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Rethinking models of feedback for learning - the challenge of design

Andrew Carlin - Apr 11, 2022

Feedback should be at the heart of education, yet, in recent times, has come under intense scrutiny at higher education institutes, leading to it being the most heavily criticised aspect of courses in higher education [1, 2]. Ironically, feedback has largely been uninfluenced by ideas, discipline, or research from within/outside the education sector. This irony is even stronger in disciplines like engineering, in which feedback is a critical part of the discipline itself. The idea that feedback in an arts degree is given in a similar format by a similar mechanism to that of a law, or computer science degree, is incredibly outdated.

So what is feedback? One of the earlier definitions from the discipline of Cybernetics is [3]:

"Feedback is the control of a system by reinserting into the system the results of its performance".

So in the context of higher education, this is: assessing a students performance and giving feedback at an appropriate time, with an appropriate amount of time remaining for the student to turn that feedback into action, such that their performance can be improved at a subsequent point in time. However, with modularised structures in universities, fewer tasks/assessments at lower frequencies, and increasing class sizes, this form of feedback is rarely seen in classrooms. What differentiates the 'feedback' of today in education and actual feedback, is the fact 'feedback', is a one-way system in modern-day education. 'Feedback' in modern education is just information - details on the performance of a student at that given moment in time. In contrast, true feedback is a two-way system. Boud and Molloy make the case that true feedback can come in two distinctive forms: Feedback Mark 1, and Feedback Mark 2 [4].

Feedback Mark 1 integrates the essential component of feedback - that it gives information on current performance, in a timely manner, such that it can influence future performance. This is contrasted from 'information' on the performance of a student in a final (& only) exam after the module has finished, which is now commonplace in education. It also implicitly requires that there is overlap in the learning outcomes between the 'first' and 'second' assignments (not to imply that only 2 assignments are required). Should the student not reach the expected performance in the subsequent task, questions should be raised on the quality of feedback, the timing of feedback and the attainability of the learning outcome, in addition to the tradition of only questioning the student's performance. Inherently, this approach assumes that learners require others to identify and provide the information they need to improve their performance.

Feedback Mark 2 includes learners in the feedback process, creating "sustainable feedback". Sustainable feedback has 4 key characteristics: • Involving students in dialogues about learning which raises their awareness of what quality performance looks like • Facilitating feedback processes through which students are stimulated to develop capacities in monitoring and evaluating their own learning • Enhancing student capabilities for ongoing lifelong learning by supporting student development of skills for goal setting and planning their learning • Designing assessment tasks to facilitate student engagement over time in which feedback from varied sources is generated, processed, and used to enhance performance on multiple stages of assessment

Enacting Feedback Mark 2 is built around 3 key elements of a learning system • Learners and what they bring • The curriculum and what that promotes • The learning environment

However, Feedback Mark 2 requires students to be active learners, which educators do not always agree is the case []. That being said, being an active learner is a skill in itself, which can be taught. Some students are better and more engaged in self-regulation than others, and weaker students need opportunities to enhance this skill.

When feedback is transformed from simply information that educators transmit to learners on their performance at a discrete moment in time, to a continuous, life-long process which is designed at the curriculum level, it has the potential to empower students as drivers of their own learning, and enhance their sense of control over their career.

For educators to make feedback effective, they should: • Ensure students have knowledge/vision on the standard which should be applied • Allow students to compare those standards to their own work • Give the student opportunities to close the gap between the two

For institutions to make feedback more effective, they need to design feedback at the curriculum level. They should therefore integrate the following features into the curriculum: • Give students opportunities to practice giving and receiving feedback • Give students activities of self-regulation i.e. reflect on how their work compares to the standard or others • Give students practical tasks/projects/assignments with sufficient time between the feedback of that and the following • Steadily increase the challenge of tasks and their complexity • Nest tasks to allow for 'feed forward' i.e. timing and design of tasks to permit input from others and to be utilised to benefit performance on subsequent tasks • Ensure the appropriate calibration mechanisms are there for students to self-regulate e.g. appropriate knowledge sources to compare against, examples of peer and expert work, teaching on how to self-regulate


[1] Krause, K.-L., et al., The first year experience in Australian universities: Findings from a decade of national studies. 2005, Citeseer.

[2] The national student survey: Findings and trends 2006–2010. 2011, Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).

[3] Wiener, N., The human use of human beings: Cybernetics and society. 1988: Da Capo Press.

[4] Boud, D. and E. Molloy, Rethinking models of feedback for learning: the challenge of design. Assessment and evaluation in higher education, 2013. 38(6): p. 698--712.
DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2012.691462

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