delivery.


Provide students with:

  • written statements of the assessment criteria and/or standards that define different levels of achievement;
  • examples of standards/levels of work;
  • carefully constructed criteria sheets;
  • opportunities to discuss and reflect upon criteria and standards in class (before an assignment);
  • opportunities to mark or comment on other students’ work;
  • opportunities to devise or negotiate their own assessment criteria.

Engage students to:

  • identify criteria and standards that will apply to their work;
  • make judgements on how their own work relates to these standards;
  • make judgments on each other’s work;
  • regularly reflect on criteria and standards;
  • request the types of feedback they want;
  • self-assess work before submitting it for marking;
  • reflect on past work and feedback in a portfolio;
  • reflect on past progress before planning future actions and milestones.

Provide feedback information that is:

  • timely, corrective, constructive and prioritised;
  • about future actions (feed forward);
  • limited in quantity (a usable amount);
  • online and automated - available anywhere, anytime and repeatedly.


  • regular, low-stakes formative assessments with feedback on personal progress (i.e. ipsative, not their ranking in the class);
  • feedback on the performance (not the student as a person);
  • marks only after students have responded to feedback comments;
  • time for students to resubmit selected assignments – to influence their expectations of learning and assessment;
  • automated assessment (self-tests) with feedback;
  • opportunities for students to submit drafts and receive feedback before making final submissions.


  • feedback on work in progress;
  • more opportunities for students to resubmit assignments;
  • introduce two-stage assignments where feedback on stage one helps improve stage two;
  • demonstrations of the strategies you want students to follow – to reduce the gap between actual and expected standards of performance (e.g. by showing students how to set about structuring an essay, writing an abstract, analysing data, drafting a research proposal);
  • action points to help students monitor and manage their assignments;
  • opportunities for students to work in groups and to identify their own action points in class after they have received feedback (i.e. integrate feedback into the teaching and learning process – involve students in generation and use of feedback).

Gather data by a variety of methods:

  • collect data regularly on student progress (for instance, from assessments, questions in class, student behaviour/performances);
  • identify student difficulties with the subject matter or study methods;
  • use frequent tests, especially diagnostic tests, to generate cumulative information about students’ knowledge and skills;
  • promote students’ (metacognitive) thinking about their own learning, for example: set questions at the beginning of a session to be answered by students at the end:
      -  What was the most important argument in this lecture?
      -  What question remains uppermost in your mind at the end of this session?
  • play back to students their answers to these questions in the following teaching session;
  • ask students to request the feedback they would like when they submit an assignment (e.g. on a feedback proforma);
  • ask students to identify the difficulties they encountered with an assignment;
  • encourage students to identify a ’question worth asking’ that they would like to explore for a short time in the next tutorial.

How can using different marking techniques move students on in their learning?

Below are examples of some of feedback techniques that you might want to use when providing feedback to your students.

How can using different marking techniques move students on in their learning?

No marks

It is perhaps no real surprise that when students have a piece of work returned to them the only thing that they focus on is the mark. Often teachers have spent significant time writing detailed comments, which students spend no time reading because they focus entirely on the summative assessment. If you want them to take any notice of what you have written the solution is not to give them the mark until the comments have been read, digested and discussed. At this point the mark can be revealed.


Students are excellent strategic learners; they look for cues for what they need to know to pass their exams. This means that they often miss the deeper learning opportunities. When marking a piece of work rather than just telling students what they did wrong and how to improve; pose it as a question rather than an instruction. For example:

You suggest that there is a connection between X and Y, what evidence can you provide for this connection?

More importantly ensure that students act on this question. Tell them that you expect them to have answered that question at your next teaching opportunity.

The two comment rule

One way to minimise your marking load is to really focus on the two most significant comments that you need to make to help students move on. There is always plenty that could be commented on when a student submits a piece of work but much of it is ignored, so less is often more. Make one comment saying what was done well (so that you reinforce what you want them to repeat) and one comment for improvement. Remember do not comment on what was done badly; instead write a comment stating how to improve. For example: The level of detail you provide in your methodology is exemplary. Ensure that you reference any evidence you refer to.


This method is taken from management but is also widely applied when giving academic feedback. It allows you to focus your feedback on the three aspects that are important for student learning in the future. Essentially in your feedback you address the three questions:

  1. What should a student stop doing?
  2. What should a student start doing?
  3. What should a student continue doing?

Statement banks

You may find that you are writing the same comments over and over again, which can feel wasteful of your time. Try creating a statement bank in which you list all of these commonly written comments. You can then use these comments interchangeably on a students’ piece of work, either electronically (or on sticky labels). This is not ‘cheating’, in fact often you are able to say more than you would have time to write by hand or type. It is time consuming at the start but will save a lot of time in the long run. Make sure that your comments are detailed and specifically identify what steps a student needs to take to move on. If the comments are detailed, useful and you have explained your rationale to students, they will not feel ‘cheated’.

Cover sheets

Cover sheets are commonly used to make formative comments to students and their success is really very much dependent on how well written they are. You can combine a number of the strategies outlined here on the coversheet. For example, using the two comment rule from a statement bank, leave a gap for the mark and pose a question that needs to be addressed in order to make improvements. Also leave spaces for the students to do some self-assessment and/or peer assessment. For example, they might need to reflect on the best aspects of their work and where they know they need to make improvements, set themselves targets for a second draft etc.



Nicol, D. and Macfarlane-Dick, D. (2004) "Rethinking Formative Assessment in HE: a theoretical model and seven principles of good feedback practice"