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Formative feedback to students in levels 3 & 4

by Stephen W. Draper, Department of Psychology, University of Glasgow.
Mainly written December 1999.

Contents (click to jump to a section)


This web document as a whole is a proposal for supporting an increase in quality of feedback to our honours students. If accepted, the action would be: a) a standard prompt sheet circulated e.g. by Anne Tonner with all the marking in level 3. b) A document available on the web with justifications and elaborations available when required to help prompt tutors. The latter could be of equal interest to students in directing their efforts to get useful feedback.

This document would be advisory: official department policy is represented by the course documentation ("handbook") and the class tutors. This document is intended to be helpful, but in the end it represents only my understanding, although it has been widely discussed. Comments, suggested revisions, and examples, are welcomed from both staff and students.

Draft feedback prompt sheet

(To be circulated on/with the marks sheets with all marking)

Students use feedback to improve their performance at writing essays, exam questions, critical reviews, and project reports. Feedback is helpful for this formative purpose to the extent that students can see what they could do differently. It is thus most helpful to focus attention on specific parts or issues (be diagnostic), and where possible to show explicitly what might have been done instead (be constructive).

Written feedback (e.g. email or printout) may be more useful than verbal, as students may consult it later when next doing an exercise of the same kind. It also lets the tutor send the same comment, where applicable, to more than one student without duplicating effort.


Do not neglect:

Further material on formative feedback to students: is available at

Notes on formative feedback to students


This document is about what makes useful formative feedback. It is intended to help tutors produce good quality feedback for students. Equally, however, it can help students to monitor and manage getting useful feedback for themselves: for instance by suggesting specific questions they could ask of their tutors, or of other students (asking for and focussing peer feedback), and of themselves -- often we can produce most of the feedback we need ourselves. Indeed, a crucial part of learning any subject or skill is internalising an ability to judge our own (and others') performance at it. However others' feedback is an important supplement, particularly in improving our judgement.

Formative and summative feedback

Summative feedback is about comparing finished pieces of work and judging the resulting quality. Consumer magazines produce summative judgements to help their readers choose between products (not to improve the products); and universities assess students to provide accreditation: publicly vouching for the standard attained by that student. Formative feedback, in contrast, aims to help improve the work being evaluated: whether to help improve the design of a product, help a student improve their essay writing, or help a lecturer improve their teaching. For more on formative vs. summative and other distinctions, see these notes with pointers to the literature. (The discussion there is about evaluation of computer assisted learning, but the distinctions apply to evaluation of anything, including a student essay.)

This document is about formative feedback to students: feedback whose whole purpose is to help the student improve their future work. This is in contrast to giving marks towards a degree, which is part of summative evaluation and the assessment and accreditation functions of a university, and where the marks are often witheld from the student as they are not finalised until approved by the examiners' meeting held with the external examiner. It is also in contrast to giving a mark that is passed to the student, which again is summative evaluation: this tells the student something about how well they did a piece of work without giving any information about what to do differently. Since there is almost always something that could be done better, and as learning to do better regardless of whether the initial performance was good or bad is presumably part of getting the most out of a course, providing formative feedback regardless of whether marks are also provided is an important function.

Feedback in psychology honours levels 3 and 4

Students spend two full years in levels 3 and 4, and while they receive significant amounts of formative feedback from tutors while (rather than after) working on critical reviews and projects, the amount of formative feedback they get on completed work is very limited. Currently (December 1999) it is only on one critical review and one (2?) miniproject. Even if we were to overcome university resistance and give formative feedback on three critical reviews and two miniprojects, this would be at most five pieces of formative feedback. This is all the formative feedback given on essay writing (the only mode of exam in honours) and on the assessed coursework (critical reviews and maxiproject). This seems a small amount to guide the entire two years' work in honours. Since these exercises are significantly different from the work required in levels 1 and 2, and no pre-requisite of one hour or 4,000 word essay writing is tested and insisted on for entry to honours, these exercises and formative feedback on them seem vital for the honours programme.

