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Feedback in teaching

Since John Hattie's meta-study "Visible Learning" was translated into German in 2013, one topic has become an integral part of the debate about our education system: feedback. But what is feedback and what is not?

In a nutshell: What is feedback?

Regular and structured feedback is a crucial factor for successful learning. Especially competence-oriented teaching demands more from students than just listening or reading scripts. Ideally, every learning step is planned in an action-oriented way: trial and error, gaining experience, eliminating blind spots or misunderstandings, exploring special cases, or experiencing the limits of models – students do all of this when they are asked to engage in learning activities. All of this is more effective when students have the opportunity to learn through feedback on their performance and to help improve teaching by giving feedback to teachers. Feedback is…

all dialogue to support learning in both formal and informal situations“

David Carless, Diane Salter, Min Yang, Joy Lam: Developing sustainable Feedback practices. Studies in Higher Education.

This means that you should allow time to coordinate with the students. Are the learning steps designed in such a way that students can see for themselves at any time whether they are progressing well? In other words, can students take responsibility for their learning (and their difficulties with learning!)? Is there enough opportunity to practice? And is feedback given on the results of the exercises? Are the criteria by which you evaluate clear? And is the working atmosphere open and constructive so that feedback from students on the structure of the learning processes is also possible?

How do I effectively plan feedback?

Both teachers and students give and receive informal feedback daily. You could also modify Paul Watzlawick’s bon mot “one cannot not communicate” to “one cannot not give feedback”.

Therefore, feedback is communication. People shape social interaction and thus give each other feedback: A smile or a curious question, a frown, or argumentative resistance are feedback that, in turn, generates feedback. These reactions provide a lot of information and are usually perceived unconsciously. They are thus prone to misunderstandings, prejudices, and misinterpretations. This, for instance, can give the impression that the students are not interested in the subject. However, they may just seem less motivated because they are overwhelmed.

For this reason, you should always collect structured feedback when teaching. This means that you have to think about what you want to know from whom about what, and that you create feedback settings that match your question. Since a questionnaire provides different answers than a conversation, a 1:1 exchange is different from a group survey, written, asynchronous, and therefore anonymous feedback is perhaps more direct and honest than verbal, synchronous communication with eye contact.

The art of planning structured feedback is to select suitable questions, formats, and times and, ideally, to create a feedback concept for the entire semester. So think about what you want to explore and when, and then select methods and topics. This is how you can proceed:

  • Would you like to create opportunities to give feedback to students, or would you rather receive feedback to learn about students’ perspectives?
  • You can then decide in a second step whether you want to focus on the students’ performance (feedback on products) or rather on the collaborative work in the course (feedback on processes).
  • Also, you should consider whether the feedback should take place during the learning process and, therefore, affect further development (formative) or whether you want to review the performance of your students at the end of your course (summative).

You should consider the following aspects

When it comes to collecting feedback, a few basic principles will help you to work together openly and constructively.

In order to provide feedback that is conducive to learning, you should plan methods and times while you are still conceptualizing the course. Feedback takes time, so it might be useful to reduce the amount of content to allow for more sustainable and challenging learning through regular feedback.

Many of the classic activating methods are suitable for feedback. Using activation, you will establish a constructive and dialog-oriented working relationship with the students, can make error-friendliness tangible and thus reduce fears. Moreover, you will be perceived by the students as an interlocutor with a high level of expertise and curiosity about the challenges that novices experience when entering your subject. Ideally, you should plan some major milestones during the semester that provide an opportunity to review the joint learning process and its results. In addition, you should use small, simple methods (e.g., one-minute paper, think-pair-share, scoring and scaling) in each session to ensure that mutual feedback is possible. In this way, you can turn teaching into a continuous and inspiring exchange.

Receiving feedback also needs to be learned! This applies to both teachers and students.

