Feedback Champions

Fostering a Supportive Feedback Culture

What is it?

Why is feedback not working?

The 100 interviews carried out with University staff and students by the Southampton Feedback Champions identified key issues with feedback which can be summarised as follows:

Lack of feedback ‘education’ for students
Students are often unaware of the different ways in which feedback is delivered to them and only view feedback as no more than the written comments on their cover sheet. They also rarely view feedback as a two-way process in which they have a role to play.
Lack of staff training
It is felt that there is a lack of training for staff, especially new staff, PhD students acting as markers and staff coming from industry. This may result in non-effective feedback being delivered to students and potentially a lack of consistency in marking.
Lack of consistency in the delivery of feedback
Feedback delivery is very faculty specific, with some faculties having specified formal practices based on students’ needs and module construction. There is a need for a University-wide feedback culture, which shares good practice and promotes consistency in feedback delivery.
Fear of engaging with feedback
Lack of staff training on how to provide feedback and a jaded attitude often translates into students not feeling encouraged to seek feedback, not feeling at ease to discuss it, and fearing humiliation. There is therefore a need for that feedback culture to be supportive to students as well as staff, especially those who are new and coming from industry.
Lack of dialogue between staff and students
To be effective, feedback needs to be an ongoing dialogue between staff and students. However, both seemed disconnected, which resulted in students seeing feedback only as a series of separate rather than interconnected events. This has a negative impact on maximising students’ potential but also stops them from engaging in critical discussion which is at the heart of University life.
Need for timely feedback
Timely feedback was highlighted as a significant issue for students as it makes any feedback ‘useless’ when it doesn’t occur. Feedback on one assignment needs to be delivered before submission of the next. Once the module has been ‘passed’, students perceive feedback comments as worthless for other modules.

In our interviews, whenever members of staff endeavoured to come up with solutions to the above issues

  • by giving plenty of information about assessment and feedback within their module;
  • by ensuring consistency of marking done by several markers;
  • by engaging in a dialogue with students through unconventional methods such as Facebook groups, Twitter, email blasts mid-term evaluation forms;
  • by utilising existing software such as Blackboard and Turn It In;
  • or by giving assignments and feedback in a timely manner, i.e. before other assignments were due and often before the University recommended 4 weeks,

their practice was valued and appreciated by students, and highlighted as best practice, which should be shared across the University. The following recommendations are suggested as potential solutions to the above issues and include examples of best practice which were identified by University staff and students and which also reflect the latest literature on effective feedback in higher education.

How do we foster a supportive feedback culture?

A supportive feedback culture is a culture in which staff and students recognise what effective feedback is [i] . Students feel safe and comfortable to discuss feedback and they engage equally in the process in order to maximise their potential. It is based on 3 principles:

Education for all

Educate students and staff about effective feedback, the different ways in which they receive it and their role within it

Feedback plays a significant part in the learning process and students should therefore be actively encouraged, from the outset, to understand the key issues relating to assessment and feedback at University. The learning, assessment and feedback processes at University can be very different from those which students have encountered previously (at school or in another country).

In managing students’ expectations on assessment feedback, Faculties must ensure that all programmes, at an early stage, (for example, at induction and at the start of modules):

  • introduce students to the purposes and methods of assessment
  • indicate the range and types of feedback that will be made available to students, and explain how and why these may differ from their previous experiences
  • highlight the sources of additional support for learning that are available and how they may be accessed, if needed

Although it is important to educate students about feedback and assessment at an early stage, it is equally important to repeat this process throughout the year so that it becomes common knowledge. Staff must ensure they:

  • convey the importance of recognising feedback as a learning tool or a tool for learning
  • encourage students to see the relevance of feedback from one module to another (esp. for transferrable skills)

Students too have a role to play in educating themselves about feedback and assessment practices. They must ensure that:

  • they are aware of the different ways in which they receive feedback and how they can make it more effective to eventually improve marks and more generally their learning
  • they actively seek feedback from staff and/or peers when required
  • they question feedback if they don’t understand it or disagree with it
  • they give feedback to staff in a constructive way

➨ Go to the staff section to find out how to put the above principles into practice

Safe communication

Promote a safe and comfortable environment which nurtures students’ agency and encourages them to engage with staff into a feedback dialogue

The University should be a safe and comfortable environment in which its members are encouraged to express themselves and engage with confidence in the feedback dialogue. Staff and students are equal members of the university learning community; as such, they should be perceived as peers and be able to engage into a dialogue without feeling inadequate. To make this happen,

