Studies in Higher Education
Vol. 31, No. 2, April 2006, pp. 199–218
ISSN 0307-5079 (print)/ISSN 1470-174X (online)/06/020199–20
© 2006 Society for Research into Higher Education
Formative assessment and self-
regulated learning: a model and seven
principles of good feedback practice
David J. Nicol
* and Debra Macfarlane-Dick
University of Strathclyde, UK;
University of Glasgow, UK
Taylor and Francis LtdCSHE_A_157192.sgm10.1080/03075070600572090Studies in Higher Education0307-5079 (print)/1470-174X (online)Original Article2006Society for Research into Higher Education31
2000000April 2006DavidJ.NicolCentre for Academic Practice, Graham Hills BuildingUniversity of Strathclyde50 George StGlasgowUKd.email@example.com
The research on formative assessment and feedback is reinterpreted to show how these processes
can help students take control of their own learning, i.e. become self-regulated learners. This refor-
mulation is used to identify seven principles of good feedback practice that support self-regulation.
A key argument is that students are already assessing their own work and generating their own
feedback, and that higher education should build on this ability. The research underpinning each
feedback principle is presented, and some examples of easy-to-implement feedback strategies are
briefly described. This shift in focus, whereby students are seen as having a proactive rather than a
reactive role in generating and using feedback, has profound implications for the way in which
teachers organise assessments and support learning.
This article positions the research on formative assessment and feedback within a
model of self-regulated learning. Formative assessment refers to assessment that is
specifically intended to generate feedback on performance to improve and accelerate
learning (Sadler, 1998). A central argument is that, in higher education, formative
assessment and feedback should be used to empower students as self-regulated
learners. The construct of self-regulation refers to the degree to which students can
regulate aspects of their thinking, motivation and behaviour during learning (Pintrich
& Zusho, 2002). In practice, self-regulation is manifested in the active monitoring
and regulation of a number of different learning processes, e.g. the setting of, and
orientation towards, learning goals; the strategies used to achieve goals; the manage-
ment of resources; the effort exerted; reactions to external feedback; the products
*Corresponding author: Centre for Academic Practice, Graham Hills Building, University of
Strathclyde, 50 George Street, Glasgow G1 1QE, UK. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
200 D. J. Nicol and D. Macfarlane-Dick
Intelligent self-regulation requires that the student has in mind some goals to be
achieved against which performance can be compared and assessed. In academic
settings, specific targets, criteria, standards and other external reference points (e.g.
exemplars) help define goals. Feedback is information about how the student’s
present state (of learning and performance) relates to these goals and standards.
Students generate internal feedback as they monitor their engagement with learning
activities and tasks, and assess progress towards goals. Those more effective at self-
regulation, however, produce better feedback or are more able to use the feedback
they generate to achieve their desired goals (Butler & Winne, 1995). Self-regulated
learners also actively interpret external feedback, for example, from teachers and
other students, in relation to their internal goals. Although research shows that
students can learn to be more self-regulated (see Pintrich, 1995; Zimmerman &
Schunk, 2001), how to enhance feedback (both self-generated and external) in
support of self-regulation has not been fully explored in the current literature. This
article helps to address this gap by proposing seven principles of good feedback
practice in relation to the development of self-regulation.
The rationale for rethinking formative assessment and feedback
Over the last two decades, there has been a shift in the way teachers and researchers
write about student learning in higher education. Instead of characterising it as a simple
acquisition process based on teacher transmission, learning is now more commonly
conceptualised as a process whereby students actively construct their own knowledge
and skills (Barr & Tagg, 1995; DeCorte, 1996; Nicol, 1997). Students interact with
subject content, transforming and discussing it with others, in order to internalise
meaning and make connections with what is already known. Terms like ‘student-
centred learning’, which have entered the lexicon of higher education, are one reflec-
tion of this new way of thinking. Even though there is disagreement over the precise
definition of student-centred learning, the core assumptions are active engagement in
learning and learner responsibility for the management of learning (Lea et al., 2003).
Despite this shift in conceptions of teaching and learning, a parallel shift in relation
to formative assessment and feedback has been slower to emerge. In higher education,
formative assessment and feedback are still largely controlled by and seen as the respon-
sibility of teachers; and feedback is still generally conceptualised as a transmission
process, even though some influential researchers have recently challenged this view-
point (Sadler, 1998; Boud, 2000; Yorke, 2003). Teachers ‘transmit’ feedback messages
to students about what is right and wrong in their academic work, about its strengths
and weaknesses, and students use this information to make subsequent improvements.
There are a number of problems with this transmission view when applied to
formative assessment and feedback. Firstly, if formative assessment is exclusively in
the hands of teachers, then it is difficult to see how students can become empowered
and develop the self-regulation skills needed to prepare them for learning outside
university and throughout life (Boud, 2000). Secondly, there is an assumption that
when teachers transmit feedback information to students these messages are easily
Formative assessment and self-regulated learning 201
decoded and translated into action. Yet, there is strong evidence that feedback
messages are invariably complex and difficult to decipher, and that students require
opportunities to construct actively an understanding of them (e.g. through discus-
sion) before they can be used to regulate performance (Ivanic et al., 2000; Higgins
et al., 2001). Thirdly, viewing feedback as a cognitive process involving only transfer
of information ignores the way feedback interacts with motivation and beliefs.
