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Plugging gaps in feedback


Conventional feedback – in its most traditional guise of written and spoken comments on students’ set work – has served generations of university students and their teachers well. But it has limitations as well as strengths:

  • Feedback has customarily been provided to students on their coursework assignments, but seldom on the end-of-semester or end-of-year exams which may also have a significant influence on their overall marks or grade (Hounsell et al., 2007b).
  • Teachers’ comments usually focus on the extent to which a student’s work meets or fails to meet particular criteria and standards — but for the student whose submission falls short of expectations, these comments don’t directly convey what high-quality work might actually look like. Yet a firm grasp of what counts as excellent work is indispensable to making sense of feedback and putting it to good use (Sadler, 1989).
  • Feedback in higher education typically comes ex post facto, i.e. after the work on which the feedback focuses has been completed. This can be particularly disconcerting for first-year students, whose prior experiences at school or college were of support throughout the assignment process (Beaumont et al., 2008).

In this section, we look at how to counter these potential drawbacks, by providing feedback on exams; by using exemplars, model answers and past questions to demonstrate high standards; and by introducing pre-submission guidance and feedback to forestall uncertainties and confusions.

We also address two other ways of plugging gaps in traditional feedback: putting in place appropriate feedback training and updating for staff; and trying to get feedback on feedback, to find out how well current provision meets students’ needs and concerns (Hounsell et al., 2007a).


Beaumont, C., O’Doherty, M. and Shannon, L. f (2008) Staff and student perceptions of feedback quality in the context of widening participation. York: Higher Education Academy.

Hounsell, D., Xu, R. and Tai, C.M. (2007a) Monitoring students’ experiences of assessment. Enhancement Themes Integrative Assessment Guide No. 1. Gloucester: QAA

Hounsell, D., Xu, R. and Tai, C.M. (2007b) Balancing assessment of and assessment for learning . Enhancement Themes Integrative Assessment Guide No. 2. Gloucester: QAA

Sadler, D.R. (1989) Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems. Instructional Science,18 (2), 119-144.
Feedback is defined in a particular way to highlight its function in formative assessment. This paper argues that the key premise for effective feedback for student to improve is that they must develop the capacity to monitor the quality of their own work during actual production. And such skills can be developed by providing direct authentic evaluative experience for students by the instructional systems which make explicit provision for such acquisition.

Exemplars, model answers and past questions

In a highly influential journal article, Royce Sadler argued that if students are to make sense of feedback and put it to good use, they must develop a firm grasp of what counts as excellent work in a subject at a given level (Sadler, 1989). In his most recent work, he continues to explore what this might mean for ‘developing student capability in complex appraisal’ (Sadler, 2010).

In the Interacting with Students section of the website, we’ve explored one cluster of strategies for fostering these capacities in students.  Here we consider another and complementary cluster: the use of exemplars, model answers, and past test and exam questions.

Giving students access to past test and exam questions isn’t in itself a source of feedback.  It simply provides helpful clues on what kinds of questions are likely to be asked about which topics and themes.  But past questions can provide ‘anticipatory feedback’ if they are accompanied by a commentary on how examinees had interpreted questions or what routes to tackling particular questions had proved most fruitful (Hounsell et al., 2006).  Revision workshops where tutors explored with students what might constitute good answers to specific questions could fulfil a similar function.

Model answers also have a role to play.  As defined by Huxham (2007), a model answer is an ideal, tutor-generated response to a question that would receive 100% of the marks, and which is made available to all of the students involved in an assessment. Huxham sees four advantages in model answers:

‘First, model answers can be given much more quickly than individual comments, hence speeding up feedback. Second, model answers do not involve personal comments from the tutor, hence avoiding the dangers of negative feedback. Third, model answers require some active engagement of the student with the feedback; the student needs to read his/her own work and compare it with the answers given [...]. Fourth, model answers can (and should) be explicitly linked to marking criteria, hence making a clear demonstration of standards required.’

His own research in Biology suggests that model answers work best in conjunction with individual feedback comments (Huxham, 2007).

