Providing feedback on online assessment

Because online assessment is predominantly used to supplement other (more traditional) assessments in most courses, it is mostly used in formative assessment activities. Feedback plays a crucial role in the effectiveness of an assessment, especially in formative assessment (i.e. assessment for learning). Nicol and Milligan (2006) suggest the following 7 guidelines and practical solutions for effective feedback in technology-supported assessment:

Students must understand what the criteria and goals for good performance are.


  • Ensure that the assessment instructions include clear descriptions of assessment criteria and the requirements for different levels of achievement. These can also be stipulated in a separate document/ rubric uploaded to the LMS.
  • Create an online discussion forum before an assessment becomes available to allow students to ask questions and discuss assessment expectations with the instructor and with their peers.
  • Provide students of ‘exemplars’ of expected performance. This can include examples of both good and poor performance.

Students should be equipped to evaluate and measure their own performance in relation to the required criteria or standards of an assessment. They should develop skills, through self- and peer assessment, to learn not only to produce work of appropriate quality, but also to evaluate it.


  • Regular online quizzes throughout a course (where students possibly have more than one attempt to complete the quiz) allows students to regularly gauge their understanding. In order for students to become more self-regulated through this method, they should receive feedback on these assessments, at the very least, they should be able to see which questions they got right and which questions they did not.
  • Require students to submit a self-evaluation together with their assignments or have students assess their classmates assignments with a provided rubric.
  • Students can submit a number of reflective journal entries throughout the duration of a course to reflect on their learning and development. These can also be included as a larger project or submitted as part of an e-portfolio.

Instructors should help students to become aware of their strengths and weaknesses through good quality feedback. They should provide students with information that helps them to align their internal understanding with the required goals and criteria. Good quality feedback is descriptive rather than evaluative. It is important to include comments about how students can improve their assignment and not only what the strengths and weaknesses of the assignment are.


  • Most online platforms have a feedback functionality that allows a lecturer to provide written feedback on students’ submissions.
  • Generic, but specific, whole-class feedback can be provided through a video recording or screencasting posted to the LMS.
  • Turnitin, popular similarity software that can be integrated with most LMSs also allows for short audio feedback that an instructor can include as part of their feedback to an individual student on their assessment.

While external feedback from the instructor plays a crucial role in assessment, students do not always understand feedback provided by an instructor. One way to increase the effectiveness of feedback is to conceptualise feedback as a dialogue rather than the one-way transmission of information from an instructor to a student. A challenge in the South African higher education context, which is often characterised by large classes, is to provide quality, individualised feedback to many students. Technology provides some solutions for this challenge.


  • Classroom communication systems (CCS), also known as clickers or classroom response systems, are used to allow students to respond to a multiple choice question in a face-to-face lecture. Results are captured, aggregated and anonymised immediately which allows the instructor to engage in a dialogue with students and for students to engage in a dialogue with their peers based on the results. Free software, that transforms students’ personal mobile devices into a ‘clicker’, is available freely (see Further Reading section).
  • Online discussion forums encourage dialogue and interaction. An online discussion forum set up as a ‘debrief’ after an assessment can be useful for this purpose.

Student performance and commitment to their goals relies heavily on student motivation. Poor performance in an assessment activity, especially a high-stakes assessment, can be demoralising. More regular, low-stakes, assessment opportunities throughout a course can keep students motivated.


  • Online objective assessment activities, where students have more than one attempt, can increase student motivation.
  • Game-based assessment activities, where students receive electronic badges for completion of a number of activities or for completion of tasks at a specific level or within a certain timeframe can also be motivating.

Ideally, feedback should lead to changes in student behaviour that ultimately leads to improved performance. Effective feedback helps students to close the gap between actual and desired performance. This can be achieved by providing students with feedback while they are engaged in the assessment activity and by allowing them to repeat the activity by, for instance, allowing resubmission.


  • Break an assignment up into smaller components and provide feedback on each section before students continue with the next section. Online environments, such as a LMS, often have flexible workflow options, which also allows for peer assessment. Both instructor and peer feedback can thus be provided throughout the learning process.
  • Allow students to resubmit an assignment (such as a report or an essay) after providing initial feedback to make changes to the assignment based on the feedback.

Before instructors can provide effective feedback to students, they themselves need to have a good understanding of how students are progressing and which gaps need to be addressed on a student- and class level.


  • Classroom response systems can, in an informal way, provide immediate feedback to an instructor on students’ understanding of content covered in a lecture.
  • Objective online quizzes/ test results yield rich quantitative data in the form of item-analysis reports that can give instructors an overview of class performance but also of the quality of their questions (also see section on using assessment results effectively)
  • Instructors can gather useful feedback from students on their experience of an assessment activity or the feedback they received on a task by distributing an online survey (either through the LMS, institutional or free survey software) to their students after an assessment activity has been completed. Similarly, course evaluation results (both quantitative and qualitative) often provide feedback to instructors on how students generally experienced the assessment in a course.

General resources

Free classroom response (clicker) software:


Nicol, D. J. & Milligan, C. (2006). Rethinking technology-supported assessment in terms of the seven principles of good feedback practice. In C. Bryan and K. Clegg (Eds), Innovative Assessment in Higher Education, Taylor and Francis Group Ltd, London
Wojcikowski, K., & Kirk, L. (2013). Immediate detailed feedback to test-enhanced learning: An effective online educational tool, Medical Teacher, 35:11, 915-919, DOI:10.3109/0142159X.2013.826793