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Blog 206

Blog 206

Working with Formative Feedback: Setting up Formative Feedback Guidelines

By Agnes Whitfield, Department of English, LA&PS

Closeup of the author in front of an off-white background

This is part one of a three-part blog post about working with formative feedback in a second-year English literature course given online. This part looks at setting up formative feedback guidelines and provides some preliminary assessment of the results of formative feedback for student learning and engagement. For part two, click here and for part three, click here.

I first became aware of the terms ‘formative’ and ‘summative feedback’ through a Teaching Commons webinar, "Designing Assessment to Drive Learning," given by Natasha May and Lisa Endersby on October 19, 2016. As I wrote in a previous Teaching Commons blog entry, I had been offering students a revision option and working on how best to provide feedback for this process since 2010. By introducing the dynamic educational dialogue on formative feedback, Natasha and Lisa’s webinar opened up a whole new research framework for my reflections.

Crucially, formative feedback places the focus on learning, in contrast to summative feedback, whose main goal is evaluation. Over the last two decades, studies have overwhelmingly confirmed the pedagogical value of formative feedback. Whereas summative feedback is often discouraging and demotivating, feedback that focuses on how students can improve their work, rather than on their mistakes, can significantly increase their skill acquisition and positive mindset towards learning. I’ve put some helpful references at the end of the blog.

How does formative feedback work?

Formative feedback can be given as part of a pedagogical or assessment activity, through scaffolded assignments (students move from easier to more difficult tasks), or multiple in-process assessments including peer assessments. In other words, students pick up on what adjustments they need to make as they go along, thus reinforcing skill development. I have found this kind of in-process formative feedback difficult to carry out in large online courses where essays are the main form of assignment and students are working individually on different timelines. Consequently, I have focused on developing a formative approach to essay feedback, which students can then apply in revising and resubmitting their work or use in future assignments. Optimizing feedback to make it as concrete and constructive as possible remains challenging given students’ different learning styles, motivation, and learning contexts.

Generally, scholars agree that for feedback to be formative, "it should be nonevaluative, supportive, timely, and specific" (Shute 153).This means focusing on the task and the task criterion, decentering evaluative language and the instructor-student hierarchy it implies, conceptualising concrete actions students can undertake to move toward a more effective performance of the task, and expressing these suggestions in a way students can understand and utilize.

Developing formative feedback guidelines

Since the courses I was giving relied on TA assistance with grading, I found it helpful to develop formative feedback guidelines outlining how these principles could be applied. The guidelines set out some dos and don’ts: 1) avoid all negative or negatively judgmental comments (e.g., "poorly done," "incorrect," "awkward writing") as well as personal and subjective positive comments (e.g., "good," "excellent") that set the marker up as an authority and situate the evaluation process within an interpersonal rather than a task-based frame; 2) phrase all comments on what could be done to improve the essay in positive terms connected to the essay assignment (e.g., "Regrouping your points more coherently, with one paragraph for each point, would increase the effectiveness of your essay," "Some editing to vary sentence structure and improve concision could enhance your writing style"); 3) align comments as specifically as possible with concrete actions students can carry out (e.g., "Developing your points and substantiating them with more quotes from the text would add depth to your essay"); and 4) focus on the main issues for improvement so that the feedback remains manageable for students, and doesn’t overload (and discourage) them. The guidelines also called for the use of in-text edits to provide students with concrete examples of how they could improve sentence or paragraph structure and clarity.

Formative feedback and student success

Last year, two TAs, Vanessa Evans and Breanna Simpson, and I developed a research project entitled "Moving to Formative Feedback" to assess the usefulness of formative feedback in improving student success as well as potential implementation challenges. Our preliminary results are very positive, showing that the feedback was well received by the students and contributed to significant improvement in their essay writing skills. Over half the class used the feedback and revision opportunity to rework and resubmit at least one of the three assignments. Revisions led on average to a one letter grade improvement in the mark. What is also significant is that even students who chose not to revise an assignment were able to use the feedback effectively to improve subsequent work. When we compared the final course grade for students with their grade before revision on their first assignment, we found that on average all students in the course had improved, although the improvement was substantially higher for students who had revised their work. Moreover, the more assignments the students revised, the more their work improved.

Formative feedback and student satisfaction

In their responses to an anonymous survey on feedback that we conducted, as well as the online course evaluations, students also showed a high rate of satisfaction with the feedback. The survey results suggest that students find in-text editing suggestions particularly helpful, as well as substantive comments on how to improve argumentation. The online course evaluation results were 4.80 out of 5 for the overall rating of the course instruction. Questions related to course activities and feedback specifically led to results of 6.70 out of 7, and 4.67 out of 5, respectively.

The project has led to follow-up questions concerning how to enhance student motivation to use feedback to revise (the opportunity to improve their mark appears to be a strong but not necessarily determining factor), how to refine feedback, and how formative feedback could be incorporated in the development of a general institutional culture of learning as process. We are preparing an article on the project for submission to a peer-reviewed journal.

In part two and part three of our blog series, Vanessa Evans and Breanna Simpson provide a TA perspective on challenges in moving from summative to formative feedback.

Some helpful references on formative feedback and student learning

Bennett, Randy E. . "Formative assessment: A critical review." Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, vol. 18, no. 1, 2011, pp. 5–25,

Irons, Alastair. "Formative Assessment and Feedback Techniques." Enhancing Learning through Formative Assessment and Feedback,
Routledge, 2007, pp. 70–86,

Knight, Simon, et al.  "Acawriter: A learning analytics tool for formative feedback on academic writing." Journal of Writing Research, vol. 12, no. 1, 2020,
pp. 141–186,

Shute, Valerie J. "Focus on Formative Feedback." Review of Educational Research, vol. 78, no. 1, 2008, pp. 153–189,

About the author

Agnes Whitfield is Professor of English at York University. She has published twelve books and over 90 peer-reviewed articles on Canadian literature in English and French, and translation. She has been visiting professor at the University of Bologna, McGill University, the University of Ottawa and Carleton University, and the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz. In 2012, she founded Vita Traductiva, an international peer-reviewed publication series in Translation Studies. Building on over 20 years of experience in blended and online teaching, she is currently exploring student engagement, learning outcomes and formative feedback in online literature classes. Agnes Whitfield, Vanessa Evans and Breanna Simpson have also co-authored an article on enhancing student engagement in online discussion forums, published in the International Journal of Online Pedagogy and Course Design (2022).