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Feedback Loops and Formative Assessment: Gathering Feedback from Students about the Effectiveness of Your Course

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Don’t wait for formal evaluations to find out what your students are thinking and how they feel. A recent study by Jonas Flodén (2017) notes that “Student feedback pushes teaching choices … toward more student-teacher interaction” (Discussion section, para. 3). Findings like this illustrate the demand for more connection. Flodén (2017) also found that “student feedback is perceived positively by the university teachers, and that it has a large impact on teaching and helps improve courses” (Conclusion section, para. 1). So, when and how can feedback from students improve a teacher’s practice, resulting in a better online course?

Formative assessments, in the right form and at the right time, can bridge this gap. This is made apparent by educators at the Penn State Behrend Center for Learning Initiatives, who provide methods to gather student feedback to inform and improve instructional practices:

  • Early feedback can serve to connect students to their classmates and instructor and build community and trust.
  • Discussion boards of various sorts can provide a forum for developing these relationships.
  • Feedback gathered at various moments during the course, and in various formats (discussion forums, surveys, announcements) can support the social dynamic and can offer insight into student perceptions about the course and instruction.
  • Feedback can be used to address the course in real time, or in preparation for the next semester offering, or both.
  • Small, low stakes formative assessments provide feedback to students regarding their mastery, and to the instructors regarding students’ understanding and need for additional instruction. Some examples of low-stakes formative assessments are self-check quizzes, one-minute papers, and exit slips.

See it in Practice

Muddiest pt exit slip: I'm struggling with the relationship between the radius & coordination number.
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Credit: © Penn State is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 

Instructors looking for a simple, no-stakes way to help students evaluate their understanding of material will find value in the Muddiest Point activity. This activity offers students an opportunity to think about their own learning (employ metacognition) in order to identify which aspects of the course information are confusing or unclear to them. This can be achieved by allowing students to write down lesson concepts or points that they find confusing or unclear. By engaging students in this type of anonymous feedback loop, you offer them the ability to enhance and deepen their learning, thereby increasing their satisfaction with the course. You may also find indications that some of your instructions may be confusing.

To implement this activity, follow these steps:

  1. Select the modality you wish to use to implement the activity.
    • Notecards (best for in-person courses)
    • Online tools such as a Google Jamboard or Canvas survey (best for online courses)
  2. Distribute the notecards or a Jamboard or survey link at the beginning of class.
  3. Offer 2-5 minutes at the end of class to allow students to reflect on what they have learned and to identify points of confusion or unclarity.
  4. Spend some time reviewing the students’ muddiest points prior to the next class to effectively prepare concise, yet detailed explanations of the material.
  5. At the beginning of the next class, take a few minutes to address the points raised by the students and to clarify or re-teach, briefly.

Some additional benefits to using this activity include giving students a sense of agency and making them feel recognized by the instructor.  It can also be a valuable tool for modifying instructor lectures to align with student needs more effectively.  


blank multiple choice question with 4 blank answers
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Credit: © Vladimir Ivankin /

Asking students to write quiz questions can increase their engagement with and retention of material. If done from memory, it can act as a retrieval practice exercise, requiring students to remember and process information they’ve recently learned and thus, increasing retention. Whether or not performed from memory, this activity requires students to think critically, since they will be asked to carefully analyze the content, identify the important themes, make connections, and draft questions and answers that synthesize what they’ve learned. It also allows students and instructors to identify gaps in knowledge and understanding and make necessary adjustments. The student questions can be edited, adapted, and/or combined by the instructor and offered to other students for practice with the material or could be put to use on future quizzes.


In the following example, the activity is offered for extra credit and is made available to help students prepare for the cumulative final exam. Students are required to provide ten multiple-choice questions, the correct answer, plausible incorrect answers (“distractors”) and feedback for correct and incorrect answers.

This example can be modified to include other types of questions (short answer, essay, etc.) and used as a graded assignment before weekly quizzes, mid-terms, etc.