Elaborating on the prompts for formative feedback

Being positive: Stating what is good as well as what is not

More and more, I find this a good heuristic to use in all feedback situations. It is a good discipline for the feedback giver: it prompts them to consider explicitly both sides of the issue, and so to come to a more balanced overall assessment. It helps overcome both a bias to being negative (that can come from thinking that feedback means critiquing, and critiquing just means listing what's bad), and a bias to being polite. Furthermore it is genuinely informative for the receivers: they are sometimes quite as unaware of their good points, or of just how good the best bit of their work is, as they are of their bad points.

Thus one of the benefits of this is to allow the recipients to build on their strengths, and not to lose them in addressing their weaknesses. Another, of course, is motivational. It is depressing to hear only what you did wrong; but also this is usually an unbalanced view, and if taken too literally as meaning you did nothing right, would be quite misleading and could lead to abandoning satisfactory practices along with unsatisfactory ones. Thus, thirdly, a benefit of positive along with negative feedback is to contribute to diagnosticity: to focussing attention on (just) the parts most needing change.

Finally, simply saying "good", rather than stating specifically what is good about it, can end up suggesting the wrong message. One word of praise and a paragraph of criticism does not look as if the tutor does think it's good. One word of praise and nothing else at all can look as if the tutor doesn't think it worth thinking about really, as if it means "good for a 2.2, no hope of trying for anything more": in other words, not very good at all.

Being diagnostic and specific

To be formative, that is to help students see what and how they could have done better and so to improve their practice at this work in future, feedback needs to be diagnostic. That is, it needs to point as specifically as possible to the part or aspect or thing to be improved. (There are really two parts to being diagnostic, both separately helpful: saying what (where) the bad thing is, and saying what is bad about it (why).)

So important is this, that programming language compilers achieve most of their usefulness like this: their statements about what is wrong with a piece of code are often pretty inaccurate from the programmer's viewpoint, but nearly always they point to the exact line in the code where the problem is, and given that highly specific pointer, a programmer can pretty quickly see what needs to change. Conversely, course feedback to lecturers from the standard course feedback questionnaires widely used across the world has been shown to be largely ineffective in leading to improvements in teaching (Marsh, 1987, p.338; Marsh et al. 1975). This is probably because these questionnaires are low on diagnosticity. If I'm told, after a block of 20 lectures, that many students see me as low on a "well organised" dimension, this doesn't fill me with ideas on what to change. A different kind of feedback that told me that lectures 12 and 13 were bad because no-one knew what relationship they had to the rest of the course, and that these stood out because the others had been adequate in this respect, would make it much clearer what to focus my attempts to change on.

Similarly, telling a student just "good" or "uninspiring", gives little clue about what and how to improve. A good start at improving on this is to narrow down each piece of praise and criticism to a section or issue (i.e. a position in the text, or a separable aspect of it). A simple prompt list might thus be:

A longer one might add on: A list for a project report might include: A more abstract checklist, perhaps as a separate cross check, might include:

However considering commenting on each part and/or aspect doesn't rule out commenting on the whole as well, not least because it is frequently the omission of something not on any standard checklist that is the most important comment to make (e.g. "despite the section title, you do not seem to have a real conclusion to end with: no sense of closure or where we are now", or "you do not mention X which you could have discussed either in the introduction, or in the conclusion as a contrast to your own view").

Being constructive

As useful as narrowing down what to change is to communicate how it could be changed (for the better): "being constructive". It is sufficient that the student has a way to know this. Thus I seldom specify spelling errors, though I often indicate whether they have none, one per page, or one per line, but assume that dictionaries and spell checkers will suffice except when they probably won't ("principal and principle are different", "you can't use apostrophes correctly: look them up in Fowler's Modern English usage"). Equally, a report completely failing to follow a standard structure can be referred to a book on how to write experimental reports, and criticisms of needing more critical thought could be referred to the Critical Review document on the web for example directions. Other issues may well need explicit suggestions on how to improve.

