This edition we take a look at Nicol and Macfarlane‐Dick’s “Formative assessment and self‐regulated learning: A model and seven principles of good feedback practice” (2006). In their paper the authors provided a range of suggested feedback activities (reproduced below), providing a fantastic reservoir of activities you can incorporate immediately into your classes – most of which require no additional resourcing.

Feedback plays a particularly prominent role in contemporary approaches to the learning journey. Around the turn of the millennium, pedagogical theory was shifting towards a ‘student-centred’ approach to ‘active learning’. However, by the mid-2000s Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick felt that approaches to feedback had not kept pace with those changes. They observed:

In higher education, formative assessment and feedback are still largely controlled by and seen as the responsibility of teachers; and feedback is still generally conceptualised as a transmission process… Teachers ‘transmit’ feedback messages to students about what is right and wrong in their academic work, about its strengths and weaknesses, and students use this information to make subsequent improvements. (Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick, 2006, 199)

In response, their paper sought to reframe assessment and feedback as a student-centred activity. They foregrounded the role of students in actively interpreting, responding to, acting on, and generating feedback, including self-generated feedback, and feedback from external sources such as peers and teachers.

Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick posited that a student’s relationship with feedback plays an important role in the ‘self-regulation’ of their learning process, which is a critical skill for lifelong learning. Drawing from Pintrich and Zusho (2002), they identify three aspects of learning that feedback practices should consider: thinking (cognitive processes and knowledge), motivations (goals and levels of achievement) and behaviours. According to Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick, feedback only becomes meaningful once a student has processed it and it affects their cognitive, motivational and/or behavioural state.

The authors suggest self-regulating capacity can be developed by “structuring learning environments in ways that make learning processes explicit, through meta-cognitive training, self-monitoring and by providing opportunities to practise self-regulation” (Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick, 2006, 205).

In assessment practices, self-comparison is a critical process fostered through feedback – students must be able to identify:

  • where they want to get to
  • where they currently are
  • how to close the gap between those states

In order to facilitate this, Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick propose seven principles of effective feedback, taking into consideration the cognitive, motivational, and behavioural aspects of self-regulation. For each principle they provide analysis, summarised here, and a range of suggested activities, reproduced in full. According to Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick:

  1. Effective feedback helps clarify what good performance is (goals, criteria, expected standards)
    While all assessment tasks have goals and criteria, studies have shown there is often considerable mismatch between a teacher’s understanding of goals, and a student’s. Explaining criteria in written statements is difficult to do effectively. One powerful tool is the provision of exemplars. Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick suggest clarity can be fostered by:

    a. providing students with ‘exemplars’ of performance;
    b. providing better definitions of requirements using carefully constructed criteria sheets and performance-level definitions;
    c. increasing discussion and reflection about criteria and standards in class (e.g. before an assignment);
    d. involving students in assessment exercises where they mark or comment on other students’ work in relation to defined criteria and standards;
    e. workshops where students in collaboration with the teacher devise or negotiate their own assessment criteria for a piece of work

  2. Effective feedback facilitates the development of self-assessment (reflection) in learning
    It’s important to provide structured self-assessment opportunities, whether of their own work, or of peers’ work. Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick suggest self-assessment can be fostered by:

    a. integrating tutor feedback with self-assessment activities
    b. providing students with opportunities to evaluate and provide feedback on each other’s work;
    c. creating frequent opportunities for reflection by students during their study;
    d. requesting the kinds of feedback they would like when they hand in work;
    e. identifying the strengths and weaknesses in their own work in relation to criteria or standards before handing it in for teacher feedback;
    f. reflecting on their achievements and selecting work in order to compile a portfolio;
    g. reflecting before a task on achievement milestones and reflecting back on progress and forward to the next stage of action

  3. Effective feedback delivers high quality information to students about their learning
    Teachers are more effective in identifying errors in students work than the students themselves or their peers. However, there is further research to be done in identifying what quantity and content of feedback is the most effective. One suggestion by Lunsford is that feedback should focus on how the essay was experienced (how it worked), rather than offer judgemental comments about strengths and weaknesses – feedback should be non-authoritative in tone, and offer corrective advice about content and writing processes. Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick suggest quality information can be offered by:

    a. making sure that feedback is provided in relation to pre-defined criteria but paying particular attention to the number of criteria;
    b. providing timely feedback—this means before it is too late for students to change their work (i.e. before submission) rather than just, as the research literature often suggests, soon after submission;
    c. providing corrective advice, not just information on strengths/weaknesses;
    d. limiting the amount of feedback so that it is actually used;
    e. prioritising areas for improvement;
    f. providing online tests so that feedback can be accessed anytime, any place and as many times as students wish.

