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Assessment for learning

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Feedback is a major way in which assessment can help students learn. Good feedback should adhere to certain principles:

1. Constructive

It must be constructive, pointing out weaknesses in a positive way. It should indicate the successful features of the work and those that are less so; how the work could be improved; how the student might do better in the future.

At many US colleges and universities, students attend first-year writing courses. Here they learn, through detailed feedback from both tutors and fellow students, about the importance of revising drafts – and also about the centrality of feedback to learning (Chickering and Gamson, 1987).

2. Timely

It should be timely. Students in the National Union of Students survey often complained that they received feedback too long after submitting their essay, too late to inform other similar assignments.

No feedback can occur without assessment. But assessment without timely feedback contributes little to learning (Chickering and Gamson, 1987).

3. Given at the right stage

It should come at the right stages in the learning process. Formative assessment and feedback is useful at early points in the course to develop students' abilities. Studies on retention have shown that students are particularly vulnerable in their first term, so early "low stake" feedback is less threatening than getting a grade at the end of the first term, and can be a useful monitor of progress. Isaacs (2001) recommends submitting large pieces of assessable work in stages, for example the plan, the results, the final report with analysis and conclusion.

4. Engaging

Students should be encouraged to engage with their feedback. For example, Isaacs (2001) suggests that students are paired up when work is returned in order to discuss each other's work; and also that they should write what they learned on an index card.

5. Doesn't have to be resource intensive

Feedback does not always need to be resource intensive: it can be automated. For example, computer-assisted assessment uses objective tests in which students choose from a series of predetermined questions and receive feedback.


The University of Strathclyde was able to reduce staff workload and increase student involvement by having regular online testing in a number of subjects. For example, in French, online tasks saved 200 hours of staff time while reducing the exam failure rate from 24 per cent to 4.6 per cent compared with the previous year (see http://www.reap.ac.uk/assessment/pilotsSU.html).