Enhancing student-generated internal feedback by stimulating internal comparison and feedback-seeking behaviour

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Although university instructors are asked to provide feedback that is timely and clear, students in higher education often express dissatisfaction with their feedback experience. The new paradigm of feedback (Winstone & Carless, 2019) may explain why even comments that are carefully crafted by a diligent instructor often fail to generate the anticipated learning benefits. According to the new paradigm, feedback is no longer defined as information but a ‘process through which learners make sense of information from various sources and use it to enhance their work or learning strategies’ (Carless & Boud, 2018, p. 1315; italicised for emphasis). This perspective centres the active role students can play in seeking, processing and utilising comments from various sources (e.g. instructors, peers) to improve their subsequent work. It further repositions the instructor as a designer who provides students with learning experiences that can develop their feedback literacy (Carless & Boud, 2018). The new paradigm of feedback resonates with my belief that students should not just ‘listen to’ and ‘follow’ every single comment they receive from the instructor; they should be able to solicit, critically appraise and apply comments from various sources to improve their own performance. These abilities are especially essential for my students, who are pre-service teachers (PTs) who will teach secondary school biology. This is because teaching is an isolating activity and teachers seldom receive critical feedback on their practices. It is therefore incumbent on teachers to actively seek and analyse feedback from various sources for continual improvement.

Inspired by the recent work of David Nicol (2020, 2022) , I experimented with a new way of stimulating student-generated internal feedback (Nicol, 2021): using strategic designs to engage students in explicit comparisons of their work and that of their peers. I also sought to encourage feedback-seeking behaviours. In the following sections, I will first describe the context of the class in which I implemented the new design. I will then describe the details of the implementation process. This will be followed by students’ perception of the experience and finally a critical reflection.

Context and design of the feedback intervention

The focal class comprised 34 PTs. The feedback experience spanned four three-hour sessions (Figure 1). Two key features underpinned the design: (1) engaging PTs in several cycles of seeking (Leenknecht et al., 2019; Joughin et al., 2021), processing and utilising feedback; (2) stimulating students’ generation of internal feedback by encouraging natural comparison processes with explicit reflection on the peer review process (Nicol, 2021). Specifically, the PTs were asked to design a formative assessment probe (Keeley, 2008). After each group produced an initial draft, they were asked to seek feedback from the other groups by generating questions (Design feature 1). Each member was assigned to review the initial drafts of two other groups and write comments based on the assessment criteria. After these peer reviews, the PTs were asked to make an explicit comparison between the formative assessment probes they had reviewed and their own (Design feature 2). The PTs also had a chance to clarify comments with their peers. Each group then revised their initial drafts. The second drafts were used to orchestrate assessment dialogues (i.e. dialogue for formative assessment purposes) (Ruiz-Primo, 2011) in rehearsals (a variant of micro-teaching) (Lampert et al., 2013), which were videotaped. The rehearsal videos were uploaded to a video annotation platform, which allowed the PTs to review and reflect on their videos and those of their peers. Again, they were asked to make explicit comparisons (Design feature 2). After this round of self-generated feedback, each group sought feedback from me by asking questions (Design feature 1). They then refined their formative assessment probes and re-planned their dialogues before enacting a second rehearsal. After this, the PTs submitted the formative assessment probe as a group assignment and completed an individual video analysis task, in which they compared how they enacted the dialogue in the two rehearsals.

Students’ perception of the feedback experience

The PTs were asked to complete the Peer Feedback Orientation Questionnaire (Kasch et al., 2022) before and after the feedback experience. Thirty returned the questionnaire voluntarily. Statistical analysis revealed significant changes in six statements (Table 1). The findings showed that the PTs reported greater self-efficacy in providing peer feedback.

The PTs constructed similes to represent their feedback experience, using the prompt ‘Feedback experience in this course is like….’ The following shows one illustrative example:

My feedback experience in this course is like a merry-go-round because it is a cycle and we keep on repeating the process, but we can find joy and satisfaction in it… With such fruitful feedback and learning experiences, the next teaching rehearsal can have paramount improvement and the cycle repeats itself. (PT1)

This explanation suggests that this PT saw his teaching practices improve as a result of feedback. Moreover, this was not a one-off event but a process, as shown by the comparison to a merry-go-round and the words used to describe the experience, such as ‘cycle’ and ‘repeating’. It is worth noting that the PT found the experience joyful and satisfying, which might have led him to put significant effort into improving his performance. Apart from the benefits of feedback on teaching performance, many PTs mentioned that the experience improved their general ability to give and process feedback. The following are two representative examples:

My feedback experience in this course is like learning how to swim. When a person first learns how to swim, they are usually very nervous… As I did not have much experience in giving feedback before, I felt kind of insecure in both providing and receiving feedback. … Near the end of this course, I think I have learnt to be more confident in giving feedback as well as more excited when I can receive feedback from others. The repeated practice of receiving and giving feedback helped me to get used to it. (PT24)
My feedback experience in this course is like the stimulation of light intensity to the opening of the stomata. … Whenever we receive feedback from others, we need to reflect on it and consider whether it is ‘useful’ for us. Sometimes, the opinions of others may be contradictory to our original thought or have some misunderstanding. Thus, we should consider whether we will really take it as advice and how we can integrate the comments to improve our initial thought. (PT27)

The first quote provides evidence for the benefits of engaging PTs in several cycles of generating and receiving feedback, which is uncommon in their learning experience, as this allowed them to develop confidence. It is also evident from the second quote that PTs learnt to be critical in processing feedback received from others. This is reflected in phrases such as ‘we need to reflect on it’ and ‘integrate the comments to improve’.

