Feedback is an important aspect of teaching and learning. Teachers spend a lot of time on providing feedback on student work. How can we make sure that students really use this feedback for learning? In this article we address the feedback process and the feedback message as two factors to take into account to ensure that students seek, use and learn from feedback.

Providing feedback is an important and large part of teaching and using feedback a very important part of learning. Therefore, it is relevant to think about the question how we can see feedback as an interaction between provider and receiver, putting the responsibility for useful feedback both with the teacher and the student.

Useful feedback: a process with shared responsibilities

Seeing feedback as an interaction between provider and receiver means that we can redefine feedback from a fixed message that students only have to apply, to a process with shared responsibilities between provider and receiver. Moreover, there are certain conditions for feedback to be useful. We address some characteristics of the process and the message of feedback which contribute to its usefulness.

An important teaching activity is providing students with feedback about their learning. When students write a paper, give a presentation, or work on their thesis, we provide them with feedback on how they are doing. The goal of this feedback is to enhance the student’s learning process. However, feedback not always seems to be effective. For example, students keep making the same mistake over and over, while you have given feedback on this issue. Or, in a bachelor level 3 course you come across issues in written assignments that you considered part of year 1 of the program. Or students only adjust the parts of their assignments they have received feedback on, without looking at other parts, which also contain room for improvement. These questions all address some problems that can appear in the feedback process, and need some further investigation to figure out the origin of these problems. Does the feedback provider perceive the feedback differently than the student? Do you have differing perspectives on what feedback should be? Does the message contain ineffective elements? Providing effective feedback implies students to understand and use the feedback. If we look at feedback as a process, with shared responsibilities, both at the side of the provider and receiver a lot of knobs can be turned to increase effectiveness. Following, some aspects of the feedback process and the feedback message are addressed.

Feedback process

A much used description of feedback is “information from a teacher to a student to reduce the gap between the current situation or performance and the desired goal” (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). This description nicely aligns with the goal-directedness of an effective feedback message (see feedback message). However, this definition stresses the responsibility of the teacher in giving feedback that is useful for the student. We make sure that the feedback message is as good as possible and then throw it through the letterbox for the student to do something with it. Following, we don’t know what happens with the feedback.

In this definition, students are seen as the passive receivers of feedback (Winstone, Nash, Parker, & Rowntree, 2017), while this is unfair. Therefore, we could also frame the definition of feedback differently, following the definition of Carless and Boud (2018, p. 1315) who state that feedback is “A process through which learners make sense of information from various sources and use it to enhance their work or learning strategies”. Here, feedback is seen as a process, and the responsibility of the learner is stressed. For students to be able to take this active role in receiving feedback, some engagement with the feedback is necessary. This engagement is a product of characteristics and behaviour of the sender and receiver, characteristics of the message, and characteristics of the context (Winstone et al., 2017).

If we see feedback as a process with shared responsibilities, we do not only want students to do something with feedback they have received, but also to actively seek feedback. The skills, knowledge and competencies needed to do this can be seen as feedback literacy. ​Feedback literacy is defined by Carless and Boud (2018, p. 1316) as: “The understandings, capacities and dispositions needed to make sense of information and use it to enhance work or learning strategies”. It contains four aspects: (1) appreciating feedback; (2) making judgements; (3) managing affect; and (4) taking action. To develop feedback literacy, we could take these aspects into account in the educational programs. A condition for this is that we see feedback as a process that asks certain skills, knowledge and competencies from both the teacher and the student, for which development opportunities need to be offered.

Some examples to enhance engagement with and literacy on feedback in the feedback process:

  • Ask students to pose feedback questions when they hand in an assignment for feedback;
  • Use and discuss examples of completed assignments to clarify assessment criteria;
  • Ask students to write a short reflection on how they processed the feedback they received on a concept version when they hand in their final assignment;
  • Use peer feedback.

Feedback message

A condition for feedback to be effective in this process with shared responsibilities is that the message is formulated effectively. Many studies have been done into the factors that make a feedback message effective. A much cited (over 9500 times) study is the meta-analysis by John Hattie and Helen Timperley (2007) about the power of feedback. In their meta-analysis, the authors describe that effective feedback answers three questions:

  1. Where is the student going? > feed up;
  2. How is the student going? > feed back);
  3. Where to next? > feed forward.

In general, answering these three questions makes feedback goal-directed and ensures that feedback giver and user work towards the same goal.

Two examples of feedback comments that contain all three questions are:

Figure 1. Example of feed up, feed back and feed forward.

Other aspects that are important to take into account to make sure your feedback message creates the conditions to be effective are:

  • The message needs to relate to a specific part of an assignment and any suggestions given need to be specific.
  • The focus should be on learning. Especially with feedback on concept versions of assignments, you would like the main goal of your feedback to be that the student learns from your comments.
  • It is important to also include positive feedback. It is motivating to hear what you are doing well and provides insight into one’s performance, as long as the positive feedback is also specific.

Concluding, many knobs can be turned to make feedback useful. It is important to see it as a process with shared responsibilities between the feedback provider and receiver.

UU support on feedback

Would you like to take a closer look at the way you embed feedback in your teaching or would you like to work on development of student feedback literacy? Follow this course: How to give feedback (oral and in writing)

Check the offer of Educate-it on feedback and below:

Further reading

  • [Book] Winstone & Carless (2019) Designing Effective Feedback Processes in Higher Education: A Learning-Focused Approach


  • Carless, D. & Boud, D. (2018). The development of student feedback literacy: enabling uptake of feedback. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 43, 1315-1325, doi:10.1080/02602938.2018.1463354
  • Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of educational research, 77(1), 81-112.
  • Winstone, N. E., Nash, R. A., Parker, M., & Rowntree, J. (2017). Supporting Learners’ Agentic Engagement With Feedback: A Systematic Review and a Taxonomy of Recipience Processes. Educational Psychologist, 52, 1-37.