Learning Innovation Unit, Dublin City University

Learning Innovation Unit

Teaching Reflections

Giving Feedback – a Valuable and Necessary Process

By Professor Richard O’Kennedy, Vice President for Learning Innovation


Most students entering University are coming from a system that is highly controlled.  They generally receive very regular homework and the corrected material is given back with comments that allow them to improve their performance.  The exam system is highly structured and there are very many ways whereby they can get information on past exam papers, marking schemes, sample questions and answers.

On entering University they now have to take personal control of many aspects of their life and study.  For some students this is very daunting and a number fail to do so effectively.  Some individuals work very well in a less structured environment - in fact they thrive in it.  However, for some the transition is difficult and can take time.

Feedback is therefore essential in order to help these students come to terms with their new learning environment.  It can help them to realise that they now must think for themselves, that they are personally responsible for their study and learning and that they must come to terms with new assessment approaches.  Often this is not easy: exams such as the Leaving Certificate work to a highly defined curriculum where prediction of questions, ‘learning off’ material for expected questions, box filling and re-gurgitation are part of the established processes and can be exploited to get good results.

So what should feedback give to the students and how can it be effectively delivered? Table I lists some of the essential characteristics of good feedback, whereas Table II outlines the characteristic features of poor feedback.  However, achieving good feedback practice can be a major hurdle given the fact that classes are often very large, teaching, research and academic loads are high, and, increasingly, students appear to be less well prepared for the university environment. 

Delivering feedback

Initially the focus should be to acknowledge elements that are positive or good in the assignment.  It is then useful to highlight areas of significant weakness where major misapprehensions are demonstrated or errors were made.  Suggestions on how these may be remedied should be included.  Key areas that need improvement should then be given.  If possible references or other sources (books, papers, theses etc) should be given for consultation.  However, where there are major problems a meeting can be very valuable as there is no substitute from discussion as a method of giving feedback and clarifying issues of misunderstanding.  Indeed, such discussions can also lead to a far better understanding by the student of what is actually required and offers the opportunity to identify where the major problems are in terms of lack of knowledge, inconsistencies, the level/standard of work necessary, difficulties with writing, language problems, or other additional factors impinging on the generation of high quality work.  The latter may be far beyond the specific subject area but, nevertheless, are key in relation to the students overall performance and well-being.

Frequently it is said that with large classes and heavy workloads feedback may be difficult or impossible to give.  These are major problems, but I would suggest that there are several approaches that could be used to overcome them.  Nowadays students are very well acquainted with computer-based testing systems.  They can go ‘on-line’ and check their knowledge in a host of areas.  This approach is regularly used for test questions for the Leaving Certificate, for the driver theory test, for the Health Professions Admission Test (HPAT) and many other tests.  The overall format involves a bank of questions providing multiple choice solutions covering the subject area.  Students log on and can do the test.  Good sites provide rapid results and clearly explain why the correct answer was valid.  Such an approach is very valuable with large numbers of students and when knowledge of a subject matter needs to be assessed.  It provides immediate feedback and students are able to use the test to evaluate the effectiveness of their study programmes, their understanding and how they are progressing.

It is also relatively easy to run such tests.  A formal exam could consist of all students doing the same test at the same time.  Alternatively, if the bank of questions is large enough it is also possible to provide each student with an individualised test paper thus reducing issues associated with copying.  These systems can provide feedback directly and this can also minimise the time required by administrators and lecturers for both marking and providing feedback.  With large numbers it would be very useful to exploit technology to its maximum to provide such feedback.  However, this approach may not be appropriate in all areas, but there are a number of similar approaches that may be utilised.

In relation to ‘essay-type’ questions it would be ideal if individual essays could be graded/marked and returned with appropriate feedback.  However, there are other mechanisms that are useful and can be applied in larger tutorial groups.

Table III outlines possible feedback methods applicable to various class sizes.  It is also important to note that students from different educational systems may need either additional feedback or guidance in a number of areas.  Examples of these are given in Table IV.
In order to expedite and standardise the process for giving feedback, the use of a template such as shown in the feedback template at http://... may be beneficial.

Giving helpful feedback can take time and considerable effort.  However, it can often be time well spent as it results in much improved performance, significant reduction in failures and associated re-sits and can enhance student wellbeing and motivation. If you think about it we all like to receive encouragement and this motivates better performance.  Constructive criticism can also be very beneficial as we can all do better.  Surely the essence of our role in the education of students is to enable them to work efficiently either independently or as part of a team.  Feedback must be an integral part of this process and its value should not be under-estimated. 

Table 1: Characteristics of good feedback

  • Delivered promptly after submission or within agreed time-frame
  • Constructive and encouraging
  •  Includes, where possible, praise when good and noteworthy elements are present
  • Clear and specific, with advice as to how improvement can be achieved
  • Avoids comparisons with others
  • Effective use of time of reviewer and student
  • Capable of affecting outcomes e.g. new submissions, re-submissions or exam performance
  • Delivered in sufficient detail to give student clear information on how progress can be made
  • Where there are very many problems it is generally best to focus on a key number of issues.  A meeting with the student may be the best approach here

Table II: Characteristics of poor feedback

  • Delivered long after submission when it can have no tangible effect on outcomes
  • Negative and lacking any encouraging element
  • Delivered publically where recipient may be embarrassed
  • Lacks clarity and recipient unclear about how improvements can be made
  • Takes up too much time of reviewer.  This may slow feedback, is poor use of time and results/improvement are no way in proportion to effort.
  • Facilitated student not prepared to make required effort to reach reasonable quality levels.  Here the student has the attitude that the marker should provide a lot of information so that she/he effort can benefit with no or minimal personal effort.

Table III: Selecting the appropriate feedback mechanisms

Class Size Mechanism
  • Multiple choice questions with answers and explanation of choice of correct answer 
  • Use Moodle 
  • Feedback template could be useful

  • Tutorial style approach Model answers to provide questions followed by ‘question and answer’ session with students providing suggestions 
  • Key points related to answer should subsequently be provided
  • Use Moodle
  • Required outline plan to be initially provided; feedback should be given and then full assignment should be completed Use Moodle
  • Presentations:
  • Provide direct feedback on presentations 
  • Ask peers to make suggestions 
  • Provide feedback mark sheet covering key areas of importance (see Tables IV and V)
  • Essays:
  • Request outline plan and give feedback on this Feedback template can be useful (Table V) 
  • Provide feedback on final essay
  • onsExam Questi:
    • Provide past questions and request student to answer under simulated exam conditions< Mark and clearly indicate strengths and weaknesses< Provide model answer or points that need to be covered Practice on questions should be used with re-sit students
    Meeting with student following submission of work e.g. essay assignment, presentation or thesis chapter Best to start with discussion between student and marker; outline plan then to be prepared and critically analysed. 
  • Important with thesis that initial chapter be written and feedback provided. This is generally much more effective than waiting for entire draft of work.

Table IV: Feedback for students from different educational systems and associated issues

  • Students may not realise what exactly is required.  Therefore, it is essential to give detailed directions especially at the start. 
  • Use of language and long written assignments may be very difficult if English is not the mother tongue.  This is particularly the case with very complex topics.  Hence, an initial plan should be requested, constructively criticised and then used as the basis of the full assignment.
  • It is important to ensure that any feedback given is very clear and unambiguous and is fully understood as some students may say that they understand when in fact they do not.