Feedback: From one-way information to an active dialogic process

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In this post, Dr Neil Lent and Professor Tina Harrison consider the question ‘How do we do effective feedback?’, reflecting on the role and function of feedback in current and future learning processes. Neil is a Lecturer in University Learning and Teaching at the Institute for Academic Development. Tina is Assistant Principal Academic Standards and Quality Assurance and Professor of Financial Services Marketing and Consumption. This post is part of the Learning and Teaching Enhancement Theme: Assessment and Feedback Principles and Priorities.

Just as assessment tasks and processes need to be fit for purpose, so do the feedback processes that that go with them.  This will help our students learn from their assessment tasks not just in terms of particular assignments but also in terms of learning how to operate effectively within their disciplines and professions. This is important as feedback can be a strong influencer of students’ learning (Hattie and Timperley, 2007) but, when done badly, can be worse than no feedback at all (Black and Wiliam, 1998). So, how do we do effective feedback?

Concepts of feedback can be said to have taken a journey from feedback as ‘information on how good or bad a piece of work is’, to feedback as ‘information on how to improve work’ (with the marker as the main information source), through to feedback as ‘an active dialogic process’ in which students are agents as well as markers, and where students learn to gauge the quality of their own work (Dawson et al 2019). The role of students as active agents is particularly important (Boud and Molloy, 2013, Carless, 2015) in helping students to become reflective learners and evaluators of their own performance. This latter conceptualisation fits well with the Edinburgh Student Vision but also raises the question of ‘how do we do that’?

Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick (2006) outline seven principles of self-regulated learning and the role of feedback in developing them. Good feedback can help students understand what good performance is through giving information on their learning, helping develop their own self-assessment abilities. It should also encourage dialogue between students and teachers and have positive motivational effects for the students. This should help students to know what they need to do to close any gaps between their current level of performance and where they want to get to. This is probably easier said than done but is worth working with.

This will work best as part of a holistic approach to learning where teaching, assessment and feedback are integrated through the course and programme design. In terms of a holistic approach we need to consider the role and purpose of the feedback (within the context of the role of the assessment). In traditional exam-based assessment, feedback mainly tells students what they did well and where they went wrong, but provides limited opportunity for improvement (at least not in that assessment).

Stereotypically, feedback takes the form of written comments made by a marker on an assignment completed at the end of a course. Feedback is often seen as that bit that happens after teaching and assessment have taken place! This is problematic if the student has little or no opportunity to apply their learning in similar situations, and can be demotivating. One potential solution is through assessment design that is iterative that allows students to demonstrate their improvement over time (Boud and Molloy, 2013). In the case of assessment for learning, feedback should be aligned to be more formative, providing students with the opportunity to receive feedback at an earlier point in their assessment (when they can still act on it) rather than giving it all at the end after the assignment has been completed. Hence, in considering the role and purpose of the feedback, it is also necessary to consider the timing and place of feedback (formative versus summative) for it to be useful. In this sense, feedback becomes more of ‘an active dialogic process’ rather than a transactional act.

It can be better to focus the timing of feedback on work done before final summative assessments so it can be used by the student in optimising their summative assessment tasks. Feedback can then become part of assessment for learning (Earl 2003). This is often termed ‘feedforward’ to emphasise its future use value (Hounsell et al, 2008).

Feedback information can be seen as a commodity: a ‘thing’ often produced by a marker that hopefully has use value for students but this can also be seen as an ingredient in a bigger process. More holistically, this process is dialogic, involving interaction between students and teachers and also peer to peer interaction between students.

Ideally this interaction will based on on-going, pedagogical relationships within a programme or course (i.e. dialogue doesn’t only happen at ‘feedback time’). It doesn’t always have to be formal and can be part of ongoing professional / disciplinary conversations that occur spontaneously and aren’t limited to particular times and can come from anywhere, anytime and at any time. This active process can be seen as the student developing ‘feedback literacy’ (Carless and Boud, 2018).

Some of this should be dealt with through course and programme design to ensure that assessment points, both formative and summative, include opportunities for dialogue and to apply learning through engaging in feedback processes. Such opportunities can include activities that allow students to engage with work other than their own and to develop their critical feedback literacy through peer-to-peer assessment, self-assessment and reflection, marking and discussing exemplars, dialogue during task.

Finally, providing good quality feedback doesn’t necessarily mean more work. Rather, it’s about carefully considering the place and function of feedback in the learning process, providing opportunity for dialog and for students to become self-reflective learners, rather than necessarily producing lots of hand-written feedback! By involving students more in the feedback process in dialogue and in self- and peer assessment, we can improve students’ understanding of feedback, improve the value of it and foster meaningful interactions with students.


Black, Paul and Wiliam, Dylan (1998) ‘Assessment and Classroom Learning’, Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 5:1, 7-74

Boud, D., and E. Molloy. (2013). “Rethinking Models of Feedback for Learning: The Challenge of Design.” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 38 (6): 698–712.

Carless, D. (2015). Excellence in University Assessment: Learning from Award-Winning Practice. London: Routledge.

Carless, D & Boud, D. (2018) The development of student feedback literacy: enabling uptake of feedback, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 43:8, 1315-1325, DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2018.1463354

Dawson, P., Henderson, M, Mahoney,P, Phillips,M,  Ryan,T. David Boud & Elizabeth Molloy (2019) What makes for effective feedback: staff and student perspectives, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 44:1, 25-36, DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2018.1467877

Earl, L. (2003, 2013). Assessment as learning: Using classroom assessment to maximize student learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Hattie, J., and H. Timperley. (2007). “The Power of Feedback.” Review of Educational Research 77 (1): 81–112.

Hounsell D, McCune, V , Hounsell, J &  Litjens, J. (2008) The quality of guidance and feedback to students, Higher Education Research & Development, 27:1, 55-67, DOI: 10.1080/07294360701658765

Molloy, E., and D. Boud. (2013). “Changing Conceptions of Feedback.” In Feedback in Higher and Professional Education: Understanding It and Doing It Well, edited by D. Boud and E. Molloy, 11–33. London: Routledge.

Nicol, D. and D. MacFarlane-Dick. (2006). “Formative Assessment and Self-regulated Learning: A Model and Seven Principles of Good Feedback Practice.” Studies in Higher Education 31(2): 199–218.

Sadler, D. R. (2010.) “Beyond Feedback: Developing Student Capability in Complex Appraisal.” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 35 (5): 535–550.

Winter, R. (2003) Contextualizing the Patchwork Text: addressing problems of coursework assessment in higher education. Innovations in Education and Teaching International 40 (2): 112-122.

Neil Lent

Dr Neil Lent is a lecturer in University Learning and Teaching at the Institute for Academic Development. He is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. His remit in the IAD is enhancing assessment and feedback practices within The University of Edinburgh. He has interests in the enhancement of learning and teaching, employability, and understanding and evaluating cultural change in higher education.

Tina Harrison

Tina is Assistant Principal Academic Standards and Quality Assurance and Professor of Financial Services Marketing and Consumption. Tina joined the University in 1993 and continues to maintain an active academic role in the Business School. She has had overall responsibility for the University’s quality assurance framework as Assistant Principal since 2009. She plays a key role in the Scottish HE quality landscape as a member of QAA Scotland’s Advisory Board, chair of the sparqs University Advisory Group, and member of the Quality Arrangements for Scottish Higher Education (QASHE) group.

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