Critical reflection on the implementation of the intervention

I have learnt that when we structure the feedback process intentionally, PTs can not only improve their teaching performance but also their generic feedback abilities without much teacher input. This also makes it a rather promising strategy in terms of sustainability because the instructor only needs to ensure that the activities are well-placed and sequenced within the course, the guiding questions are well-crafted and the instructions and expectations for each task are clear.

Analysis of student learning (based on the questionnaire and similes) also provides evidence that the feedback experiences enriched the PTs’ views of peer feedback and provided them with a chance to think about others’ feedback critically. However, I would like to learn about the comments that are not generated in peer and self-generated feedback, as I noticed that the peer reviews of the formative assessment probes did not pick up on inaccuracy in subject matter knowledge. Furthermore, I think I should be more intentional in assessing students’ ability to analyse and use peer feedback. I did include one question in the final assignment on this topic but I should have made it an explicit object of development and assessment given its importance. It would also be important to further explore the impact by investigating whether PTs will design similar feedback experiences for their students.

To summarise, I have reaffirmed my belief that it is more important to design feedback experiences rather than spend time telling students about every error they make. With well-designed feedback sequences and experiences, students can effectively develop both their teaching practices and their general abilities related to feedback, which will be useful in their future careers. I hope that sharing these activities will inspire other instructors to shift their efforts from crafting feedback to designing sophisticated feedback processes that will benefit students’ learning.


  • Joughin, G., Boud, D., Dawson, P., & Tai, J. (2021). What can higher education learn from feedback seeking behaviour in organisations? Implications for feedback literacy. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 46(1), 80-91.
  • Kasch, J., Van Rosmalen, P., Henderikx, M., & Kalz, M. (2022). The factor structure of the peer-feedback orientation scale (PFOS): toward a measure for assessing students’ peer-feedback dispositions. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 47(1), 15-28.
  • Lampert, M., Franke, M. L., Kazemi, E., Ghousseini, H., Turrou, A. C., Beasley, H., … Crowe, K. (2013). Keeping it complex: Using rehearsals to support novice teacher learning of ambitious teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 64(3), 226-243.
  • Leenknecht, M., Hompus, P., & van der Schaaf, M. (2019). Feedback seeking behaviour in higher education: The association with students’ goal orientation and deep learning approach. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 44(7), 1069-1078.
  • Keeley, P. (2021). Uncovering Student Ideas in Science: 25 More Formative Assessment Probes. Volume 2. NSTA Press.
  • Nicol, D. (2020, Dec 3). How the power of student internal feedback improves grades [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bPqIu2k24JE
  • Nicol, D. (2021). The power of internal feedback: Exploiting natural comparison processes. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 46(5), 756-778.
  • Nicol, D. (2022, August 25). Unlocking the power of inner feedback: Comparison changes everything. https://www.davidnicol.net/
  • Ruiz-Primo, M. A. (2011). Informal formative assessment: The role of instructional dialogues in assessing students’ learning. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 37(1), 15-24.
  • Winstone, N., & Carless, D. (2019). Designing Effective Feedback Processes in Higher Education: A Learning-focused Approach. Routledge.

Table 1 - Statements in which significant changes (p < 0.05) were detected before and after the intervention

Before the feedback intervention After the feedback intervention
Item Mean SD Mean SD Z p
1 As a peer-feedback giver I feel responsible to give feedback that helps the other person. 4.13 0.57 4.37 0.56 -2.111 0.035
4 As a peer-feedback giver I want that the other person benefits from my feedback. 4.23 0.57 4.57 0.50 -2.887 0.004
1 As a peer-feedback provider I have confidence in the peer-feedback process, i.e. I know how to comment and how my comments are reviewed. 3.40 0.81 3.97 0.56 -3.127 0.002
2 As a peer-feedback provider, I feel that we as students have enough content knowledge to be able to give each other feedback. 3.10 0.80 3.93 0.52 -3.801 0.000
3 I know how to make the most of peer feedback. 2.87 0.73 3.77 0.57 -4.072 0.000
4 As a peer-feedback provider, I know how to give peer-feedback. 3.03 0.81 3.97 0.61 -4.018 0.000

Figure 1 - Design and implementation of the feedback experience

Design and implementation of the feedback experience

Dr. Kennedy Chan

Dr. Kennedy Chan

Associate Professor
Faculty of Education, HKU

He is a science education researcher and teacher educator with a strong commitment to understanding and developing science teachers’ expertise. His research interests include science teacher professional knowledge and the use of video in teacher education. Kennedy practises research-led teaching and has won multiple teaching awards, including the 2017 University Early Career Teaching Award, the 2017 Student-led University Teaching Feedback Award and four faculty-level teaching awards. He was also a finalist for the 2019 University Grants Committee Teaching Award (Early Career Faculty Members). He has published and disseminated his innovative teaching ideas in journal articles, newsletters and talks at practitioner meetings. He is also an Executive Committee member of the Community of Practice on ‘The Innovation and the Future of STEM Education’.

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