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Providing individual written feedback on formative and summative assessments

Below Keren Bright (Open University) offers some pointers to providing effective feedback.

Two findings from the second National Student Survey reported in 2006 provided a dramatic contrast – whilst 80% of students were satisfied with their courses overall, 40% were not satisfied with their course assessment and feedback.

There may of course be all sorts of reasons for this difference between the percentages. What some students may actually be saying is that they were disappointed with the marks they were awarded. Students may also be dissatisfied with assessment and feedback because they did not adequately reflect the design and learning outcomes of the course. Additionally, students may fail to recognise the many ways in which feedback may be provided – if it is not in writing directed to them personally, it has not happened. Feedback can also be delivered orally in lectures, in tutorials and in one to one meetings. But the dramatic difference in the two percentages above must also indicate that for many students the quality of the feedback they receive is inadequate.

At this point it may be instructive to reflect upon your own experience as a student and what you wanted to know after you had submitted a piece of work. Clearly you wanted to know your mark as soon as possible, and probably how you compared with the rest of the student cohort. You would want your mark to be justified by the marker and be told what the reasons were for receiving the mark it did. You would also want to know what else you should do

It is a surprising thing that many of us law teachers have never been taught how to mark student work or how to give feedback (the same is of course true across all academic disciplines). We have just been expected to know how to do it by some automatic rite of passage with which we have not had to engage. It is also surprising how little has been published about the provision of various forms of feedback and their relative effectiveness.

What follows are suggestions to consider when providing written feedback to individual students. They are given against an appreciation that this is highly demanding of staff time, particularly when student numbers have expanded and the resources at institutions may not have increased in the same proportion. However, perhaps we also need to have an awareness of an apparent increase in student expectations in recent years, especially following the rise in tuition fees.

Whilst it may prove impossible to provide individually tailored written feedback for all assessments, the educative aim surely ought to be to provide this for some.

General considerations

Consider both the intellectual and the emotional perspectives when commenting on a student’s work. Be informed by how you feel when you receive criticism, even when it is constructive.

  1. Use a friendly, conversational tone.
  2. Ensure your handwriting is legible (a basic point, but a common student complaint).
  3. Better still, type your feedback.
  4. Return feedback to students promptly (ideally within two weeks of submission) and before they prepare their next assessment. Feedback and feed-forward become less meaningful as time passes.
  5. Be available to students after they have received their feedback: they may need specific development or wish to discuss your comments.

Comments on student scripts

Good practice:

  1. Invariably phrase your comments as statements and not as questions.
  2. Explain your comments.
  3. Tell the student what they did well and why. Tell the student where they went wrong and why.
  4. Unravel misunderstanding.
  5. Point out and explain irrelevant content. Point out and explain missing content.
  6. Consider referring the student to cases, statutory sections, chapters/pages in particular texts (although the approach taken here will vary between institutions).
  7. In places rewrite the student’s wording to demonstrate improvement (rather than commenting “This is confused”, “This could be better expressed”, “This sentence needs to be more succinct”).

What is best avoided:

  1. Ticks without explanatory comment are fairly unhelpful.
  2. Writing “good” without explaining why something was “good” or how it could be made better.
  3. Frequently using question marks and expressing comments as questions. This creates uncertainty for students. However, the occasional question to encourage the student to think is helpful.
  4. Giving so much feedback, no matter how well intentioned, that a student feels overwhelmed and discouraged by the amount of criticism.
  5. Giving so much feedback that a student is unable to distinguish between the minor points indicated for improvement and the major.
  6. Exasperation, sarcasm, rudeness, attempts at humour at the student’s expense.
  7. Words, terms and phrases the student is unlikely to know (unless you explain them). Again, the approach taken here will vary between institutions.
  8. Abbreviations, poor grammar, spelling and punctuation.
  9. Instructions difficult to act upon without further clarification, for example “Expand your argument”, “This needs greater analysis”.

Summary comments or general analysis

Good practice:

  1. It is old advice, but it works! Start and end your summary or analysis with positive comments. Helpful criticism with suggestions for improvement should be sandwiched between them. Remember that part of your role is to support and encourage your students in their learning.
  2. Provide comments that are specific to the student and not generic to the student body.
  3. Give reasons for the grade given.
  4. Explain where marks were lost.
  5. Concentrate on key points.
  6. Treat the student’s work with respect, but be clear and realistic in your comments.
  7. Help the student to organise the structure and content of their answer.
  8. Tell the student what they should do to improve in the future (feed-forward).

What is best avoided:

  1. Comments which are so general and vague as to be meaningless and unhelpful.
  2. Being far too encouraging. The student will be left wondering whether they really did well, whether they should have been given more marks, or whether you are being too kind or even patronising.
  3. Giving equal weight to a minor strength and a major weakness.
  4. Too many negative comments.


  • Bermingham V & Hodgson J (2006) ‘Feedback on assessment: can we provide a better student experience by working smarter than by working harder?’ The Law Teacher 40(2):151-172
  • Bone A (1999) Ensuring successful assessment Coventry: National Centre for Legal Education
  • Hewitt P, Lentell H, Phillips M & Stevens V (1997) “How do I know I am doing a good job?” (Open Teaching Toolkit) Milton Keynes: Open University
  • Ramsden P (1992) Learning to teach in higher education London: Routledge Falmer

Last Modified: 4 June 2010