What do we mean by feedback and feedforward?

If assessment lies at the heart of the higher education learning experience, then feedback on students’ responses to the assessment is a critical activity for all universities.

While we normally think of feedback as being from tutor to student, feedback mechanisms such as MUSE and SUBU’s SIMON information capture systems demonstrate that student to tutor and student to institution are also vital types of feedback. The term feedback is increasingly being replaced by the principle of 'feed forward' through which developmental comments on how to improve work are provided rather than a focus on the shortcomings of an assignment.

Pedagogic perspective on feedback

Assessment and feedback are critical drivers of student learning.  The Re-engineering Assessment Practices (REAP) project 2007 identified the link between assessment, feedback and technology:

The REAP project has demonstrated that assessment redesign with technology can result in improved learning, higher student satisfaction and more efficient use of staff time.

Nicol and MacFarlane (2006) proposed the seven principles of good feedback:

1. Clarify what good performance is (goals, criteria, standards)

2. Facilitate the development of reflection and self-assessment in learning

3. Deliver high quality feedback to students: that enables them to self-correct

4. Encourage dialogue around learning (peer and tutor-student)

5. Encourage positive motivational beliefs and self-esteem

6. Provide opportunities to act on feedback

7. Provide information that teachers can use to help shape their teaching

How does it work?

Feedback can be formal and informal.  It can be conducted face to face, in writing, on video/audio formats.  Even casual conversations can be considered as feedback and it is likely that tutors provide more feedback to students than they realise.  The REAP project captures this range of opportunities in their poster.

BU has set timescales and formats for giving feedback to students.  See policy 5B – Student Engagement and Feedback Policy and Procedure for more information.

What are the challenges?

Research shows assessment and feedback are the main areas of dissatisfaction in the National Student Survey (NSS) in higher education.  (REAP 2007; JISC 2013).

Providing feedback is demanding in terms of staff time and resources.  Creating, transmitting and discussing feedback can comprise a significant part of a tutor’s workload in large cohorts and, combined with growing student numbers and higher expectations from learners, means that the provision of efficient and effective feedback, and feed forward, so important to student learning, continues to be a key concern for many higher education institutes. 

One student’s response to the feedback received emphasised the need for constructive and developmental information in the feedback: ‘Sometimes you just get comments such as “You write well”. I want to know, “How do I write well?” Tell me. If I write well, why don’t I write excellently? What don’t I do right? We never get that feedback.’ (JISC 2013).

Other research has identified challenged in providing feedback:

1.  Low student response to feed forward support and discussion with marker (Duncan et al 2004)

2.  Markers focus on positive and encouraging comments rather clear practical advice on how to improve the quality of subsequent work (Duncan et al 2004)

3.  Student fixation on grade or numerical score (Koen et al 2012)

4.  Insensitive judgemental feedback can negatively influence students motivation and self efficacy (Koen et al 2012). Viewing feedback as a purely a cognitive process ignores its interaction with motivation and beliefs (Nicol and MacFarlane 2006)

5.  Feedback messages may be complex and difficult to decipher unless students are given opportunities to actively construct an understanding of them (Nicol and MacFarlane 2006) Reducing students’ opportunities for guidance and interaction (Hounsell 2008)

6.  Bunching of assignments (Hounsell 2008)

Feedback and feedforward are key areas in student learning and one beset by a multitude of challenges which colleagues in FLIE can provide support with.


Ball S,  Bew C, Bloxham S, Brown S, Kleiman P, May H, McDowell L, Morris E, Orr S, Payne E, Price M, Rust C, Smith B, Waterfield J. 2012. A marked improvement. York: Higher Education Academy.

Williams, J.  2010.  HEA case study.  Feedback on feedback: Student responses to tutors after receiving feedback

The Guardian HE Network blog.  2014.  Academics Anonymous: student feedback is a waste of everyone's time

JISC. 2013.  Assessment and feedback programme

Re-engineering Assessment Practices (REAP).  2007.  Evaluation report.