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The Role of Immediacy of Feedback in Student Learning

Update: There has been some recent research that suggests that while the timeliness of feedback is one aspect of good feedback, it may not be the most critical aspects of feedback. Awful feedback given immediately is much less useful than carefully constructed feedback given later.



A review of the literature on the role of feedback in learning shows that student feedback is critical to student learning.  Although different studies emphasis immediacy in feedback to different degrees, all of the studies reviewed agree that timeliness in feedback is important.

The Role of Immediacy of Feedback in Student Learning

Without feedback of any kind, we would not learn at all, period.  We would end up doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again, as the fable of Sisyphus (Camus, A. & O’Brien, 1975) demonstrates.  As teachers then, one of our primary roles for our students is to provide opportunities for feedback, preferably in different forms.  Examining the literature on student feedback, we can see that this claim is supported.

According to Nicol and Macfarlane (2006, p7), there are seven principles of good feedback practice.  Good feedback:

1. helps clarify what good performance is (goals, criteria, expected standards);
2. facilitates the development of self-assessment (reflection) in learning.
3. delivers high quality information to students about their learning;
4. encourages teacher and peer dialogue around learning;
5. encourages positive motivational beliefs and self-esteem;
6. provides opportunities to close the gap between current and desired performance;
7. provides information to teachers that can be used to help shape the teaching.

When Nicol and Macfarlane (2006, p9) clarify these expectations, they indicate that “high quality information” about student learning means “that feedback is provided in a timely manner (close to the act of learning production), that it focuses not just on strengths and weaknesses.”  Quality feedback includes a provision that the feedback is provided close to when the students are learning the material.

Chickering and Gamson (1987, p2) also have seven principles of good practice in practice for education.  They indicate that good practice in undergraduate education:

1. Encourages Student-Faculty Contact
2. Encourages Cooperation
3. Encourages Active Learning
4. Gives Prompt Feedback [emphasis mine]
5. Emphasizes Time on Task
6. Communicates High Expectations
7. Respects Diverse Talents and Ways of Learning

Note that here, Chickering and Gamson have indicated that feedback needs to be prompt to be included in their list of good practice for undergraduate education.  It is fair to assume that good educational practices at an undergraduate level of schooling are also good practices at any level of schooling.

Learners themselves have an understanding of the importance of feedback in learning.  According to a study done on the expectations of students as to levels of support provided by the educational service provider, Choy, McNickle, and Clayton (2009, p8), found that the services found most highly regarded were:

1. clear statements of what I [the learner] was expected to learn
2. helpful feedback from teachers [emphasis mine]
3. requirements for assessment
4. communication with teachers using a variety of ways, for example, email,
5. online chat, face to face
6. timely feedback from teachers [emphasis mine]

Note that feedback from the teachers was listed twice with the qualifiers of helpful and timely.  Clearly the students in this study felt that feedback was important enough to mention twice.

McTighe and O’Connor (2005, p5) reiterate from Wiggins (1998) that “To serve learning, feedback must meet four criteria: It must be timely [emphasis mine], specific, understandable to the receiver, and formed to allow for self-adjustment on the student’s part.”  They have only four requirements for feedback, and the first of these they list is how timely the feedback must be.

One could argue that timely feedback is most critical in student learning.  “[T]imely, detailed feedback provided as near in time as possible to the performance of the assessed behavior is most [emphasis mine] effective in providing motivation and in shaping behavior and mental constructs” (Anderson 2008). Students need the feedback for learning to happen near to the event of learning, according to Anderson (2008), in order to learn effectively, which is what he means by “providing … mental constructs.”

If we view the analogy of learning a physical act, we can see how obvious it is that timely feedback is important.  Although feedback from the learning of sport, or even the act of walking is not necessarily directed by teacher, the very world around us provides us with feedback.  If we fail to walk properly, we fall down!  Kick the ball with your toe, and it is sure to go over the goal.  We learn physical actions very quickly because we receive lots of timely feedback about everyone of our actions.  The only physical actions which are difficult to learn for some people, assuming capability of performing the action, are the ones where the feedback is delayed.

It is clear that any informed educational practice should take into account how feedback will be provided to the students.  Feedback needs to be timely and relevant to the learner’s needs in order to be effective.  Educators must therefore provide assessment opportunities for students with timely and relevant feedback built into the assessments or these assessments are limited in value. 


Anderson, T. (2008). “Teaching in an Online Learning Context.” In: Anderson, T. & Elloumi, F. Theory and Practice of Online Learning. Athabasca University.

Camus, A. & O’Brien, J., (1975). The myth of Sisyphus, published by Penguin books

Chickering, A. & Gamson, Z., (1987) Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education, AAHE bulletin, 39, 3-7

Choy, S.; McNickle, C. & Clayton, B., (2009). Learner expectations and experiences. Student views of support in online learning, National Centre for Vocational Education Research

Higgins, R.; Hartley, P. & Skelton, A., (2002). The conscientious consumer: reconsidering the role of assessment feedback in student learning, Studies in Higher Education, Routledge, 27, 53-64

McTighe, J. & O’Connor, K., (2005), Seven practices for effective learning, Educational Leadership, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 63, 10-17

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

Wiggins, G., (1998). Educative Assessment. Designing Assessments To Inform and Improve Student Performance. Jossey-Bass Publishers


Does testing students harm their learning?

So I had an interesting thought today.  I think that testing students, just to see what they know, can actually harm their learning.  Here’s my argument.

