in cooperation with Ulrike Van Daele (UAntwerp, Rehabilitation Sciences and Kinesitherapy, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, UAntwerp) and the Nursing and Midwifery core team (Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, UAntwerp)

‘After the announcement of the definitive exam results, a student shall be entitled to personally discuss their performance with the lecturer based on the exam questions and they shall have personal and nontransferable access to the original copy of their own written exams, including exams taken electronically.’ (Education and examination regulations University of Antwerp, section 10.3.8)

The above quote could have come from the education and examination regulations of virtually any Flemish college or university. In fact, students are entitled to receive feedback on their exams, often taking place in a feedback session. In this teaching tip, we look at such a feedback session. We first examine the relationship between feedback and assessment. Then we look into preparing for the feedback session, and we end with some points to bear in mind when conducting one.

Coherence of feedback and assessment

'Grades often tell the student “the work is over”. We must not confuse grading with feedback.’ (Hattie & Clark, 2019, p. 2, cited in Winstone & Boud, 2022)

This quote points to an area of interest in post-exam feedback sessions. Indeed, two things come together here that in an ideal world would be better off not meeting: the summative and formative functions of assessment. Put differently, awarding marks and giving feedback stem from the same assessment, namely the exam. Even though this is not ideal, it does regularly happen. So bear in mind the following tips and feedback:

  • Students often focus on the grade when it comes to marks and feedback. They see the feedback more as accountability for their grade and not as something valuable in itself. This may also mean that students are more likely to see the feedback interview as an opportunity to still change the grade. Therefore, make it clear before the feedback session that the mark is fixed, regardless, unless a mistake has been made somewhere. If students do try to get the mark altered, you can quickly shut down the conversation by pointing out the previous communication and agreements.
  • Your perception of the feedback interview (i.e. justification of the grade or learning opportunity for future performance) can also have an impact on how the feedback interview goes. When the focus is on justifying the grade, there is often less room for dialogue. Students then become less involved in the conversation. This also stems from the more legal angle that unfortunately sometimes crops up when combining summative and formative assessment (ECHO teaching tips Avoiding legal disputes with regard to assessment, 2021 and Judge for yourself: legal education questions, 2016, only in Dutch). Here, as a teacher, you feel more restricted in giving  feedback, focussing more on justifying the mark than on remediation.
  • Whether you choose a more summative (i.e. focus on accountability of the mark) or a more formative angle (i.e. focus on remediation) may also depend on the context. Can the student still include the feedback in resits or in future assignments/exams in further study? Then it might be interesting to (also) rely heavily on detailed feedback and remediation.

Preparing the feedback interview: useful for teacher and student

To achieve an instructive and quality feedback interview, preparation by a teacher as well as by a student can be useful. Some suggestions:

Communicate the practical ground rules in advance. This may then include how the feedback interview will be conducted (for example, the whole exam will be looked at question by question or the focus will be on things where the student performed less well) and the anticipated duration. Communicate what you expect from the student and what the student can expect from you. Sometimes, agreements are made at faculty or programme level that determine the form and conditions under which the feedback interview is conducted (e.g. interviews continue in the form of group discussions in which the most common mistakes are addressed; participation in a plenary feedback moment is a necessary condition for possible later participation in an individual feedback moment). Make sure you are aware of any agreements and communicate them clearly and unambiguously to students. 

Encourage students' feedback literacy (ECHO education tip Making the most out of feedback, 2023):

  • Ask students to prepare for the feedback interview. What do they mainly want feedback on? What questions do they have for the feedback session? Emphasise here that the more specific students’ questions are, the more valuable the feedback process becomes. You can ask that students communicate these issues to you in advance so that you can prepare yourself.
  • Communicate the purpose and usefulness of the feedback interview. Why is this scheduled and what are possible benefits?
  • Help students make the most of feedback conversations. In doing so, you put your efforts into encouraging an open attitude to feedback and promoting a clear understanding of what feedback can be. Some possibilities: (1) Indicate that students are allowed to make mistakes and advise them to come to the feedback session with an open mind. (2) Frame the feedback conversation as part of an opportunity to do better in the future. Communicate that the conversation will focus on support and suggestions for improvement, not criticism. (3) Clarify that feedback is not focused on the student as a person, but on the snapshot that this exam gives. (4) Let the students know that the feedback conversation will be a dialogue. Students are expected to actively participate.

