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Grading as feedback: Responding to student work

1. Introduction

This set of notes looks at the different types of assessments teachers use to gauge student performance, and the different contexts in which these assessments are appropriate. The notes also explore what makes feedback effective, as well as how to deliver it well.

2. Types of assessments

How do we know whether students have learned? One might look to the results of graded assessments like midterms, exams, or final projects. We can also keep track of student learning in a lower-stakes, less formal, and ongoing manner by providing feedback on a draft of a paper, or asking students to work out a problem together in class and giving feedback on their process. The advantage of ongoing, low-stakes assessments is that they can help students build the skills, knowledge, and self-awareness required to be successful in their more formal, higher-stakes, graded assessments. As an instructor, you have the opportunity and responsibility to gauge and provide feedback on student learning. Considering best practices with both high-stakes assessments and lower-stakes, ongoing assessments will better support student learning.

It is also important to understand what feedback is in this conversation. In the educational context, feedback refers to information that is provided about a student’s academic ability and performance, often following an assessment. In general, feedback should provide students with information they can use to improve their academic performance, and enrich their learning experience (Taras, 2005). Although feedback is intended to be constructive and ultimately helpful, how it is framed and delivered may affect how it is received.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of assessments that instructors may use in order to gauge, and give feedback on, their students’ learning:

  1. Formative assessment
  2. Summative assessment

Each of these types of assessment is discussed in detail in the sections that follow.

2.1 Formative assessments

Formative assessments, so called because they offer the student an opportunity to gain proficiency, make natural scaffolds for summative assessments, which offer students something more like a final or definitive evaluation of their achievement. As such, formative feedback helps to identify where and how students may improve their learning or performance ahead of a summative assessment or evaluation (Taras, 2005). The assessments that prompt this kind of formative feedback are often ungraded or count very little towards the entire course grade. Because formative assessment is low risk or low stakes, it represents a safer space for students to voice any confusion around concepts or gaps they may have in their knowledge.

Formative assessments act as indicators of the knowledge gaps students may have or the concepts with which they could be more familiar. The feedback that flows from them should identify how these knowledge gaps may be addressed. Ideally, students can engage with and use formative feedback immediately to improve their performance in their next task or assignment. Formative feedback is an invaluable tool for both teachers and students (Price, et al., 2010).

Here are some strategies for formative assessments:

  • Provide opportunities to demonstrate learning. In line with active learning techniques, provide students opportunities in class to demonstrate what they have learned in ways that align with what they may be asked to do in their higher-stakes assessments. Have students work through a problem in pairs, brainstorm an outline for their next term paper, or summarize the main points of a lecture. Pick two or three groups to share their work with the class and give them feedback on the spot. This way, you can get a general sense of how students are doing, and all students can reflect on their own performance compared to the examples drawn out in class. 
  • Scaffold assignments. Require students to submit a proposal on an assignment, or to complete a draft of a paper or project iteration earlier in the semester, and have them bring it to office hours for feedback. For presentations, allow students to rehearse in groups and receive peer feedback before a final presentation is due.
  • Try a minute paper. At the end of a session, module, or section of a course, ask students to respond anonymously to a prompt for one minute. These prompts can be something like: What was the main point of today’s session? What is the most striking/disturbing/surprising aspect of today’s session? What is one question that remains? Collect these responses for a quick skim to get a sense of where everyone is. You cannot address every response, so in the next meeting, summarize main themes and give some indication to students of where they should be. For example, “If you answered something like this <example response>, then you want to focus on ‘x’. If you answered something like this <example response>, you are on track.”
  • Use the muddiest point activity. Similarly, at the end of a session, module, or section of a course, ask students to write down (anonymously) one thing about which they are still unclear. Collect the responses and sort through them to get a sense of any patterns of confusion. Summarize your findings in the next class and offer suggestions for helping students work through confusing points. You may even want to spend some class time on reviewing key concepts.


It is important to remember that formative assessments also provide opportunities for teachers to receive feedback on their teaching. For example, what is working and what is not? How could you improve your teaching to better support student comprehension? This side of feedback is covered in more detail in Unit 2 of this module.

2.1.1 Classroom assessment techniques

Classroom assessment techniques (CATs) are activities that are designed specifically to gauge students’ knowledge and give them formative feedback that can be used to develop and improve their learning (Angelo & Cross, 1993). Angelo and Cross have developed a guidebook that details the various classroom assessment techniques that are available to teachers. These techniques are divided into three main categories that assess:

  1. Course-related knowledge;
  2. Attitudes, values, and self-awareness; and
  3. Reactions to instruction.

(Angelo & Cross, 1993)

Examples of CATs include minute papers, one-sentence summaries, and the muddiest point activity described in the previous section. Based on the students’ abilities to differentiate between the concepts, teachers can then give them feedback on potential gaps in their knowledge. Angelo and Cross (1993) encourage teachers to experiment with the CATs to determine which ones best suit their teaching goals and contexts.

Pause and reflect:

What have been your experiences with formative assessments and feedback? How have you used classroom assessment techniques to get feedback on your teaching or give students feedback on their learning?

2.2 Summative assessments

Summative assessments receive the lion’s share of students’ attention, and not only because they weigh heavily upon their grades. They also tend to happen at key inflection points and/or endpoints within the overall scheme of the course, whether that be the end of a unit, at midterm, or at the conclusion of the semester. As such, they tend to be occasions for synthesis and/or creativity – if not quite in the popular sense of artistic creativity, then at least in the academic sense of creating one’s own argument about a particular field of knowledge.

Summative feedback refers to the feedback that is given at the end of a learning experience or learning unit, such as at the end of a course. As such, the aim of this feedback is to evaluate and determine a student’s performance at a given point by measuring it against an identified standard or benchmark (Stufflebeam & Shinkfield, 2007). Students often have negative associations with summative assessment and feedback, due to this association with comparison and evaluation (Scriven, 1967).