Research shows that feedback both regulates and is regulated by motivational beliefs.
External feedback has been shown to influence how students feel about themselves
(positively or negatively), and what and how they learn (Dweck, 1999). Research also
shows (Garcia, 1995) that beliefs can regulate the effects of feedback messages (e.g.
perceptions of self-efficacy might be maintained by reinterpreting the causes of
failure). Fourthly, as a result of this transmission view of feedback, the workload of
teachers in higher education increases year by year as student numbers and class sizes
become larger. One way of addressing this issue is to re-examine the nature of
feedback, and who provides it (e.g. teacher, peer, self), in relation to its effectiveness
in supporting learning processes.
In the next section a conceptual model of formative assessment and feedback is
presented that centres on the processes inherent in learner self-regulation. A key
feature of the model that differentiates it from everyday understandings of feedback
is that students are assumed to occupy a central and active role in all feedback
processes. They are always actively involved in monitoring and regulating their own
performance, both in relation to desired goals and in terms of the strategies used to
reach these goals. The student also actively constructs his or her own understanding
of feedback messages derived from external sources (Black & Wiliam, 1998; Ivanic et
al., 2000). This is consistent with the literature on student-centred and social
constructivist conceptions of learning (Palinscar, 1998; Lea et al., 2003).
The conceptual model of self-regulation outlined in this article draws on earlier
work by Butler and Winne (1995). Their article stands out as one of the few available
to provide a theoretical synthesis of thinking about feedback and self-regulation.
Following a presentation of the conceptual model, seven principles of good feedback
practice are proposed; these are aligned to the model and backed up by a review of
the research literature on assessment and feedback. Relating the recent feedback
research to the conceptual model adds significant value to this area of study. First, the
model provides a coherent educational rationale to draw together some quite diverse
research findings on formative assessment and feedback. Second, the model and
seven principles offer complementary tools that teachers might use to think about the
design and evaluation of their own feedback procedures. In that context, after
describing each principle we identify some related feedback strategies that teachers
might easily implement.
A conceptual model of processes of self-regulation and internal feedback
Figure 1 presents a conceptual model of self-regulation and feedback that synthesises
current thinking in these areas. The top part of Figure 1 is based on a model originally
202 D. J. Nicol and D. Macfarlane-Dick
published by Butler and Winne (1995). Processes internal to the learner are depicted
inside the shaded area. This shows how the learner monitors and regulates learning
and performance. It also shows the crucial role of internally generated feedback in
these processes. Pintrich and Zusho (2002) provide the following working definition
Self-regulated learning is an active constructive process whereby learners set goals for their
learning and monitor, regulate, and control their cognition, motivation, and behaviour,
guided and constrained by their goals and the contextual features of the environment. (p. 64)
This definition fits the purpose of this article in that it recognises that self-regulation
applies not just to cognition but also to motivational beliefs and overt behaviour. It
also recognises that there are limits to learner self-regulation; for example, the teacher
usually devises the learning task and determines the assessment requirements.
Figure 1. A model of self-regulated learning and the feedback principles that support and develop self-regulation in students
In the model, an academic task set by the teacher (A) in class, or set as an assign-
ment, is shown as the trigger to initiate self-regulatory processes in the student
(shown at the centre of the diagram). Engagement with the task requires that the
student draw on prior knowledge and motivational beliefs (B), and construct a
personal interpretation of the meaning of the task and its requirements. Based on this
internal conception, the student formulates his or her own task goals (C). While there
would normally be an overlap between the student’s goals and those of the teacher,
the degree of overlap may not be high (e.g. if the student wishes only to pass the
assignment). The student’s goals might also be fuzzy rather than clear (e.g. a vague
intention or task orientation). Nonetheless, these goals would help shape the
strategies and tactics (D) that are used by students to generate outcomes, both inter-
nal (E) and externally observable (F). Internal outcomes refer to changes in cognitive
or affective/motivational states that occur during task engagement (e.g. increased
understanding, changes in self-perceptions of ability). Externally observable
outcomes refer to tangible products produced (e.g. essays) and behaviours (e.g.
Monitoring these interactions with the task, and the outcomes that are being
cumulatively produced, generates internal feedback at a variety of levels (i.e. cognitive,
motivational and behavioural). This feedback is derived from a comparison of current
progress against desired goals. It is these comparisons that help the student determine
whether current modes of engagement should continue as is, or if some type of
change is necessary. For example, this self-generated feedback might lead to a rein-
terpretation of the task, or to an adjustment of internal goals, tactics and strategies.
The student might even revise his or her domain knowledge or motivational beliefs
which, in turn, might influence subsequent self-regulation.