  • feedback should be easily accessible and in one place. A dialogue is more likely to happen when the environment is the same for everyone. In other words, one joined system is better than several disconnected systems, e.g. Blackboard, e-Folio, e-Assignments, as these can obstruct a continuing feedback dialogue
  • communication should take place through multiple channels to facilitate effective feedback. Staff and students may prefer some channels to others so a variety of channels ensures that everyone is satisfied
  • communication with students should be in a way that they can understand: use electronic over hand written feedback (if not possible, make sure it is legible) and explain any technical language or jargon if necessary
  • feedback is a personal interaction; it’s important to know that both parties care and are involved in the feedback process. Ideally, a rapport should be established between staff and students so that negative or positive feedback is seen as constructive, which will also build students’ confidence

Feedback should be perceived as an ongoing dialogue[ii] between staff and students as opposed to a series of disconnected events. This dialogue should help students improve their work and staff their practice. An ongoing feedback dialogue means that any misunderstanding can be cleared and feedback is perceived in the right way. This is especially true for international students and staff who face challenges associated with coming from a different learning culture and speaking another language. Through dialogue, they can gradually improve their understanding of feedback by literally talking it through, and avoiding misperception and misunderstanding.

➨ Go to the staff section to find out how to put the above principles into practice

Active engagement

Encourage students to take control of their learning[iii][iv] and staff to enable them to do so, so that both can engage in the feedback process and make it more effective[v]

Feedback that staff gives to students on an assignment is only half the story when it comes to improving their work. However useful and constructive feedback is, students will get very little from it by just looking at it. They need to actively engage with it to make the most of it and to actually benefit from it in terms of their next assignment and more generally their learning.[vi]

Feedback is a two-way street. Students have a role and a responsibility in making feedback effective as they are equal contributors in the university learning community. Engagement in feedback is important because it is a way of engaging in critical discussion, which is an important skill that students gain from university. It is a key difference between learning at school and in higher education. To make this happen,

  • encourage students to engage with each other and promote a constructive culture of peer feedback. Assessing peer work enables students to internalise the assessment criteria and use it for their own benefit. Peer and self-assessment educate students about marking standards as they experience it themselves, which as a result helps them assess their own work better before handing it in and compare their thoughts with the lecturer’s mark/comments[vii]
  • engagement is more likely if students can see their progress. Keeping a record of feedback is important for visualising progress
  • make feedback real for students. Get students to reflect on previous feedback and make the connection between now and next time. In other words, make the link between feedback and feedforward, allow them to see the long-term use of feedback and get them to commit to future improvements
  • make feedback available before students have to submit their next assignment as they will be able to use it for the assignment and therefore more likely to engage with it
  • prioritise feedback rather than overwhelm students with too much criticism; it is then more likely that students will work on a few items, e.g. 2 to 3 areas for improvement, as they will appear more manageable.

➨ Go to the staff section to find out how to put the above principles into practice

Assessment for learning

A supportive feedback culture encourages an assessment approach based on Assessment for Learning (AfL), which views assessment as key to ‘help students improve their learning’ and enable them to become independent learners for life, and not just as a measuring tool.[viii]

‘Assessment for learning is the process of seeking and interpreting evidence for use by learners and their teachers to decide where the learners are in their learning, where they need to go and how best to get there.’[ix] In an AfL perspective, teacher-to-learner as well as learner-to-teacher feedback is key as the former helps learners keep track of their progress towards achieving the learning objectives and the latter (the assessment’s outcomes) helps teachers adjust their teaching to the learners’ needs.

AfL strategies include: the ‘strategic use of questioning’, ‘effective teacher feedback’, ‘peer feedback’, ‘student self-assessment’ and the ‘formative use of summative assessment.’[x] These strategies promote formative assessment practice and are all based on active use of feedback.

➨ Go to the staff section to find out how to put the above principles into practice

Evaluation of feedback

For this culture to remain active and adapted to the needs of its members, it needs to be reviewed and evaluated regularly. This can be done via mid-term or end-of-term evaluation forms, student-staff committees or the National Student Survey (NSS)

➨ Go to the staff section to find out how to put the above principles into practice


[i] Sambell, “Rethinking Feedback in Higher Education: An Assessment for Learning Perspective,” 5.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Boud, Enhancing Learning Through Self Assessment.
[iv] Nicol, “Transforming Assessment and Feedback: Enhancing Integration and Empowerment  in the First Year.”
[v] Sambell, “Rethinking Feedback in Higher Education: An Assessment for Learning Perspective,” 5.
[vi] Gibbs, “Making the Best Use of Feedback on Assignments: A Guide for Students.”
[vii] Price et al., “Assessment Standards.”
[viii] Sambell, “Rethinking Feedback in Higher Education: An Assessment for Learning Perspective,” 6.
[ix] Assessment Reform Group, “Assessment for Learning – 10 Principles.”
[x] Education Services Australia, “What Is Assessment for Learning?”

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