  1. Those giving feedback need protection, otherwise they may not speak openly. The classic request for feedback “Who hasn’t understood this yet?” to a group can, therefore, lead to no one responding – not because they understood everything, but only because the students don’t want to expose themselves. Thus, teachers as recipients of feedback should provide protection when requesting feedback from students: for example, it is easier to express criticism if you can remain anonymous. Another option is to ask quantitative questions in a first step, for example, by scaling or scoring, and then follow up with a qualitative exploration.
  2. When teachers receive feedback, they should be aware that students often have little experience in giving feedback to teachers. Therefore, it is important to ask as precisely as possible: the broader the questions, the more varied and less specific the answers are likely to be. This can be helpful when it comes to identifying aspects that you hadn’t thought of before. However, it can also provide unsatisfactory, imprecise, or brief answers. Closed questions specify the answer options very narrowly, that is, “yes” or “no”. Although the questions can be answered quickly, the wording may not reflect the reality of the students. With closed questions, it is important to ask as precisely as possible to avoid misunderstandings. It may also help to add an open question to the answer, for example, by asking for specific examples or providing an opportunity to explain the answer. Quantitative questions are quick to answer but provide little information in terms of content. Nevertheless, they allow an initial assessment of the situation if, for example, 80% of students give a 2 on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 10 (completely) when asked whether they have understood the topic of the session. This result is a useful starting point for asking for reasons afterwards because the students are then aware that they are not alone in their confusion and are more likely to have the confidence to talk about it.
  3. It is important not to respond to the feedback with justifications. This leaves those giving feedback with the impression that they are not being heard. If feedback is clearly based on a misunderstanding, it can be helpful to ask questions in order to understand the point of the feedback. However, feedback should always be accepted. You can then take your time to sort out which aspects of the feedback are relevant from your point of view and perhaps discuss them in the next session.

Products can be, for example, solutions for exercises, intermediate results for more complex work phases, or reflections on previous knowledge. You and your students can use products to determine whether the learning process is contributing to the learning outcome as intended. Therefore, products created during the semester are closely related to the exam at the end of the semester, and continuous feedback during the course can contribute to a more open and challenging exam (see formative – summative).

Before you can give feedback on products, you should define criteria for the performance the product requires and discuss them with the students. You should avoid phrases such as “good”, “exceptional” or “inadequate” as they are too general or merely compare a performance with that of other students. Further, you should avoid evaluating people instead of their performance – phrases such as “someone is a good student” or “this group is very weak” are usually too general and not conducive to learning. Instead, you should rely on the criteria to answer the question of how you can tell whether a particular performance is good or not. In other words, you need precise, task-oriented formulations.

You will find a tabular overview of these types of feedback in this document.

If it is more about process feedback, it can be useful to develop criteria for successful or unsuccessful processes together and to consider both the teacher’s and the students’ perspectives. With process feedback in particular, students may perceive a situation very differently from you because, as novices in the subject, they may find things difficult that you do confidently and intuitively with your high level of expertise so that you no longer remember the initial obstacles. Process feedback can, therefore, be an opportunity to shed light not only on communication, pace, and working methods but also on the logic of the respective subject.

In formative feedback, or “feedback for learning”, students receive feedback on their performance during the learning process, for example, on solutions to exercises or intermediate results such as milestones. Therefore, formative feedback is often feedback on products (see above). It allows you to see whether the students can meet the requirements that should be met at the respective time. By providing regular formative feedback, you can also prevent students from not participating regularly and trying to memorize everything just before the exam.

This is because formative feedback provides students with continuous feedback on their performance. That is particularly important in order to enable personal responsibility. It allows both you and your students to better organize the learning process during the semester, for example, by planning more time for practice or more intensive phases for questions. In addition, formative feedback enables teachers to see more clearly which aspects students find particularly challenging, where there are misunderstandings or misconceptions, and what is required to overcome these challenges.

You will find a tabular overview of formative and summative feedback in this document.

Summative feedback, the “feedback of learning”, is the classic examination at the end of the course. Feedback on performance aims to complete the learning process on the one hand and to evaluate it on the other. This means that you and your students can no longer change it but can only draw conclusions from it for the next learning process. Summative feedback is, in fact, more of an examination than feedback and, thus, has functions that only the examination can have: evaluation, selection, and – in the case of final examinations – information to stakeholders outside the university.

Ideally, you should use formative feedback during the semester

  1. to regularly check low-level taxonomic knowledge in preparation for the final exam and thus encourage long-term and sustainable learning so that
  2. in the exam at the end of the semester, no more time has to be scheduled for knowledge queries, but more demanding tasks can be set at the taxonomy level that you have described in the Learning Outcome.

Thus, an integrated feedback and examination concept can help facilitate demanding competence-oriented examinations.


Feedback is one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement.

John Hattie in The Power of Feedback, p. 81

However, some aspects need to be considered, otherwise it will not be conducive to learning. Plan feedback systematically, use a variety of methods, and take your students’ feedback seriously. Consistent feedback turns university teaching into an intensive dialog about your subject, which brings long-term and inspiring learning to life.

Links & Literature

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  • Antonia Wunderlich

    Dr. Antonia Wunderlich is a research assistant at the Center for Academic Development at TH Köln. She heads the New Appointee Program at TH Köln and offers coaching and advice on university didactics topics.

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