In the model, external feedback to the student (G) might be provided by the
teacher, by a peer or by other means (e.g. a placement supervisor, a computer). This
additional information might augment, concur or conflict with the student’s interpre-
tation of the task and the path of learning. However, to produce an effect on internal
processes or external outcomes the student must actively engage with these external
inputs. In effect, the teachers’ feedback responses would have to be interpreted,
Formative assessment and self-regulated learning 203
Figure 1. A model of self-regulated learning and the feedback principles that support and develop
self-regulation in students
204 D. J. Nicol and D. Macfarlane-Dick
constructed and internalised by the student if they were to have a significant influence
on subsequent learning (Ivanic et al., 2000).
Some supporting research
There is considerable research evidence to show that effective feedback leads to
learning gains. Black and Wiliam (1998) drew together over 250 studies of feedback
carried out since 1988, spanning all educational sectors. These studies focused on
real teaching situations, and the selection included teacher-made assessments and self
and peer assessments. A meta-analysis of these studies revealed that feedback
produced significant benefits in learning and achievement across all content areas,
knowledge and skill types, and levels of education. While the bulk of Black and
Wiliam’s data came from the school sector, their review and that of others (e.g.
Hattie, 1987; Crooks, 1988), provides convincing evidence of the value of feedback
in promoting learning. In addition, there is a large body of complementary research
studies demonstrating the effects of self and peer feedback on learning (e.g. Boud,
1995; Boud et al., 1999). Nonetheless, while the work of Black and others has had an
important influence on teaching practices in schools (Black et al., 2003) it has so far
had much less influence on higher education.
One of the most influential articles underpinning the Black and Wiliam review, and
the writings of other researchers (e.g. Yorke, 2003), is that of Sadler (1989). Sadler
identified three conditions necessary for students to benefit from feedback in
academic tasks. He argued that the student must know:
1. what good performance is (i.e. the student must possess a concept of the goal or
standard being aimed for);
2. how current performance relates to good performance (for this, the student must
be able to compare current and good performance);
3. how to act to close the gap between current and good performance.
From this analysis Sadler made an important observation: for students to be able to
compare actual performance with a standard (as suggested by 2), and take action to
close the gap (3), then they must already possess some of the same evaluative skills as
their teacher (Sadler, 1989). For some writers, this observation has led to the conclu-
sion that, as well as improving the quality of feedback messages, teachers should focus
much more effort on strengthening the skills of self-assessment in their students
(Boud, 2000; Yorke, 2003). Sadler’s argument, that students are already generating
their own feedback, also helps account for the common finding that students still make
significant progress in their learning even when the external feedback they receive is
quite impoverished (especially in many large enrolment classes).
Although Sadler’s writings are consistent with the argument in this article, his focus
on ‘control theory and closing gaps’ has been interpreted by some as too limited a
basis to account for the range of effects produced by feedback (Gibbs, 2004). This
article addresses this concern by repositioning formative assessment and feedback
within a wider framework that encompasses self-regulation of motivation and
Formative assessment and self-regulated learning 205
behaviour as well as of cognition. For example, feedback is involved when students
actively control their study time or their interactions with others (behaviour), and
when they monitor and control motivational beliefs to adapt to the demands of the
course (e.g. choosing a personal goal orientation).
Despite the appeal of self-regulation as a construct, it is important to recognise
some basic assumptions underlying its use. While it is assumed that students can self-
regulate internal states and behaviour as well as some aspects of the environment, this
does not mean that the student always has full control. Learning tasks set by teachers,
marking regimes and other course requirements are not under students’ control, even
though students still have latitude to self-regulate within such constraints. Also,
students often learn in implicit or unintentional ways without explicit regulation (e.g.
aspects of some skills such as reading are automated).
There is a large body of empirical evidence, mainly published in the USA, showing
that learners who are more self-regulated are more effective learners: they are more
persistent, resourceful, confident and higher achievers (Pintrich, 1995; Zimmerman
& Schunk, 2001). Also, the more learning becomes self-regulated, the more students
assume control over their learning, and the less dependent they are on external
teacher support when they engage in regulatory activities (Zimmerman & Schunk,
2004). Importantly, this research also shows that any student, even those ‘at risk’, can
learn to become more self-regulating (Pintrich & Zusho, 2002). The development of
self-regulation in students can be facilitated by structuring learning environments in
ways that make learning processes explicit, through meta-cognitive training, self-
monitoring and by providing opportunities to practise self-regulation (Schunk &
Zimmerman, 1994; Pintrich, 1995). The contribution of this article is to identify how
formative assessment and feedback processes might help foster self-regulation (it is
beyond the scope of this article to summarise the literature on self-regulation but a
useful first text might be that by Zimmerman and Schunk, 2001).
Seven principles of good feedback practice: facilitating self-regulation
From the self-regulation model and the research literature on formative assessment it
is possible to identify some principles of good feedback practice. These are shown at
the bottom of Figure 1. Good feedback practice is broadly defined here as anything
that might strengthen the students’ capacity to self-regulate their own performance.
