Feedback – full article

In the context of teaching in higher education, the term “feedback” may evoke a range of associations: Instructors providing feedback about students’ learning, students responding to other students’ learning, or students evaluating teaching. This Refresh Teaching event focuses on providing feedback on students’ learning. Evidence suggests that feedback is one of the factors that most positively influences student performance (see Hattie, 2009; Hattie & Timperley, 2007).

So what’s the significance of feedback for learning? To answer this question, let’s think back to a learning experience that many of us may share. When we first learnt how to ride a bike, it would have been quite difficult to maintain our balance without those small training wheels that supported us. Whenever we are learning something new, feedback can act like those training wheels. Feedback guides and enhances our practice (see Ambrose, Bridges, Lovett, DiPietro, & Norman, 2010). Just like the training wheels, it helps us stay on track and encourages us to gain confidence and master increasingly difficult variations of a learning challenge.

If we think about learning in higher education, we may notice a striking difference to the cycling example. In higher education, instructors typically provide information throughout the semester. However, it is often only after the end of the semester when students start dealing with the new information – when they prepare for exams. At the exam, students finally demonstrate what they are able to do with the information. In this setup, the exam represents the only feedback about how teaching impacts on students’ learning and about students’ performance.

Enhancing the role of feedback in higher education classrooms

Claim 1: Feedback enhances motivation.

Motivation for learning arises from a range of different factors. If we think back to our own learning experience on our bikes, our caregiver’s encouraging voice was probably one of the reasons why we kept trying, perhaps along with our own desire to master the challenge. Ambrose et al. (2010) state that, among other factors, a challenging yet achievable goal, clarity about what it means to achieve it successfully, clear feedback about how we are doing, and success experiences along our way encourage us to keep going.

Claim 2: Giving feedback allows instructors to gain rich insights into students’ learning and to plan teaching accordingly.

Effective feedback starts with dividing the overall objective of a class into small achievable steps that we would like students to complete. By asking students to perform learning tasks throughout the semester, instructors generate evidence about how students are acquiring the competences described in the objective. Additionally, this evidence allows instructors to provide feedback for each of those small steps that communicates (a) what students are (not) understanding; (b) in which areas of a task or concept they are doing well or not so well; and (c) how they can progress (Ambrose et al., 2010). By creating such opportunities throughout the semester, a formative feedback process is installed that shapes not only students’ learning, but also supports teaching by allowing instructors to appropriately slow down, speed up, or return to those aspects that can effectively support students’ learning.

Claim 3: Providing feedback on students’ learning inside the classroom is an opportunity to actively engage students.

The first step towards establishing a dialogue among instructors and students is for instructors to understand how students are doing with their learning. Combined with providing clear criteria that allow students to judge their own performance, such curiosity about students’ current levels of expertise helps establish a culture of cooperation in the classroom that creates a low-risk environment and views mistakes as a necessary element of learning. In such an environment, it becomes possible for instructors to start sharing the responsibility for learning and achievement with students by making them co-providers of feedback.

Incorporating feedback in higher education classrooms

The following list presents practical ideas that help implement feedback in higher education classrooms (see Ambrose et al., 2010; Hattie & Timperley, 2007):

  • Obtain evidence of students’ learning throughout the entire semester.
  • Define explicit performance criteria for each learning activity that relate back to the course objectives.
  • Provide examples or models that illustrate target performance.
  • Relate feedback on students’ performance to the course objectives.
  • Focus feedback on the next logical step that helps students to progress.
  • Alternate between providing individual, group and class-wide feedback.
  • Implement peer feedback by asking students to review their peers’ performance based on the performance criteria.

By now, we have explored the purpose and the benefits of feedback in higher education classrooms. However, one important concern may yet stand in the way of putting things into practice: “Will I need to invest a lot of time before I can implement feedback in my classroom?” The best advice for resolving this concern is to take it step by step. Pick from the list above the single aspect that you feel most comfortable with using in your classroom. And of course, let yourself be inspired by how other instructors at ETH mastered this challenge at the Refresh Teaching event on the topic of “Feedback”.


Ambrose, S., Bridges, M., Lovett, M., DiPietro, M., & Norman, M. (2010). How learning works: 7 research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement: Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The Power of Feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81–112. doi:10.3102/003465430298487