Assess and give feedback to learners

Appropriate methods for teaching, learning and assessing in the subject area in the subject area and at the level of the academic programme

What can I do?

  • Give feedback quickly 2,3
  • When providing feedback on errors: Explain what the error is, why it’s an error, and how to fix the error 1,4
  • When giving negative or critical feedback, couple it with praise, focus on the criteria, and give it in person 1

What is this about?

In the context of higher education, feedback refers to information provided to students about their performance or progress, with the goal of helping them improve. Feedback can be given in many forms, including written comments, grades, scores, or verbal feedback. It can be provided by instructors, peers, or self-assessment. Feedback is not the same as evaluation, which refers to the process of assigning a value or judgment to a student's performance. Feedback is intended to be constructive and focused on helping students learn, rather than simply evaluating or grading their work.

What's the evidence say?

Elaborative feedback - that is, feedback that helps students to not only understand what mistakes they made, but also why they made these mistakes and what they can do to avoid them the next time - has a very large effect on student learning (➕➕➕➕➕). Elaborative feedback is robust across computer-based instruction 3, reading comprehension 2, and when used to deliver negative feedback 1.

The timing of feedback has also been shown to be most effective when delivered after as opposed to during attempts (➕➕➕➕) 2 and immediately instead of after a delay (➕➕➕➕) 3. Negative (or critical) feedback can have a detrimental effect on intrinsic motivation (➖➖➖➖), but this effect can be buffered if the feedback is given in person (➕), references criteria (➕), and is coupled with praise (➕➕➕➕) 1. Finally, the effect of feedback on learning is greater when delivered by students (➕➕➕➕➕), compared to when it’s delivered by educators (➕➕➕➕) 4.

What's the underlying theory?

There are several underlying theories that explain the effects of feedback on learning, including Self-Determination Theory, Self-Efficacy Theory, and the Social Cognitive Theory.

According to Self-Determination Theory, feedback can enhance motivation and engagement by promoting a sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy refers to the feeling of being in control of one's own life and decisions. Competence refers to the feeling of being capable and effective. Relatedness refers to the feeling of being connected to others. Feedback can foster these feelings by providing clear goals, rules, and feedback, and by giving students a sense of choice and control over their learning experience.

Self-Efficacy Theory suggests that feedback can influence learning by providing information about students' abilities and performance, which can shape their perceptions of their own self-efficacy, or belief in their own ability to succeed. Feedback that is specific, timely, and actionable can help students see their progress and feel more confident in their abilities. On the other hand, feedback that is vague, late, or not actionable can undermine self-efficacy and discourage learning.

The Social Cognitive Theory suggests that feedback can influence learning by providing information about the standards and expectations of the learning environment and by providing opportunities for social comparison. Feedback can also provide a sense of social support and encouragement, which can enhance motivation and learning.

Where does the evidence come from?

This evidence summary is informed by four meta-analyses that cover related but separate topics on feedback. The paper by Fong and colleagues 1 explores the effects of negative feedback on intrinsic motivation. This paper included 78 controlled studies from across different student groups. There was very little risk of publication bias influencing the results, but the heterogeneity score was high (I2 = 0.79). However, the effect of negative feedback on intrinsic motivation compared to positive feedback was so large (➖➖➖➖➖), that it’s unlike that any additional findings would shift the findings considerably.

Swart and colleagues 2 explored the effect of feedback on learning from text. This paper included 60 controlled studies, reported a N fail-safe above 2000 studies, and reported findings from a broad population. The only issue with this study was the significant heterogeneity statistic.

Van der Kleij and colleagues 3 explored the effects of computer-based feedback on learning. The included 36 studies, which were mostly randomised control trials. Their sample were broad and their risk of publication bias was low (76 studies with contrary findings would be needed to overturn their conclusions). The only issue was the significant heterogeneity statistic.

Finally, Wisniewski and colleague 4 completed a meta-analysis exploring the effects of feedback on learning across a very broad sample. The included 435 experimental studies in their paper, but had a high heterogeneity score (I2 = 0.86) and didn’t report publication bias statistics.


1 Fong, C. J., Patall, E. A., Vasquez, A. C., & Stautberg, S. (2019). A meta-analysis of negative feedback on intrinsic motivation. Educational Psychology Review, 31, 121–162.

2 Swart, E. K., Nielen, T. M., & Sikkema-de Jong, M. T. (2019). Supporting learning from text: a meta-analysis on the timing and content of effective feedback. Educational Research Review, 28.

3 Van der Kleij, F. M., Feskens, R. C., & Eggen, T. J. (2015). Effects of feedback in a computer-based learning environment on students’ learning outcomes: a meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 85(4), 475-511.

4 Wisniewski, B., Zierer, K., & Hattie, J. (2020). The power of feedback revisited: a meta-analysis of educational feedback research. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 3087.

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