How can I give effective written feedback?

All the recommendations here come with the caveat that feedback is a process. If there are few feedback events, even helpful feedback might not have the desired effect. The more opportunities for feedback, informal or formal, the better. 

These recommendations directly correspond to the reasons students do not use feedback given on the Giving Effective Written Feedback page.  It is worth talking to students as early in the course as possible about their feedback experiences.


Students focus on the grade not the feedback

  • Don’t always grade formative work, especially at the beginning of modules. Wiliam and Black (2002) suggest that giving a mark on formative encourages focus on the grade. A mark is better than no feedback, but feedback only is preferable to help students focus on improvement rather than grades. Students might complain initially but you can explain the rationale.
  • Consider delaying the release of summative or formative grades by a few days so students can engage with the feedback, preferably with a chance to respond to it. As above, you should explain your rationale to students.
  • Increase opportunities for formal and informal feedback, thus reducing anxiety about learning and reinforcing an educational culture which goes beyond grades and measurement. Students are acculturated into the disciplinary ways of thinking rather than moving from assessment to assessment.

Students don’t understand the feedback

  • For exam work, try to go beyond ticks and crosses but provide some holistic feedback.
  • If writing holistic comments, try to refer to some examples in the work itself.
  • Try to avoid jargon unless it is necessary for the content of the assignment.
  • Less is more, so don’t write reams of feedback. Be concise and direct.
  • Write in bullet points, preferably with an action point after each.
  • Consider the level of the student. Postgrads and level 6 should have more confidence in understanding and applying criteria and thinking in a disciplinary way (although this might not always be the case) while levels 4 and 5 might need more simplified language.
  • Ensure written feedback is run through an accessibility checker. Microsoft and Mac packages come with this feature. Turnitin provides support on how to do this using Feedback Studio. 

Students don’t know how to improve

  • Refer to specific lectures where the information was covered so they can revise.
  • Signpost to specific resources where they can practice.
  • Encourage more engagement with formative assessment such as online quizzes– this can be used as a way to motivate students to complete any formative and diagnostic assessments if they are not currently engaging.
  • Stop-start/change-continue- this is a technique which narrows the focus of feedback but can increase engagement in a more meaningful way. You comment on several things they have done well (continue), several things they should not do (stop) and several things they should try for next time (change). SSPP have produced an example of this making use of the rubric feature in Turnitin in KEATS.

Feedback comes too late to be useful

  • More formative assessment allows for more feedback but less time spent on standardisation procedures and grading accurately.
  • More formative feedback means a lot less time and energy can be spent on end of module summative feedback provided there is congruity between the formative and summative tasks.
  • Maximise opportunities for informal feedback techniques on the module.
  • Explicitly highlight to students when a feedback event is occurring. There are many opportunities for feedback that teachers and students don’t recognise as such, e.g. giving generic feedback on an online quiz. It is important to help students understand that feedback is more than comments on their performance on specific assignments.

Feedback is too specific to the set assignment

  • Feedforward to the next assignment by focusing on skills and key knowledge which is useful for other assignments or for employability.
  • Give tips for not just what to fix but HOW to fix, e.g. signpost to possible resources (you can contact the Library Skills development team for help with this)
  • Stage the assignment so feedback is given at a point when it might be useful for the final summative. For example, give feedback on research proposals, outlines, essay plans or short sections of work.

Feedback does not involve students in their own learning

  •  Feedback should be dialogic, allowing students to comment or reply or ask questions. This can be done through Interactive Cover sheets or feedforward documents, or asking students to keep a Personal Development plan (see also giving audio feedback and screencast feedback)
  • Making assessments more authentic can help students to engage with feedback in an intrinsic way as they are more personally invested in the task.
  • Make some feedback events public, for example have students upload sections of their work to a discussion forum or blog, so there is a more authentic audience. This involves the students in the assessment process of their peers (preparing them for research and work situations) and they are more likely to complete formative tasks when they know they will be judged by peers.
  • Delay the release of grades and have students self-assess work before they hand it in. This can be done formally (they hand it in alongside their work) or informally. This helps them to share responsibility for assessment and they are more intrinsically engaged in teacher feedback if they know they will compare it with their own judgement.
  • The Higher Education Academy (HEA) have developed some guidelines for students on how to use feedback they are given which can scaffold reflection on feedback and feed forward into learning.

Feedback only focuses on the negative

  • Avoid focusing on smaller technical features like language errors which can be dispiriting for those with dyslexia or those whose first language is not English. If language and expression affect comprehensibility, identifying particular features and giving advice about resources/support is more useful than blanket statements such as “you need to improve your grammar.” Most international students are already aware of this!
  • Carol Dweck (2016) emphasises growth mindsets through the value of YET and NOT YET. Framing feedback in this way can enable constructive feedback which motivates rather than demoralises. This video emphasise the power of feedback framed as high- expectations and encouragement:

  • Avoid direct negative language. BUT be careful of being too indirect with tentative ‘Britishisms’ : have you considered…? I wonder if this might be improved if…
  • If commenting on writing, make it personal to you: I felt like your introduction wasn’t clear rather than your introduction wasn’t clear. This acknowledges the subjectivity of reader effect and softens the blow of a direct objective-sounding judgement.
  • Try to avoid catch all terms like ??? or I don’t understand/unclear. Explain why you don’t understand.
  • Talk to your students about YOUR experience of feedback as a researcher in the peer review process. Acknowledge the emotional effects and give your experiences of dealing with negative feedback.

There is little consistency across markers

  • Ensure where possible a harmonisation/standardisation session with other markers (particularly GTAs) before marking. Post-marking moderation helps but can require a significant amount of work if there is already marking inconsistency.

You can use the King’s Academy guide to Standardisation. 

  • This can be done online to save time. Four or five scripts can be posted online and markers fill in their grades on a spreadsheet prior to marking. Where inconsistencies exist, a more thorough standardisation procedure can occur.

You can use the King’s Academy Instructor Feedback Checklist as a quick guide when giving feedback to help you consider the elements above.