According to Sadler himself, ‘exemplars convey messages that nothing else can’, by not simply telling students but showing them what counts as excellent (Sadler, 2002, p. 136).  Unlike model answers, which are usually crafted by teachers, exemplars are authentic instances of students’ work.  They therefore represent what can feasibly be accomplished by a student’s peers, rather a perfectionist ideal.  Equally crucially, they are usually multiple rather than single, providing a range of illustrations of what work of high quality might look like.  This can help to allay teachers’ anxieties that furnishing students with the model answer or sole exemplar of excellence may have be counterproductive, if it has the effect ‘of encouraging unthinking mimicry rather than thoughtful emulation’ (Hounsell, 2008).

In higher education, exemplars have typically been used in combination with other methods of feedback, as the case examples below indicate. Interestingly, one recent study showed that:

‘Students are very receptive to exemplars, but there are many questions to be considered by tutors as they design exemplar activities: for example, whether to ‘construct’ exemplar assignments, or use authentic student work; whether to use complete assignments or only those parts which illustrate specific criteria; and how to generate debate in order to deepen students’ tacit understanding of the assessment criteria so that they develop their own skills of self-assessment.’  (Handley & Williams 2009, p. 12)


Handley, K. and Williams, L. (2009) From copying to learning: using exemplars to engage students with assessment criteria and feedback. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education. iFirst
Reports on a study using an online facility to give students in a large multidisicpinary Methods of Enquiry module exemplar assignments annotated with feedback before submission of their final assignments. Concludes with lessons learned about how to construct exemplars.

Hendry, G.D., Bromberger, N., and Armstrong, S.(in press). Constructive guidance and feedback for learning: The usefulness of exemplars, marking sheets and different types of feedback in a first year law subject. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education. iFirst
A mixed-methods study exploring Law students’ perceptions of the usefulness of exemplars and different types of feedback for guiding them in completing assessments. A combination of engaging in marking and discussing exemplars, and receiving individualised and standards-based feedback proved most effective.

Hounsell, D., McCune, V.,  Hounsell, J.  and Litjens, J. (2006). Investigating and enhancing the quality of guidance and feedback to undergraduate students.  Paper presented at the Third Biennial Northumbria/EARLI SIG Assessment Conference, Northumbria, 30 Aug – 1 Sept 2006. 

Huxham, M. (2007). Fast and effective feedback: are model answers the answer? Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 32.6, pp. 601-611.
This study compares Biology student responses and performance after receiving two types of feedback, that provided by model answers and that provided by personal comments. The results suggest that the best approach might be a hybrid one, drawing on the strengths of both.

Orsmond, P., Merry, S. and Reiling, K. (2002).  The use of exemplars and formative feedback when using student derived marking criteria in peer and self-assessment. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 27(4), 309-323.

Reports a study in first-year undergraduate Biology combining self and peer assessment of poster assignments using student constructed marking criteria with exemplars.


Hounsell, D. (2008) The trouble with feedback: new challenges, emerging strategiesInterchange 2, pp. 1-10.

Sadler, D.R. (1989). Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems. Instructional Science,18, 119-144.   Identifies three conditions for effective feedback.  A key premise is that for students to be able to improve, they must develop the capacity to monitor the quality of their own work during actual production. This in turn requires that students possess an appreciation of what high quality work is, that they have the evaluative skill necessary for them to compare with some objectivity the quality of what they are producing in relation to the higher standard, and that they develop a store of tactics or moves which can be drawn upon to modify their own work. It is argued that these skills can be developed by providing direct authentic evaluative experience for students.

Sadler, D.R. (2002). ‘Ah!…So that’s “quality’. In: Schwartz, P., and Webb, G. ,eds. Assessment: Case Studies, Experience and Practice from Higher Education. London: Kogan Page. pp. 130-135.
The author argues that exemplars (real examples of excellent student assignments) have a vital role to play in enabling other students to grasp what counts as work of a high standard in the subject area concerned.

Sadler, D. R. (2010) Beyond feedback: developing student capability in complex appraisal.  Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 35(5), 535-550  Students need to be able understand the meaning of feedback statements and identify what aspects of their work need attention. In order to do this, it is argued, they must appropriate for themselves three fundamental concepts – task compliance, quality and criteria – and also develop a cache of relevant tacit knowledge.

