Effective Feedback in Higher Education

What are some ways you choose to provide feedback to students in higher education? How do you think students perceive and react to our feedback? How effective do you think written feedback comments can be? Nicole and Milligan (2006) have identified seven main principles that effective feedback should entail.

1.     Effective feedback helps students identify what good performance is and assists students in grasping a clear understanding of the goals and standards set for their level. Research suggests that there is often a gap between the expected standards set by educators and students’ perception of these standards. Unless students clearly understand the goals and standards set for them, they cannot succeed in self-regulating their learning process.

2.   Feedback should facilitate the development of students’ self-reflection and self-assessment in learning. Teaching these practices can assist learners in identifying the standards that should be implemented into their work; it can also assist them in critiquing their work by utilizing these standards (Boud, 1986; 2000). Students should be given various opportunities to apply their clear understanding of the learning goals and assessment criteria and also apply those standards to critique their work.

3.   Feedback is also expected to provide quality information to students about their learning progress. Quality feedback scaffolds the development of the learner’s self-regulation. Wiggins (2001) suggests that feedback should be more descriptive than evaluative. Teachers should provide students information on the gap between their performance and the criteria designed to define their academic competence. For instance, non-specific comments such as “try harder” or “poorly structured” cannot develop self-regulation. Therefore, Lunsford (1997) suggests feedback comments to be more individualized and reflective, for instance, using comments such as “when I read your paragraph, it made me think….” This type of comment assists the student in seeing the gap between what they intended to write and the reader’s understanding.  However, descriptive feedback calls for a more dialogical comment for which conferencing could be a great approach.

4.   Good feedback encourages teacher and peer dialogue on student learning. With the large number of students in classes, however, conducting one-on-one conferences might be challenging, but running teacher-facilitated class-wide discussions can be carried out. Also, peer group discussions can require students to explain their reasoning behind their performance, and finally teachers can facilitate a discussion across the groups.

5.   Feedback could lead to a positive or negative effect on motivation, which eventually affects learning (Black and William, 1998). Effective feedback encourages positive motivational beliefs and self-esteem. As Nicole and Milligan (2006) suggest, “motivation, self-esteem and self-regulation are inextricably linked” (p.7). Students often enter our classrooms with preconceived notions about their abilities to succeed; some students have an “entity or fixed view” which limits them to a certain level of success and some have an “incremental view”, which means that with more effort put into a task, more success could be achieved. Therefore, the quality of the feedback and the amount of positivity or negativity injected into a feedback can affect students’ next step toward their learning goals.

6.   Feedback provides opportunities to close the gap between the current and the desired student performance. The only way to know if learning resulted from feedback is for students to make some kind of response to complete the feedback loop (Sadler, 1989). This is one of the most often forgotten aspects of formative assessment. Unless students are able to use the feedback to produce improved work, for example, revising the assignment, neither they nor the one giving the feedback will know that it has been effective. (Boud, 2000). Also, greater emphasis needs to be given to providing feedback on work in progress, for instance, essay structures, plans for reports, or sketches. Workflow management tools such as Trello can also allow students and staff to keep records of work at different stages.

7.   Finally, effective feedback should benefit both teachers and students. As Yorke (2003) indicates, the act of assessing should inform assessors on the extent to which their students have developed their skills so that educators can tailor their teaching practice accordingly. Being informed about their teaching and evaluation practices can assist teachers in closing the learning gap for their students.

Considering these seven principles, how often do your feedback practices follow these criteria?


Boud, D. (2000), Sustainable assessment: rethinking assessment for the learning society, Studies in Continuing Education, 22(2), 151-167.

Lunsford, R. (1997) When less is more: principles for responding in the disciplines, in: M.D. Sorcinelli and P. Elbow (Eds) Writing to learn: strategies for assigning and responding to writing across the disciplines San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Nicol, D. J. & Milligan, C. (2006), Rethinking technology-supported assessment in terms of the seven principles of good feedback practice. In C. Bryan and K. Clegg (Eds), Innovative Assessment in Higher Education, Taylor and Francis Group Ltd, London

Sadler, D.R. (1989) Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems, Instructional Science, 18(2), 119-144.

Yorke, M (2003) Formative assessment in higher education: Moves towards theory and the enhancement of pedagogic practice, Higher Education, 45(4), 477-501.

Hi everyone! My name is Sherry, and I have been teaching adult learners for the past 18 years. I am an OCT certified teacher with a master’s degree in Education. I teach English, ESL, OSLT, research and report writing courses at a post-secondary level of education. As an educator, I am passionate about incorporating diverse instructional strategies that would benefit students with various learning abilities. I am also passionate about research and implementing various ED-Tech tools in developing and instructing various courses. I am very glad to be a part of the TESL Blog team.


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