Components of effectiveness

As discussed above, there are probably three major factors contributing to the effectiveness of formative feedback (i.e. to the likelihood of the recipient improving their performance): locating the bad thing, saying what is wrong with it, and saying how it could be fixed. Feedback that gives none of these (i.e. just signals that something is wrong somewhere in there), seems to be largely ineffective (e.g. giving a student essay a mark and nothing else, basic course feedback to lecturers). Doing even one of these three well is often enough to make a significant difference e.g. compiler error messages (good only at locations). Papers looking at the effectiveness of feedback to lecturers claim to see benefits, but they have to admit improvements are small ("...impact of the feedback was positive, but very modest", Marsh et al., 1975). However adding consultations about how to improve things along with the questionnaire feedback (which I see as being poor in diagnosticity) shows large improvements (Overall & Marsh, 1979).

It seems, then, that big gains can be had by getting beyond a general signal by adding at least one of these three factors. In principle, addressing all three seems desirable, but in many cases it is clearly unnecessary. For instance in most (but not all) cases, pointing out that a particular word is wrongly spelled without saying what the right spelling is, is sufficient. Conversely, in many (but not all) cases, suggesting a writing tactic (e.g. relating their review to the nearest published review) without saying where this should be inserted, will work.

Overall comment prompters: Why not 0% or 100% ?

When I mark an exam script, I imagine having to justify the mark to an examiners' meeting or a second marker. In particular, I ask myself: what evidence is there that it should get more than 0%? what evidence that it should get less than 100%? This kind of approach is also helpful in generating, not marks, but formative feedback because it prompts me to list positive achievements in the first case, and examples of exactly what could have been done better in the second. If I am not going to award a mark equivalent to 100% I should be able to state in detail what could have been done to earn 100%, and that should be possible for a student i.e. not require more time and effort than is supposed to be allocated for the exercise, nor reading 100 papers on the topic, nor access to knowledge not in the university library. I often find this a challenging standard, especially for pieces of work that are adequate but uninspiring; but it forces me to give more helpful feedback.

In practice, tutors have limited energy for commenting on a single piece of work, and in any case the student almost certainly has a limited capacity to deal with it. It is thus obviously sensible to impose an order of importance on the issues that arise, and focus only on the most important. (E.g. no need or time to quibble about the reference style when the piece completely fails to introduce the topic to the reader.)

A consequence of this is that the typical shape of formative feedback for a generally poor and a generally excellent piece of work can be rather different. Excellent work often leads to comments with a shape like "Very good in all respects, which leaves me with little to say. I suppose one thing you could have added, is to have discussed explicitly the nearest published review and the way in which your review differed from it ....". On the other hand a generally frightful bit of work is a challenge of priorities e.g. "The very large number of spelling errors gives the impression that you didn't care to do well in this: why not use a spelling checker? The lack of any section headings and worse, of much sign of any real structure to the writing, is more serious: either consult a book on how to write essays or at least adopt the suggestions in the CR document on the web. Your commentary on each individual paper was superficial: if you can or wish only to deal with each in this way, then you need to cover a large number of papers (at least ten). Alternatively, concentrate on a few and have a much deeper analysis of each. Your introduction made me wonder if you understood the main issue in this area: surely you at least read .... Those are by no means all the problems, but they are the most important to deal with first.".


Burchfield,R.W. (ed.) (1996) The new Fowler's modern English usage 3rd edition (Oxford: Clarendon Press)

Draper,S.W. (1999) Critical Reviews [WWW document]. URL

Marsh,H.W. (1987) "Students' evaluations of university teaching: Research findings, methodological issues, and directions for future research" International journal of educational research vol.11 no.3 pp.253-388

Marsh,H.W., Fleiner,H. & Thomas,C.S. (1975) "Validity and usefulness of student evaluations of instructional quality" Journal of educational psychology vol.67 pp.833-839

Overall,J.U. & Marsh,H.W. (1979) "Midterm feedback from students: Its relationship to instructional improvement and students' cognitive and affective outcomes" Journal of educational psychology vol.71 pp.856-865

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