Let’s start by assuming that we would like students to be responsible able adults. This is not an unreasonable assumption, I’m sure that all parents want this to be true for their children, although we may disagree about the methods to achieve this end.  

Embedded in the meaning of the word "able" is the ability to learn new stuff.  Without this, students will not be able to succeed in a new global economy.  There is lots of evidence which shows that the rate at which knowledge is currently expanding, what is useful to know today, will not necessarily be useful tomorrow.  Changes in the world will require adults to be able to process and digest new information, perhaps even to reinvent themselves.

The word "responsible" in the context of our implies a certain sense of moral reasoning ability but also the ability to take care of one’s self.  In this second context, we can assume that part of taking care of one’s self is ensuring that the skills and things we have learned are relevant because if they are irrelevant, it will be difficult to maintain a decent standard of living.  In order to ensure we have relevant skills, one would have to be in charge of one’s own learning.

So as educators then, as proxies for the parents of the children in our care, as fulfilling our primary responsibility of helping students become responsible able adults, we must provide them opportunities both to learn how to learn and also how to best manage their own learning. We can easily give them many learning experiences, and teach them how to reflect upon their learning so that they are able to learn on their own.  In fact, I would think that schools which are successful do just this, and that many students come out of high school with some ability to master new material on their own.

However, teaching the ability to take responsibility for one’s own learning is not happening at many schools.  How many young adults are able to take mastery of their own learning?  One of the reasons that this happens, I argue, is that students are very rarely, if ever, put in charge of assessing what they know.  This responsibility is the prerogative of the teacher, and the teacher alone.

One of the ways in which we, as teachers, exercise our right to assess students is by giving them tests.  Perhaps students in some courses don’t do tests, maybe they do some other form of assessment, but because they are not in charge of what assessments they do, students will likely fail to learn how to take personal responsibility for their learning.  Every assessment teachers create without student input is a failed opportunity for that student to learn how to assess their own learning.

Another way in which we fail to give students the opportunity to be in charge of their own learning is choosing the curriculum they should be covering for them.  As educators, we self-select what we want to learn in many ways.  For example, we choose our professional development sessions, we decide to which conferences we want to go, and we select which books we want to read.  We even decide with which other professionals we want to collaborate.  In fact, if we weren’t allowed to do these things for ourselves, we would (and do) complain bitterly and feel as if our professional judgement was in question.

Students need to be given some of the same freedoms as educators to choose what they learn.  Perhaps initially educators would have a lot of the say in the lower age groups and could model ways in which learning opportunities can be selected, but as children get older they must have more choice about what they learn. Most schools already include some freedom of choice in terms of course selection, but rare is the school that gives complete choice over what students learn to the students.

Both assessing students and choosing curriculum for them create arbitrary boundaries on what students are expected to know and people who are given boundaries will tend to stop at them.  How often have you heard that a student has forgotten what they learned because "they didn’t need to know it anymore"?  Have you had many students come to you after a unit is complete with more questions about that topic, perhaps at a more advanced stage? Why have the students stopped being interested in your unit? The unit is over, so the need and desire to learn more about it is gone.

How can we do our secondary job, which is to ensure that our students learn the skills and content that we want them to learn?  We can start by teaching kids how to assess their learning, how to create rubrics that will demonstrate understanding, how to grade their own assignments, and how to construct assignments, tests, and other assessments, for themselves.  We can model how to construct assessments by giving some of our own we have generated.  We do not have to stop assessing our students, we just need to gradually shift this responsibility from ourselves to them, so that by the time they are ready to leave high school, they are able to reliably determine for themselves if they have learned.

Thought question #2

Would Vygotsky agree that young children are essentially egocentric?

I think Vygotsky would disagree with Piaget when the latter suggests that young children are essentially egocentric. First, Vygotsky’s work was often opposed to Piaget (Miller, 2002, p370), so it was clear that Vygotsky had a negative opinion of Piaget’s work.

More importantly, in Vygotsky’s theory “…the mind is inherently social…” (Miller, 2002, p373). He would suggest that egocentrism implies inward thinking only, and that the cultural and social aspects of cognition which he observed would run counter to this intuition. When observing cognition, according to Vygotsky, it is essentially impossible to distinguish between internal motivation and external social influences.

An example of this is in the interplay between a mother and a child on page 374 of Miller’s work. The mother is directing the child through a difficult cognitive task, and it is clear from the exchange that the young child’s cognition is strongly influenced by his mother’s attention. In fact, the task would be impossible for the child without his mother’s support.

Vygotsky would disagree with the statement because of his belief in how the development of cognition can be observed (Miller, 2002, p378). A child’s current state is not examined by looking at one moment, but instead by observing the child’s change through an activity. In this case “process is more important than activity” (Miller, 2002, p378). These changing states can only be measured in the context of the activity, utilizing social tools.

Finally, Egocentrism presumes that a child is looking at a process from only his or her own point of view (Piaget, 1948). Vygotsky might suggest instead that the child is observing everything from the presumed perspective of his or her parent’s point of view. Apparent egocentrism, as in the example of Piaget’s famous three mountain’s experiment, is the result of a lack of appropriate language to adequately describe the situation out of the context of their parent’s guidance.


Miller, P. H. (2002). Theories of Developmental Psychology, 4th Ed. (pp. 367-396; Vygotsky’s Socio-Cultural Approach). New York: Worth.

Piaget, J., Inhelder, B. (1948/1956) The child’s conception of space. London: Routledge and Paul Kegan