A synthesis of the research literature led to the following seven principles:
Good feedback practice:
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 teaching.
206 D. J. Nicol and D. Macfarlane-Dick
The following sections provide the rationale for each principle in terms of the self-
regulation and the associated research literature. Specific strategies that teachers
can use to facilitate self-regulation are proposed after the presentation of each
1. Helps clarify what good performance is
Students can only achieve learning goals if they understand those goals, assume some
ownership of them, and can assess progress (Sadler, 1989; Black & Wiliam, 1998). In
academic settings, understanding goals means that there must be a reasonable degree
of overlap between the task goals set by students and the goals originally set by the
teacher. This is logically essential, given that it is the students’ goals that serve as the
criteria for self-regulation (Figure 1). However, there is considerable research
evidence showing significant mismatches between tutors’ and students’ conceptions
of goals, and of assessment criteria and standards.
Hounsell (1997) has shown that tutors and students often have quite different
conceptions about the goals and criteria for essays in undergraduate courses in history
and psychology, and that poor essay performance is correlated with the degree of
mismatch. In a similar vein, Norton (1990) has shown that, when students were asked
to rank specific assessment criteria for an essay task, they produced quite different
rankings from those of their teachers, emphasising content above critical thinking and
argument. Weak and incorrect conceptions of goals not only influence what students
do, but also the value of external feedback information. If students do not share (at
least in part) their teacher’s conceptions of assessment goals (and criteria and stan-
dards), then the feedback information they receive is unlikely to ‘connect’ (Hounsell,
1997). In this case, it will be difficult for students to evaluate discrepancies between
required and actual performance. It is also important to note here that feedback not
only has a role in helping guide students towards academic goals, but, over time, it
also has a role in helping clarify what these goals are (Sadler, 1989).
One way of clarifying task requirements (goals/criteria/standards) is to provide
students with written documents containing statements that describe assessment
criteria and/or the standards that define different levels of achievement. However,
many studies have shown that it is difficult to make assessment criteria and standards
explicit through written documentation or through verbal descriptions in class (Rust
et al., 2003). Most criteria for academic tasks are complex, multidimensional (Sadler,
1989) and difficult to articulate; they are often ‘tacit’ and unarticulated in the mind
of the teacher. As Yorke (2003, p. 480) notes:
Statements of expected standards, curriculum objectives or learning outcomes are
generally insufficient to convey the richness of meaning that is wrapped up in them.
Hence there is a need for strategies that complement written materials and simple
verbal explanations. An approach that has proved particularly powerful in clarifying
goals and standards has been to provide students with ‘exemplars’ of performance
(Orsmond et al., 2002). Exemplars are effective because they make explicit what is
Formative assessment and self-regulated learning 207
required, and they define a valid standard against which students can compare their
Other strategies that have proved effective in clarifying criteria, standards and goals
include: (i) providing better definitions of requirements using carefully constructed
criteria sheets and performance-level definitions; (ii) increasing discussion and reflec-
tion about criteria and standards in class (e.g. before an assignment); (iii) involving
students in assessment exercises where they mark or comment on other students’
work in relation to defined criteria and standards; (iv) workshops where students in
collaboration with the teacher devise or negotiate their own assessment criteria for a
piece of work. These strategies exemplify increasing levels of self-regulation.
2. Facilitates the development of self-assessment (reflection) in learning
As suggested earlier, one effective way to develop self-regulation in students is to
provide them with opportunities to practise regulating aspects of their own learning
and to reflect on that practice. Students are (to some extent) already engaged in
monitoring gaps between internally set task goals and the outcomes that they are
generating (both internal and external). This monitoring is a by-product of purpose-
ful engagement in a task (Figure 1). However, in order to build on this, and to
develop systematically the learner’s capacity for self-regulation, teachers need to
create more structured opportunities for self-monitoring and the judging of progres-
sion to goals. Self-assessment tasks are an effective way of achieving this, as are
activities that encourage reflection on learning progress.
Over the last decade there has been an increasing interest in self-assessment in
higher education (Boud, 1995). Research shows that, when suitably organised, self-
assessment can lead to significant enhancements in learning and achievement. For
example, McDonald and Boud (2003) have shown that training in self-assessment
can improve students’ performance in final examinations. Also, Taras (2001, 2002,
2003) has carried out a number of studies on student self-assessment in higher
education which have shown positive benefits. In one study, students were trained in
self-assessment under two conditions: self-assessment prior to peer and tutor feed-
back and self-assessment with integrated tutor feedback. The latter condition
involved students self-assessing after they had received tutor feedback. The results
showed that, while both conditions benefited learning, self-assessment with
integrated tutor feedback helped students identify and correct more errors (those that
they or peers had not been aware of) than self-assessment prior to peer or tutor
feedback. Interestingly, this study not only shows the benefits of integrating external
and internal feedback, but also ways of helping students internalise and use tutor
In developing self-assessment skills it is important to engage students in both
identifying standards/criteria that will apply to their work (discussed in principle 1
above), and in making judgements about how their work relates to these standards
(Boud, 1986). While structured opportunities for training in self-assessment are
important, there are other ways of supporting the development of these skills. One
208 D. J. Nicol and D. Macfarlane-Dick
approach is to provide students with opportunities to evaluate and provide feedback
on each other’s work. Such peer processes help develop the skills needed to make
objective judgements against standards, skills which are transferred when students
turn to producing and regulating their own work (Boud et al., 1999; Gibbs, 1999).
