What is feedback?

Much of the research literature around formative assessment points to the importance of feedback to students as part of the learning process. Sadler (1989, 77) argues that formative assessment is "specifically intended to provide feedback on performance to improve and accelerate learning." Proving a student with a grade or mark in response to a piece of assessable work is not, except in the broadest sense, giving feedback. Similarly, making comments on student work is not, of itself, providing feedback. Feedback is a term that requires careful definition for it to represent a useful contribution to learning.

Ramaprasad (1983, 4 cited in Walker, 2009) precisely, but not particularly usefully, defines feedback as ‘information about the gap between the actual level and the reference level of a system parameter which is used to alter the gap in some way.'

In the context of assessment for learning, the ‘system parameter' is the intended learning outcomes from a course, topic or (most often) a particular assessment task, the ‘actual level' is each student's achievement in response to the assessment task, while the ‘reference level' is the agreed standard of performance expected for successful completion of the task. So in this context, feedback is information provided to students that is used by them to alter the gap between their current performance and the ideal (i.e. information that helps the student learn). If comments are not or cannot be used by students to alter the gap, then those comments do not constitute feedback!

As Walker (2009, 68) notes "a necessary precondition for a student to act on a gap is that she/he is given a comment that enables her/him to do so: the comments must be usable by the student." Consequently "it is the quality, not just the quantity, of feedback that merits our closest attention" (Sadler, 1998, 84).

Much of the research on feedback has focused on the nature of written comments on student assignments, although some (Nicol and Macfarlane, 2006) has addressed wider feedback practices that can help students build self-assessment and self-regulation abilities in relation to their thinking, motivation and behaviour during learning. This perspective moves the feedback process away from being an ‘after the assessment event' transmission of information from teacher to student and towards an ongoing dialogue to help build students' knowledge, skills, confidence and perception about themselves as learners.