  4. Effective feedback encourages teacher and peer dialogue around learning
    Evidence suggests feedback is often not clear to students – rather than a one way ‘telling’, feedback should be an engaging dialogue. Dialogue amongst peers can be particularly effective – it reinforces what students have learned, allows them to share it in language their peers are more comfortable in, and fosters a detachment of judgement. Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick suggest dialogue can be fostered by:
    a. conceptualise feedback more as dialogue rather than as information transmission
    b. structure small group break-out discussions of feedback in class, after students have received written comments on their individual assignments
    c. use classroom technologies to collate feedback, and use it as a trigger for peer discussion (e.g. ‘convince your neighbour that you have the right answer’) and teacher managed discussion in large classes
    d. providing feedback using one-minute papers in class (see Angelo & Cross, 1993);
    e. reviewing feedback in tutorials, where students are asked to read the feedback comments they have been given earlier on an assignment, and discuss these with peers (they might also be asked to suggest strategies to improve performance next time);
    f. asking students to find one or two examples of feedback comments that they found useful and to explain how they helped;
    g. having students give each other descriptive feedback on their work in relation to published criteria before submission;
    h. group projects, especially where students discuss criteria and standards before the project begins.
  5. Effective feedback encourages positive motivational beliefs and self-esteem
    The acknowledgement of the role of motivation and beliefs into feedback practices is one of this paper’s main contributions. Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick cite research that grade-focused assessment and feedback has a negative impact on lifelong learning and the utilization of feedback. An emphasis on process over results leads to better outcomes. Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick suggest positive motivational beliefs can be facilitated by:

    a. providing many low-stakes assessment tasks, with feedback geared to providing information about progress and achievement, rather than high-stakes summative assessment tasks where information is only about success or failure, or about how students compare with their peers
    b. providing marks on written work only after students have responded to feedback comments (Gibbs 1999);
    c. allocating time for students to rewrite selected pieces of work—this would help change students’ expectations about purpose and learning goals; d. automated testing with feedback; e. drafts and resubmissions

  6. Effective feedback provides opportunities to close the gap between current and desired performance
    It’s essential that students are able to respond to the feedback to close the formative assessment loop and improve their work. This can benefit the current task (eg. progress feedback, allowing for resubmission/retaking quizzes), and/or future tasks. Feedback should help students recognize the next steps in their learning, and how to take them. Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick suggest opportunities for closing the gab can be provided by:

    a. providing feedback on work in progress and increase opportunities for resubmission;
    b. introducing two-stage assignments where feedback on stage one helps improve stage two;
    c. modelling the strategies they would use to close a performance gap in class (e.g. model how to structure an essay when given a new question);
    d. specifically providing some ‘action points’ alongside the normal feedback provision;
    e. involving students in groups in identifying their own action points in class after they have read the feedback on their assignments.

  7. Effective feedback provides information to teachers that can be used to help shape the teaching
    Teachers need to review and reflect on good data about how students are progressing.

    a. setting frequent assessment tasks, especially diagnostic tests
    b. using variants of the one-minute paper—questions that are posed to students before a teaching session begins, and responded to at the end of the session (e.g. What was the most important argument in this lecture? What question remains uppermost in your mind now at the end of this teaching session?).
    c. using one-minute papers to provide feedback to the students (e.g. teachers replay some of the student responses to the one-minute paper in class at the next teaching session).

By using some of these strategies and principles, the learning design can shift the focus in feedback practices to the student, and ensure they get the most out of them.

We’d love for you to share your experience implementing any of the activities listed above, or any not on the list. What worked well? What challenges did you face? Let us all know in the comments section.

Articles in The Quick Study:

Gibbs, G. (1999). “Using Assessment Strategically to Change the Way Students.” Assessment matters in higher education 41
Nicol, D. J. and D. Macfarlane‐Dick (2006). “Formative assessment and self‐regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice.” Studies in Higher Education 31(2): 199-218
Pintrich, P. R. and A. Zusho (2002). The development of academic self-regulation: The role of cognitive and motivational factors. Development of achievement motivation. San Diego, CA, US, Academic Press: 249-284

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