Another approach is to create frequent opportunities for reflection by students during
their study. Cowan (1999) identifies ways that this can be done, both in the context
of simple classroom activities and during longer-term projects.
Other examples of structured reflection and self-assessment are varied and might
include students: (i) requesting the kinds of feedback they would like when they hand
in work; (ii) identifying the strengths and weaknesses in their own work in relation to
criteria or standards before handing it in for teacher feedback; (iii) reflecting on their
achievements and selecting work in order to compile a portfolio; (iv) reflecting before
a task on achievement milestones and reflecting back on progress and forward to the
next stage of action (Cowan, 1999).
3. Delivers high quality information to students about their learning
While research shows that teachers have a central role in developing their students’
own capacity for self-regulation, they are also a crucial source of external feedback.
Feedback from teachers is a source against which students can evaluate progress, and
check out their own internal constructions of goals, criteria and standards. Moreover,
teachers are much more effective in identifying errors or misconceptions in students’
work than peers or the students themselves. In effect, feedback from teachers can help
substantiate student self-regulation.
In the research literature there is little consensus about what constitutes good
quality external feedback. Quality is defined quite broadly, and tends to be discussed
in relation to student needs and teacher-defined goals. For example, most researchers
and textbook writers (e.g. Freeman & Lewis, 1998) are concerned that feedback to
students might be delayed, not relevant or informative, that it might focus on low-
level learning goals or might be overwhelming in quantity or deficient in tone (i.e. too
critical). For these researchers, the way forward is to ensure that feedback is provided
in a timely manner (close to the act of learning production), that it focuses not just
on strengths and weaknesses but also on offering corrective advice, that it directs
students to higher order learning goals, and that it involves some praise alongside
constructive criticism. While each of these issues is important, there is a need for a
more focused definition of quality in relation to external feedback, a definition that
links more closely to the idea of self-regulation. Hence it is proposed here that:
● Good quality external feedback is information that helps students troubleshoot
their own performance and self-correct: that is, it helps students take action to
reduce the discrepancy between their intentions and the resulting effects.
In this context, it is argued that, where feedback is given, it is important that it is
related to (and that students understand its relation to) goals, standards or criteria.
Moreover, from this definition it is clear that external feedback should also help
Formative assessment and self-regulated learning 209
convey to students an appropriate conception of the goal. This is not always the case.
For example, it has become common practice in recent years to devise feedback
sheets with assessment criteria, as a way of informing students about task require-
ments and of providing consistent feedback in relation to goals (where there are a
number of assessors). However, Sadler (1983) has argued that the use of criteria
sheets often has unwanted effects in relation to essay assessments: for example, if
there are a large number of criteria (12–20), this may convey to the student a concep-
tion of the essay as a list of things to be done (ticked off) rather than as a holistic
process (e.g. involving the production of a coherent argument supported by
evidence). So, as well as relating feedback to criteria and goals, teachers should also
be aware that the instruments they use to deliver feedback might adversely influence
students’ conceptions of the expected goals.
In the literature on essay assessment, some researchers have tried to formulate
guidelines regarding the quantity and tone of feedback comments that, when analy-
sed, show a close correspondence with the principle underlying the above definition
of feedback quality. For example, Lunsford (1997) examined the written feedback
comments given by writing experts on students’ essays. From his analysis he made
two proposals: firstly, that three well-thought-out feedback comments per essay was
the optimum if the expectation was that students would act on these comments; and
secondly, and more importantly, these comments should indicate to the student how
the reader (the teacher) experienced the essay as it was read (i.e. playing back to the
students how the essay worked), rather than offer judgemental comments. Such
comments would help the student grasp the difference between his or her intentions
(goals) and the effects of the writing. Lunsford also advises that the comments should
always be written in a non-authoritative tone, and where possible they should offer
corrective advice (both about the writing process as well as about content) instead of
just information about strengths and weaknesses. In relation to self-regulation,
Lunsford’s reader-response strategy supports the shift from feedback provided by the
teacher to students’ evaluating their own writing.
The literature on external feedback is undeveloped in terms of how teachers should
frame feedback comments, what kind of discourse should be used, how many
comments are appropriate and in what context they should be made. Much more
research is required in this area. One fruitful area of investigation is that currently
being conducted by Gibbs and Simpson (2004) on the relationship between feedback
and the time students spend on task. They have shown that if students receive feed-
back often and regularly, it enables better monitoring and self-regulation of progress
by students. Other research is investigating the strengths of alternative modes of feed-
back communication (e.g. audio feedback, computer feedback) and of alternative
ways of producing feedback information (e.g. poster productions where students get
feedback by comparing their work with that of other students) (Hounsell & McCune,
2003; Hounsell, 2004).