Feedback on exams

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Copestake, J. (2006) The mock exam as a low cost, high return revision exercise. Higher Education Academy Economics Network Case Study.
Students in Economics take a short mock exam, then discuss their answers in groups and then plenary, with feedback from the lecturer.

Jordan, J. (2004) The use of orally recorded exam feedback as a supplement to written comments. Journal of Statistics Education 12(1).
In this example, taken from a course in Statistics, the lecturer uses of orally recorded feedback on the exam, together with traditional grading and written comments.

Pre-submission guidance and feedback

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Guidance to staff on giving feedback

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Brukner, H., Altkorn, D.L., Cook, S., Quinn, M.T. & McNabb, W.L. (1999) Giving effective feedback to medical students: a workshop for faculty and house staff. Medical Teacher 21, 2:161-165.
This paper describes a structured approach to teaching faculty members to give effective feedback to Medical students, using an interactive workshop format.

Rodway-Dyer, S., Dunne, E. and Newcombe, M. (2009) Audio and screen visual feedback to support student learning. Paper given at ALT-C Conference, September 2009, Manchester.
This paper contains case studies of evaluating the use of audio feedback in Geography and of feedback in Biosciences labs. It also gives an example of videoing verbal feedback during labs to use for training demonstrators.

Feedback on feedback

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Hanrahan, S. and Isaacs, G. (2001) Assessing self- and peer-assessment: the students’ views. Higher Education Research & Development 20(1), 53-68
Students studying Health Psychology were asked to self-assess and peer-assess their assignments, and then to complete a short questionnaire on the experience. Their responses were generally positive but some concerns were expressed.

Higgins, R., Hartley, P., and Skelton, A. (2002) The conscientious consumer: reconsidering the role of assessment feedback in student learning. Studies in Higher Education 27(1), 53-64.
This article describes a project to discover students’ understandings of feedback. The project used questionnaires and interviews to ask students why and how they used feedback.

Hounsell, D., McCune, V., Hounsell, J., and Litjens, J. (2008) The quality of guidance and feedback to students. Higher Education Research and Development, 27(1), 55-67.
The paper presents research findings on students’ experiences of the provision both of guidance and feedback, and with respect to examinations as well as coursework assignments. A first- and a final-year Bioscience course unit were surveyed in each of three contrasting university departments. At the core of data analysis was a guidance and feedback loop, within which six interrelated steps have been picked out, beginning with the students’ prior experiences of cognate assessments and closing with the potential of what has been learned from a given task to feedforward into subsequent work.

Johnston, C., Cazaly, C. and Olekalns, N. (2008) The first year experience: perceptions of feedback. Paper presented at Universitas 21 Conference 2008.
The perceptions of feedback held by first year Economics students were explored from both the student’ and tutors’ perspectives through surveys and interviews. These results were also compared with a second year cohort to determine if student perceptions altered over time.

Lynch, J. (2009) Student engagement with feedback. Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for Business, Management, Accountancy and Finance Enhancing Student Centred Learning Case Study.
Student perceptions of feedback on a Business programme were investigated using focus groups and a questionnaire. This case study reports the students’ views of the quality and purpose of feedback, and the links they made between marks and written comments.

Matthewman, A. (2008) Assessment and feedback in modern languages. Liaison 1, 36-37. Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies newsletter.
A report of initiatives in a Faculty of Arts to consult their students about their perceptions of feedback practice, and to introduce an induction programme to brief first-year students.

Mills, C. Review of tutor feedback during undergraduate dissertations. Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for Hospitality, Leisure, Sport and Tourism Case Study.
Sports Education students were asked to comment on the feedback they received, using a series of prompts.

Rodway-Dyer, S., Dunne, E. and Newcombe, M. (2009) Audio and screen visual feedback to support student learning. Paper given at ALT-C Conference, September 2009, Manchester.
This paper contains case studies of evaluating the use of audio feedback in Geography and of feedback in Biosciences labs. It also gives an example of videoing verbal feedback during labs to use for training demonstrators.

Walker, C. and Stevens, V. Feedback that feeds forward. Formative Assessment in Science Teaching (FAST) Case Study
In this Biology case study, students were given a questionnaire and interviewed about feedback, and then changes were made to the module being studied.

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