What makes feedback “good”?

In higher education, we hope that by providing effective feedback, students will feel empowered to improve as learners.    However, if we are simply ‘transmitting’ our comments regarding the strengths and weeknesses of their academic work, will students actually decode our feedback, and translate them into actionable change?

Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick (2006) provide seven key recommendations for providing learner-centred feedback that encourages self-regulation:

1.  Clarify what good performance actually is (e.g. goals, criteria):

  • Explicitly provide the goals, learning objectives, and criteria related to each assessment
  • Provide performance exemplars, and engage in in-class discussions to, “make explicit what is required, and…define a valid standard against which to students can compare their work” (p. 207).
  • Collaborate with the students to determine the assessment criteria

2. Facilitate self-assessment and reflection

  • Provide intentional opportunities to enhance the students’ ability to  reflect upon, self-monitor and assess their learning progress
  • Provide opportunities for students to evaluate and provide feedback on each other’s work
  • Have the student request specific areas for feedback and/or evaluate their work in relation to the assessment criteria at the time of submission
  • Compile and reflect upon their progress in a portfolio

3. Deliver high quality information to students regarding their learning

  • Provide feedback that is balanced, timely and that helps students self-assess and self-correct
  • Ensure that feedback is directly related to the pre-defined goals and assessment criteria
  • Provide opportunities for students to get feedback prior to final submission
  • Actively involve students in the feedback process (e.g. have them evaluate their performance on submission)

4. Encourage teacher and peer dialogue

  • See feedback as an active dialogue, by provide opportunities for the students to decode and develop their own understanding of the feedback that they receive
  • Structure small group discussions, and other opportunities for peer/teacher dialogue that allow students to discuss the feedback that they receive
  • Have students identify specific feedback comments that they found particularly useful

5. Promote positive motivational beliefs and self-esteem, “…teachers can have a positive or negative effect on motivation and self-esteem” (p. 212)

  • Ensure that students understand that feedback is an evaluation of their performance in context, not of themselves as a person
  • Integrate consistently-distributed low-stake assessments, rather than a few high-stake assessments, over the course of the semester
  • Provide opportunities for drafts and resubmissions

6. Provide opportunities to close the gap between current and desired performances

  • Scaffold learning to provide students with opportunities to act upon the feedback that they receive (e.g. “stage” assignments where each assignment provides an opportunity to act upon the feedback received in the previous stage)
  • Build opportunities for regular teacher and peer feedback (e.g. feedback on drafts, outlines, and opportunities for resubmission)
  • Provide examples of and opportunities for students to clearly identify “actionable” steps for improvement after they have reviewed the feedback received

7. Provide information to teachers that can be used to help improve teaching

  • Use the feedback provided to continually enhance your teaching, and to gather important information about students’ learning successes and challenges related to the subject matter
  • Use one-minute papers at the end of classes (e.g. what was the most important points discussed in today’s session?  What question remains uppermost in your mind?)
  • Provide students with individual and collaborative opportunities to identify challenging components of the course content/processes

Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick (2006) present a great balance between theory and practice in discussing their model of self-regulated learning and their 7 principles of “good” feedback practice.  Their initial discussion regarding providing opportunities for learners to construct their own understanding of feedback such that they can develop a personal plan of action for improvement, opened my eyes to the danger of simply transmitting instructor feedback directly onto the students.

It is extraordinarily challenging to provide feedback that students can decode and act upon to continually improve their learning. There is a certainly a balance to be struck through experience and context, and these 7 principles provide a great set of guidelines for practice.


Nicol, D.J. and Macfarlane-Dick, D. 2006.  Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice.  Studies in Higher Education 31(2): 199-218

What do students really think about group experiences, and what can we do about it?

With increased emphasis on providing active and collaborative learning opportunities in higher education, administrators, instructors, and academic staff have drawn much attention to the benefits of using small group experiences as an integral course design strategy.  Group work can enhance depth of learning and student engagement, and students also experience the added benefit of improving their communication, leadership, and team work skills. However, group work can pose challenges for students as they strive to enhance their own understanding of the subject matter, while negotiating the complexities of working collaboratively with others.

Hillyard et al. (2010) recently assessed students’ perceptions of learning in small groups, within an interdisciplinary arts and science program in the US. Their findings encouragingly suggest that all students (n=208) had engaged in at least one small group learning experience, and that the majority had participated in a substantive group experience, varying in duration from 2 weeks to an entire semester.

Students generally agreed that group work provided them with a chance to experience diverse opinions and ideas, to deepen their understanding of the course material, and to enhance their leadership and communication skills.  However, findings also suggested that students felt that group experiences rarely involved equal participation between group members, and that in the majority of cases, a few members did most of the work.   The authors also found that the students’ perceptions of the overall effectiveness of group work and the ability of group experiences to enhance learning were most strongly correlated with the academic preparation of peers, and the instructor’s ability to explain why they were using small groups.   Perhaps the most interesting study finding was that, “If students had bad experiences in group experiences in institutions prior to enrolling in the program, their attitudes remained negative, regardless of their experiences in the program” (p.17).

The findings of this study draw important attention to establishing a shared learning environment, where both the instructors and students:

  • clearly discuss the course learning objectives related to activities and assessment strategies that involve group work (i.e. why they are doing what they doing);
  • establish a safe environment for students to critically reflect upon their past group experiences, and to identify and assess the characteristics of positive/effective groups,  and of successful group members;
  • provide intentional opportunities for students to develop the skills and resources necessary to successfully negotiate group processes and to equitably delegate tasks among group members (e.g. developing group contracts, establishing a shared vision and clear goals/objectives, scheduling regular group meetings,  providing formative feedback,  and participating in a critical analysis of group processes).

There is little doubt that group work can enhance student learning and contribute to the development of transferrable teamwork, leadership and communication skills.  We must consistently strive to instill the importance of collaboration in higher education, by providing intentional opportunities for students to develop the skills and resources necessary to succeed in group environments.


Hillyard, C., Gillespie, D., and Littig, P.  University students’ attitudes about learning in small groups after frequent participation.  Active Learning in Higher Education 11(1):9-20.