Further strategies that increase the quality of teacher feedback based on the
definition given above and on other research include: (i) making sure that feedback is
provided in relation to pre-defined criteria but paying particular attention to the
210 D. J. Nicol and D. Macfarlane-Dick
number of criteria; (ii) providing timely feedback—this means before it is too late for
students to change their work (i.e. before submission) rather than just, as the research
literature often suggests, soon after submission; (iii) providing corrective advice, not
just information on strengths/weaknesses; (iv) limiting the amount of feedback so that
it is actually used; (v) prioritising areas for improvement; (vi) providing online tests
so that feedback can be accessed anytime, any place and as many times as students
4. Encourages teacher and peer dialogue around learning
In the self-regulation model, for external feedback to be effective it must be under-
stood and internalised by the student before it can be used to make productive
improvements. Yet in the research literature (Chanock, 2000; Hyland, 2000) there is
a great deal of evidence that students do not understand the feedback given by tutors
(e.g. ‘this essay is not sufficiently analytical’), and are therefore not be able to take
action to reduce the discrepancy between their intentions (goals) and the effects they
would like to produce (i.e. the student may not know what to do to make the essay
‘more analytical’). External feedback as a transmission process involving ‘telling’
ignores the active role the student must play in constructing meaning from feedback
messages, and of using this to regulate performance.
One way of increasing the effectiveness of external feedback, and the likelihood that
the information provided is understood by students, is to conceptualise feedback
more as dialogue rather than as information transmission. Feedback as dialogue
means that the student not only receives initial feedback information, but also has the
opportunity to engage the teacher in discussion about that feedback. Some research-
ers maintain that teacher–student dialogue is essential if feedback is to be effective in
higher education (Laurillard, 2002). Freeman and Lewis (1998) argue that the
teacher ‘should try to stimulate a response and a continuing dialogue—whether this
be on the topics that formed the basis of the assignment or aspects of students’ perfor-
mance or the feedback itself’ (p. 51). Discussions with the teacher help students to
develop their understanding of expectations and standards, to check out and correct
misunderstandings and to get an immediate response to difficulties.
Unfortunately, with large class sizes it can be difficult for the teacher to engage in
dialogue with students. Nonetheless, there are ways that teachers might increase
feedback dialogue even in these situations. One approach is to structure small group
break-out discussions of feedback in class, after students have received written
comments on their individual assignments. Another approach is to use classroom tech-
nologies. These technologies help collate student responses to in-class questions (often
multiple-choice questions) using handset devices. The results are fed back to the class
visually as a histogram. This collated feedback has been used as a trigger for peer
discussion (e.g. ‘convince your neighbour that you have the right answer’) and teacher-
managed discussion in large classes (e.g. Boyle & Nicol, 2003; Nicol & Boyle, 2003).
These studies identify another source of external feedback to students—their peers.
Peer dialogue enhances in students a sense of self-control over learning in a variety of
Formative assessment and self-regulated learning 211
ways. Firstly, students who have just learned something are often better able than
teachers to explain it to their classmates in a language and in a way that is accessible.
Secondly, peer discussion exposes students to alternative perspectives on problems
and to alternative tactics and strategies. Alternative perspectives enable students to
revise or reject their initial hypothesis, and construct new knowledge and meaning
through negotiation. Thirdly, by commenting on the work of peers, students develop
detachment of judgement (about work in relation to standards), which is transferred
to the assessment of their own work (e.g. ‘I didn’t do that either’). Fourthly, peer
discussion can be motivational in that it encourages students to persist (see Boyle &
Nicol, 2003). Finally, it is sometimes easier for students to accept critiques of their
work from peers rather than tutors.
Dialogical feedback strategies that support self-regulation include: (i) providing
feedback using one-minute papers in class (see Angelo & Cross, 1993); (ii) reviewing
feedback in tutorials, where students are asked to read the feedback comments they
have been given earlier on an assignment, and discuss these with peers (they might
also be asked to suggest strategies to improve performance next time); (iii) asking
students to find one or two examples of feedback comments that they found useful
and to explain how they helped; (iv) having students give each other descriptive
feedback on their work in relation to published criteria before submission; (iv) group
projects, especially where students discuss criteria and standards before the project
5. Encourages positive motivational beliefs and self-esteem
Motivation and self-esteem play a very important role in learning and assessment, as
is shown in Figure 1. Studies by Dweck (1999) show that, depending on their beliefs
about learning, students possess qualitatively different motivational frameworks.
These frameworks affect both students’ responses to external feedback and their
commitment to the self-regulation of learning.
