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Formative feedback: how?

Formative feedback: how?
© University of Groningen / Jacqueline van Kruiningen


We all need feedback, whether you are an experienced athlete, a beginning teacher, a carpenter, or a student in Engineering or Philosophy. Feedback helps us to reflect on our task performances and to modify our cognitions, motivation, and behaviour. Many students experience feedback as one of the most influential factors in their learning processes. Not only as a recipient of feedback, but also in the role of feedback giver. The extent to which you will truly contribute to a student’s learning process, depends on the focus and style of your feedback. It also depends on the student’s disposition.

Your role

As a student assistant, you hold a position between a teacher and a peer student. When it comes to giving feedback, this is an interesting position. Due to workload, teachers do not always have the opportunity to provide extensive feedback. The result can be: unspecified, dense and directive feedback. Being experts, teachers also sometimes provide feedback and information that novice students cannot refer to (‘the curse of expertise’).

In your role as a student assistant, you will be able to contribute to the teacher’s work-efficiency. Moreover, since you speak the student’s language you may be able to come to a more accurate estimation of the student’s problems and possibilities. As for the grading: that is the teacher’s job. Besides: feedback with (an indication of) a grade will distract students’ attention from the content of the feedback.

The focus of your feedback

Your feedback may concern a student’s writing process or particular text aspects:

Focusing on the writing process, you can help a student in:

  • specifying a topic and a line of approach (e.g. formulating a research question);
  • generating and ordering ideas (e.g. co-creating a mind map or a topic scheme);
  • the planning of the writing task (e.g. advising to keep a journal of all the thoughts and ideas concerning the text, or to create an outline);
  • writing and revision strategies (e.g. advising to reread a draft and focus on one specific aspect such as argumentation or spelling);
  • you can also advise the student to discuss an idea, an outline or a draft with a peer.

As for text aspects, you can focus on higher order concerns (HOCs) or lower order concerns (LOCs);

  • HOCs: thesis or focus, audience and purpose, organisation and development
  • LOCs: sentence structure, punctuation, word choice, spelling.

You can find good specifications and examples of HOCs- and LOCs-related (feedback) questions in an informative handout on the Purdue Online Writing Lab.

The concept of control: directive and facilitative feedback

There are various ways to respond to a student’s writing. These different modes relate to different roles of the feedback giver. They also relate to different degrees of control over the student’s writing. The more (textual) comments you give, the more controlling and directive you will probably be. With a (stronger) focus on a student’s writing process, you will facilitate a student in exploring his own choices and to stimulate him to take responsibility for his own writing.

When you place these modes – directive and facilitative – on a scale of extremes, a highly directive feedback giver:

  • takes the role of police officer or a text editor;
  • focusses on what is not working;
  • dictates an ideal path of revision;
  • makes decisions for the writer;
  • is critical and controlling;
  • marks problem areas and errors;
  • even inserts corrections;
  • focusses mainly on formal text characteristics.

At the other end of the scale, you find a facilitator who:

  • takes the role of a common reader and co-thinker;
  • provides support and direction for a learning writer;
  • focusses on what is working and what can be done for improvement;
  • is oriented to development, reflection and creating awareness (of genres, styles, structures, cultures);
  • encourages positive motivational beliefs and self-esteem by giving suggestions for improvement strategies;
  • focusses on content and organisation (beyond the level of the sentence);
  • is specific without prescribing (by giving explanations and examples);
  • is descriptive and refers to the task, not to personal characteristics;
  • creates dialogic feedback by initiating active responses, for example by presenting:
  • open questions
  • reflective questions
  • non-evaluative statements
  • reader responses such as summaries and interpretations of the student’s writing.

Realise that students who have little experience in academic writing (e.g. first year students) may have relatively low self–efficacy beliefs concerning their academic writing capacities. They will especially be sensitive to negative comments, which will affect their motivation to write. Also, providing too many improvement strategies can work demoralising since this can come across as an underestimation of a student’s capacities. Make sure that the feedback quantity is manageable.

The way we phrase our responses to students is just as important as what we actually tell them (a teacher’s response in: Straub, 1997).

Search for a balance

In practice, you will probably create a mixture of directive and facilitative feedback, try to find a balance between negative and positive comments, and between controlling and providing help. This will also depend on the phase in the writing process. To conclude: keep in mind that text corrections will improve the text but not the student’s future performances. And: even excellent students will benefit from thoughtful and constructive feedback.


  • Duijnhouwer, H., Prins, F. J., & Stokking, K. M. (2010). Progress feedback effects on students’ writing mastery goal, self-efficacy beliefs, and performance. Educational Research and Evaluation, 16, 53-74. doi: 10.1080/13803611003711393

  • Duijnhouwer, H., Prins, F. J., & Stokking, K. M. (2012). Feedback providing improvement strategies and reflection on feedback use: Effects on students’ writing motivation, process, and performance. Learning and Instruction, 22(3), 171-184. doi: 10.1016/j.learninstruc.2011.10.003

  • Nicol, D.J., & Macfarlane-Dick, D. (2006) Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: A model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in Higher Education, 31(2), 199-218. doi: 10.1080/03075070600572090

  • Straub, R. (1996). The concept of control in teacher response: defining the varieties of “directive” and “facilitative” commentary. College Composition and Communication, 47(2), 223-248.

© University of Groningen / Jacqueline van Kruiningen
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