Conducting the feedback interview

A good start is crucial, even in a feedback interview. So be sure to pay enough attention to the opening phase. Some points to bear in mind:

  • How you welcome the student sets the tone of the interview. Therefore, think beforehand about how formal or informal you want the feedback conversation to be. Both options are fine, but be sure to be guided by your personal style and preference. Several factors influence the atmosphere: (1) How you address each other. Will you address each other informally or formally? The student usually follows the example of the teacher, so this gives you the first choice in making the conversation more formal or informal. (2) Do you get straight to the point or keep it more relaxed in the beginning? If the latter, have some small talk, ask some interested questions, and so on.
  • Regardless of your personal style, formal or informal, you must create a safe environment for the student (ECHO teaching tip Positive vibration, yeah! A positive classroom climate, 2020). Be clear that the student can contribute and ask questions. Make it clear that it is ok that the student has made mistakes in the exam, and that you are going to try your best to help the student to avoid making these again.
  • If necessary, reiterate some things you may have communicated in preparation (e.g. practical-organisational ground rules, the fact that the mark is fixed, etc).
  • Start the discussion about content from the student's point of view, to get things going. Some possible questions: (1) How do you feel about your exam result? (2) What are you still worried about? What do you want to discuss? (3) What do you want to get out of this conversation?

During the feedback discussion, pay attention not only to things that were less good, but also highlight strengths and be sure to give suggestions. Help the student in this way to improve, by giving specific tips on how to deal with weaker areas (ECHO education tip Feedback matters! High quality feedback, 2022).

The feedback conversation is a verbal discussion and thus a form of direct communication, meaning it is best to pay attention to aspects that do not appear in written feedback. For example, consider some conversation techniques you can use to get the student to contribute as much as possible (e.g. verbal encouragement and paraphrasing, ECHO teaching tip Feedback conversation, 2015, only in Dutch).

Sometimes the feedback conversation is also a bad news conversation. The student has received a bad grade and comes to discuss this. Some points to bear in mind here:

  • Clarity prevails. So do not disguise the message: ‘unfortunately it isn’t a good grade this time.’
  • If the student is very emotional during the interview, stop talking about content. Show understanding for the emotions and have a time-out to allow them to process the emotions. In any case, this moment is not the time for constructive comment on content.
  • See if it is possible to continue working on content after the student has composed themselves. Discuss possible steps for improving the incorrect answers and offer specific suggestions to address any gaps in the student's understanding. 
  • Students may focus too long on one particular answer. If this happens, let them talk, give them time. After that, cut the student off. This can be done, for example, by asking what other questions the student would like to address or by pointing out that there is only limited feedback time and that you definitely want to deal with everything the student and/or the teacher has.
  • It may be useful to have a witness present at this feedback session to avoid any subsequent disputes.

Especially with large student numbers, it is worthwhile considering how to provide meaningful feedback time-efficiently. Some possibilities:

  • Initially, focus on providing group feedback. Students who still have questions afterwards can set up an individual interview. In some circumstances, you may include participation in group feedback as a condition of an individual interview. It is advisable to check the conditions listed in the examination regulations of your own institution. 
  • Give students general (written) feedback on key issues. If this feedback raises questions, they can ask them in a conversation. Optionally, you can also provide them with an answer template as initial feedback.
  • Invite several students at a time for a feedback session. Let them compare their exam with a model answer. Some of their questions can probably be answered in this way, and then they can then ask additional questions in an oral interview.
  • Have students make an appointment for the feedback interview. When making the appointment, they have to state which questions they come to the feedback interview with or what they think they mainly had difficulties with in the exam.
  • Prioritise students who failed. They are given priority in scheduling feedback interviews, with those who passed signing up once the first group have done so. This way, every student has the right to some insight, only the timing differs. Note that the opportunity for discussion is given before the end of the appeal period

Want to know more?

ECHO teaching tips:

Winstone, N. E., & Boud, D. (2022). The need to disentangle assessment and feedback in higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 47(3), 656-667.