Research in school settings has shown that frequent high-stakes assessment (where
marks or grades are given) has a ‘negative impact on motivation for learning that
militates against preparation for lifelong learning’ (Harlen & Crick, 2003). Dweck
(1999) argues that such assessments encourage students to focus on performance
goals (passing the test, looking good) rather than learning goals (mastering the
subject). In one study, Butler (1988) demonstrated that feedback comments alone
increased students’ subsequent interest in learning when compared with two other
controlled situations, one where only marks were given and the other where students
were given feedback and marks. Butler argued that students paid less attention to the
comments when given marks, and consequently did not try to use the comments to
make improvements. This phenomenon is also commonly reported by academics in
Butler (1987) has also argued that grading student performance has less effect than
feedback comments, because it leads students to compare themselves against others
(ego-involvement) rather than to focus on the difficulties in the task and on making
212 D. J. Nicol and D. Macfarlane-Dick
efforts to improve (task-involvement). Feedback given as grades has also been shown
to have especially negative effects on the self-esteem of low-ability students (Craven
et al., 1991).
Dweck (1999) has interpreted these findings in terms of a developmental model
that differentiates students into those who believe that ability is fixed, and that there
is a limit to what they can achieve (the ‘entity view’), and those that believe that their
ability is malleable and depends on the effort that is input into a task (the ‘incremental
view’). These views affect how students respond to learning difficulties. Those with
an entity view (fixed) interpret failure as a reflection of their low ability, and are likely
to give up, whereas those with an incremental view (malleable) interpret this as a
challenge or an obstacle to be overcome, and increase their effort. Grant and Dweck
(2003) have confirmed the validity of this model within higher education, as have
Yorke and Knight (2004), who found that about one-third of a sample of 2269 under-
graduates students in first and final years, and across a range of disciplines, held
beliefs in fixed intelligence.
Although this is an underexplored area of research, there is evidence that teachers
can have a positive or negative effect on motivation and self-esteem. They can
influence both the goals that students set (learning or performance goals), as well as
their commitment to those goals. Praising effort and strategic behaviours, and
focusing students through feedback on learning goals, leads to higher achievement
than praising ability or intelligence. The latter can result in a learned-helplessness
orientation (Dweck, 1999). As Black and Wiliam (1998) note, feedback that draws
attention away from the task and towards self-esteem can have a negative effect on
attitudes and performance. In other words, it is important that students understand
that feedback is an evaluation, not of the person but of the performance in context.
This holds true whether the feedback derives from an external source or is generated
These studies on motivation and self-esteem are important—they help explain why
students often fail to self-regulate. In terms of teaching practice they suggest that
motivation and self-esteem are more likely to be enhanced when a course has many
low-stakes assessment tasks, with feedback geared to providing information about
progress and achievement, rather than high-stakes summative assessment tasks where
information is only about success or failure, or about how students compare with their
peers (e.g. grades). Other strategies that help encourage high levels of motivation and
self-esteem include: (i) providing marks on written work only after students have
responded to feedback comments (Gibbs, 1999); (ii) allocating time for students to
rewrite selected pieces of work—this would help change students’ expectations about
purpose and learning goals; (iii) automated testing with feedback; (iv) drafts and
6. Provides opportunities to close the gap between current and desired performance
So far, feedback has been discussed from a cognitive or informational perspective,
and from a motivational perspective. However, in terms of self-regulation we must
Formative assessment and self-regulated learning 213
also consider how feedback influences behaviour and the academic work that is
produced. According to Yorke (2003), two questions might be asked regarding
external feedback. First, is the feedback of the best quality, and second, does it lead
to changes in student behaviour? Many writers have focused on the first question, but
the second is equally important. External feedback provides an opportunity to close
a gap between current performance and the performance expected by the teacher. As
The only way to tell if learning results from feedback is for students to make some kind of
response to complete the feedback loop (Sadler, 1989). This is one of the most often
forgotten aspects of formative assessment. Unless students are able to use the feedback to
produce improved work, through for example, re-doing the same assignment, neither they
nor those giving the feedback will know that it has been effective. (Boud, 2000, p. 158)
In the self-regulation model (Figure 1), Boud’s arguments about closing the perfor-
mance gap might be viewed in two ways. First, closing the gap is about supporting
students while engaged in the act of production of a piece of work (e.g. essays, presen-
tations). Second, it is about providing opportunities to repeat the same ‘task-perfor-
mance–external feedback cycle’ by, for example, allowing resubmission. External
feedback should support both processes: it should help students to recognise the next
steps in learning and how to take them, both during production and in relation to the
Supporting the act of production requires the generation of concurrent or intrinsic
feedback that students can interact with while engaged in an assessment task. This
feedback would normally be built into the task (e.g. a group task with peer interac-
tion, or a computer simulation), or the task might be broken down into components
each associated with its own feedback. Many forms of electronic feedback (e.g. online
simulations) can be automatically generated to support task engagement (Bull &
McKenna, 2004). Providing feedback at sub-task level is not significantly different
from other forms of feedback described in this article.