Due to the nature of summative feedback, its value lies in its ability to help students improve their performance in future courses or in upcoming learning units within the same course. It should be used in conjunction with formative feedback to ensure students have a rich learning experience in which they are given multiple opportunities to learn and improve.

Here are some strategies for summative assessments:

  • Have clear assignment descriptions. For assignments, make sure that there is a clear description and that you can address any clarifying questions about the assignment. Descriptions include what the assignment is assessing, how it relates to the overall goals of the course, what the students are expected to do, by when, and how they will be evaluated.
  • Communicate grading policies. These should exist on a syllabus, and as the instructor, you should be able to communicate and clarify any questions regarding the grading policies, including late penalties, extensions, academic integrity, etc.
  • Ensure fairness and consistency. Using rubrics can save time and help ensure fairness across assignments. If you work with a teaching team, create the rubric together. This rubric can be used to explain grading in a more objective manner if students have questions about their results. Explaining the grading processes and procedures to students can help mitigate any conceptions of unfairness. 
  • Consider blind grading. Another way to ensure fairness is to grade blindly, which means hiding students’ names from view when evaluating. We are all human, and therefore are vulnerable to bias. We may expect students who had previously done poorly to continue to do so, or we may have some other underlying implicit biases affecting our approach to student grades.
  • Give constructive feedback. What did the student do well, and what do they need to improve? We often assume that students need feedback primarily on the problems or shortcomings in their work. In fact, they often need just as much positive feedback, reinforcing the things they have done well, lest they forget to repeat those good habits on future assignments. Feedback on assessments should help students understand what they have achieved with their learning, what they need to improve, and specific strategies for how they can do so.
This image shows the key differences between growth and fixed mindsets by comparing how individuals perceive and deal with challenges, obstacles, effort, criticism, and the success of others. Individuals with fixed mindsets avoid challenges, give up easily, see effort as fruitless or worse, ignore useful negative feedback, and feel threatened by the success of others, which may lead them to plateau early and achieve less than their full potential. Individuals with growth mindsets embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, see effort as the path to mastery, learn from criticism, and find lessons and inspiration in the success of others, which may lead them to reach ever-higher levels of achievement.

4. Other types of feedback

While students expect to be assessed and receive feedback from an instructor, there are two other valuable sources of feedback in the learning environment:

  1. Peers: As discussed in the notes in Module 5, students’ peers are invaluable sources of knowledge and feedback. It is a good idea to arrange your course in such a way that students can learn from one another. For example, peer review exercises, in which students comment on the work of their peers, encourage them to identify and develop academic standards that they can transfer to their own work. At times, peer feedback may be better received than feedback from authority figures, due to the rapport and relationships that students may establish with their peers (Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2006).
  2. Self: Encouraging students to become reflective about their own learning, and providing opportunities for them to evaluate their own performance in a class can be highly valuable. By providing students with opportunities for self-assessment, you are encouraging them to become more invested in and self-reflective about their academic performance. Ideally, students will take ownership of their learning. They may develop or enhance their growth mindsets by attributing their academic performance to themselves and the effort they put in rather than external, potentially unrelated factors (Fernandes & Fontana, 1996). 

As a teacher, it is important not only to provide students with opportunities to engage with peer feedback and self-evaluation, but also to encourage them to leverage this feedback to improve their performance and enrich their learning experience.

5. Conclusion

This set of notes explored formative and summative assessments, the accompanying types of feedback, and strategies instructors can use when assessing and giving feedback to students. Formative assessments occur during the learning experience and can be used immediately to enhance learning and improve academic performance (in the context of the current learning experience). Classroom assessment techniques (CATs), which gauge students’ knowledge and comprehension, are valuable tools for providing students with formative feedback. Summative assessment, on the other hand, occurs at the end of the learning experience and acts as an evaluation of a student’s performance. 

These notes also looked at the sources of feedback students have available to them, namely teachers, their peers, and themselves, and how this feedback may be used to improve their academic performance and create a positive learning experience. However, if students have fixed mindsets, this limits their opportunities for academic improvement, because they may not be receptive to or accept the feedback they are given. It is important to encourage students to develop growth mindsets, in which feedback is seen as a tool that can be used to nurture their understanding and support their academic performance.

6. Bibliography

Angelo, T.A. & Cross, K.P. 1993. Classroom assessment techniques: a handbook for college teachers. 2nd ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Dweck, C. S. 2006. Mindset: the new psychology of success. New York: Ballantine Books.

Fernandes, M. & Fontana, D. 1996. Changes in control beliefs in Portuguese primary school pupils as a consequence of the employment of self-assessment strategies. British Journal of Educational Psychology. 66(3):301-313. DOI: 10.1111/j.2044-8279.1996.tb01199.x

Holmes, N. n.d. Chart, diagram, & illustration portfolio. Available: [2017, October 4].

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.

Price, M., Handley, K., Millar, J. & O’Donovan, B. 2010. Feedback: all that effort, but what is the effect? Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education. 35(3):277-289. DOI: 10.1080/02602930903541007.

Scriven, M. 1967. The methodology of evaluation. In Perspectives of curriculum evaluation. R.W. Tyler, R.M. Gagné & M. Scriven, Eds. Chicago: Rand McNally & Co.

Stufflebeam D.L. & Shinkfield, A.J. 2007. Evaluation theory, models, and applications. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Taras, M. 2005. Assessment – summative and formative – some theoretical reflections. British Journal of Educational Studies. 53(4): 466-478. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8527.2005.00307.

7.2 Notes: Grading as feedback: Responding to student work [± 50 minutes]

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