In higher education, most students have little opportunity to use directly the
feedback they receive to close the performance gap, especially in the case of planned
assignments. Invariably they move on to the next assessment task soon after feed-
back is received. While not all work can be resubmitted, many writers argue that
resubmissions should play a more prominent role in learning (Boud, 2000). Also,
greater emphasis might need to be given to providing feedback on work-in-progress
(e.g. on structures for essays, plans for reports, sketches) and to encouraging
students to plan the strategies they might use to improve subsequent work
The following are some specific strategies to help students use external feedback to
regulate and close the performance gap: (i) provide feedback on work in progress and
increase opportunities for resubmission; (ii) introduce two-stage assignments where
feedback on stage one helps improve stage two (Gibbs, 2004); (iii) teachers might
model the strategies they would use to close a performance gap in class (e.g. model
how to structure an essay when given a new question); (iv) specifically provide some
214 D. J. Nicol and D. Macfarlane-Dick
‘action points’ alongside the normal feedback provision; (v) involve students in
groups in identifying their own action points in class after they have read the feedback
on their assignments. The latter strategy would integrate feedback into the teaching
and learning process, and involve the students more actively in the generation and
planned use of feedback.
7. Provides information to teachers that can be used to help shape the teaching
Good feedback practice is not only about providing accessible and usable information
that helps students improve their learning, but it is also about providing good infor-
mation to teachers. As Yorke (2003, p. 482) notes:
The act of assessing has an effect on the assessor as well as the student. Assessors learn
about the extent to which they [students] have developed expertise and can tailor their
In order to produce feedback that is relevant and informative and meets students’
needs, teachers themselves need good data about how students are progressing. They
also need to be involved in reviewing and reflecting on this data, and in taking action
to help support the development of self-regulation in their students.
In the self-regulation model (Figure 1) information about students only becomes
available when the learning outcomes are translated into public performances and
products. Teachers help generate this public information about students through a
variety of methods—by setting assessment tasks, by questioning of students in class
and by observing behaviour (e.g. presentations). Such information helps teachers
uncover student difficulties with subject matter (e.g. conceptual misunderstandings)
and study methods.
Frequent assessment tasks, especially diagnostic tests, can help teachers generate
cumulative information about students’ levels of understanding and skill, so that they
can adapt their teaching accordingly. This is one of the key ideas behind the work in
the USA of Angelo and Cross (1993). They have shown how teachers can gain regu-
lar feedback information about student learning within large classes by using variants
of the one-minute paper—questions that are posed to students before a teaching
session begins, and responded to at the end of the session (e.g. What was the most
important argument in this lecture? What question remains uppermost in your mind
now at the end of this teaching session?). These strategies can be adapted to any class-
room situation or discipline. Moreover, they help develop in students important
meta-cognitive skills such as the ability to think holistically and to identify gaps in
understanding (Steadman, 1998).
As well as giving feedback to the teacher, one-minute papers can also be used to
provide feedback to the student (e.g. when teachers replay some of the student
responses to the one-minute paper in class at the next teaching session). Indeed, this
approach allows teachers and students to share, on a regular basis, their conceptions
about both the goals and processes of learning (Stefani & Nicol, 1997), thus
supporting academic self-regulation.
Formative assessment and self-regulated learning 215
Other strategies available to teachers to help generate and collate quality informa-
tion about student learning include: (i) having students request the feedback they
would like when they make an assignment submission (e.g. on a pro forma with
published criteria); (ii) having students identify where they are having difficulties
when they hand in assessed work; (iii) asking students in groups to identify ‘a question
worth asking’, based on prior study, that they would like to explore for a short time
at the beginning of the next tutorial.
Conclusion and future work
This article has argued that conceptions of assessment have lagged behind
conceptions of learning in higher education. While students have been given more
responsibility for learning in recent years, there has been far greater reluctance to give
them increased responsibility for assessment processes (even low-stakes formative
processes). Yet, if students are to be prepared for learning throughout life, they must
be provided with opportunities to develop the capacity to regulate their own learning
as they progress through higher education. This article has identified ways in which
formative assessment and feedback might be organised so as to support this
development. It has provided some key principles of good feedback practice that
address a wide spectrum—the cognitive, behavioural and motivational aspects of self-
regulation. How might teachers use the ideas in this article? One practical proposal is
that teachers examine current assessment practices in relation to the self-regulation
model and to the seven principles. An audit of this kind might help identify where
assessment practices might be strengthened. However, the seven principles presented
here do not exhaust all that teachers might do to enhance self-regulated learning in
classrooms. They merely provide a starting point. The research challenge is to refine
these principles, identify gaps and to gather further evidence about the potential of
formative assessment and feedback to support self-regulation.
We would like to thank David Boud (University of Technology, Sydney, Australia)
and Graham Gibbs (Oxford University, UK) for feedback on a draft of this article.
We would also like to thank the Learning and Teaching Support Network (now the
Higher Education Academy, UK) for funding the Student Enhanced Learning
through Effective Feedback (SENLEF) project which led us to review the assessment
literature, and our SENLEF project colleagues, Charles Juwah, Bob Matthew, David
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