Set up the exercise

Explain the benefits of this exercise and provide students with guidance on, or resources about how to generate appropriate questions.


For an online class:

  • Review the document about creating effective quiz questions as presented in Canvas.
  • Write a set of ten (10) multiple choice quiz questions that cover at least 4 different units. Each question should include the following:
    • The question
    • The correct answer
    • Two to four (2-4) distractors, or incorrect answers that are plausible.
    • Feedback that students would see after the quiz is submitted and graded. Typically, this feedback should include an explanation for why the correct answer is correct.
  • Submit this as a Word document.

For an In-person class:

Use some class time or assign as homework to produce questions/answers/distractors and then use their questions during a review session. This way, the instructor can monitor the questions asked of the students, can correct any mistakes, or can ask students to help do that. It's all an oral exchange and done live.


Each question will be graded on the following criteria:

  • Correct. The questions and answers are correct
  • Viable. The questions make sense

Note: This is a difficult assignment for students. They aren’t typically good at this at first, but getting them to think critically about the content and experience writing questions is good practice. As you grade, consider that this is new to them and grade accordingly.


  • Spend some time in class, or in an announcement, reviewing a subset of the questions. 
  • Allow students to post their questions and answers in a discussion forum, discuss, and learn from each other. 
  • If students are having trouble, consider prompting them with question stems such as “in what way is X related to Y” and “What are the pros and cons of xxx?” 


Example assignment. Described below.
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Credit: © Penn State; licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 

When students understand the real-life applications of what they are learning (relevance), their participation and academic success increases. Asking students to write or record a sentence or two about the real-life applications (past, present, or future) of what they are learning is a great way to help them make connections. This can be an individual activity or an opportunity to share their experiences more broadly through a discussion or shared collaborative space (Google Doc, JamBoard, Miro Board, VoiceThread, Flip, etc.). Instructors can discuss or post some of the more interesting/relevant suggestions in the next class, and maybe even incorporate some of what they learn into future lectures/content.


What is the one thing you wish you had known before you took this course?
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Credit: © Penn State is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 

Just ask! Sometimes you must ask the right question to get the conversation started. An example of a great prompt for student feedback is to ask students to share “The one thing I wish I had known before I took this course is...” Replies to this prompt are exactly the kind of information that can help you address misunderstandings or clear up poor instructions or explanations. For example, when a student makes it known that they are having difficulty following along with course assignments and due dates, a responsive educator could

  • address the learner’s need immediately by pointing to ways to view course assignments and timelines.
  • consider making changes to help future students find this information more easily.

Remember to follow through with clear messaging about how you will address student feedback and when students can expect to see the result of their feedback in the course. This enhances student agency and can foster engagement where students know their voices are heard and valued. You can ask students for feedback in any number of ways, including announcements, email, discussion boards, anonymous surveys, and paper and pencil.


Decorative image. Text repeated within content of this example.
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Credit: © Penn State is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 

An ungraded, anonymous mid-semester survey offers students a chance to voice concerns and ask questions about a course and its administration. Surveys of this type can be setup easily in Canvas. Compiled results can fuel a follow-up conversation and/or announcement where the instructor can address student feedback by answering questions and alleviating issues or making plans to do so.

A recent survey in EME 801: Energy Markets, Policy, and Regulation helped the instructor understand that students were generally happy with the course but wanted more clarity surrounding assignments and more specific rubrics. For the remainder of the course, these changes could be implemented right away, satisfying student requests, and previous assignment specifications could be improved for future students. In this case, student feedback was valuable in helping the instructor understand students’ perspectives and perceptions. It also helped instigate positive changes.

The survey in EME 801 asked the following questions:

  • Are you generally pleased with the course so far or are you frustrated with some aspects of it? Please explain, briefly and in a constructive manner.
  • Have you been able to navigate the course materials without problems? If not, please indicate what would be helpful for a better experience.
  • How is the clarity of the course assignments? Do the instructions and rubrics offer enough information? When working on assignments, are you confident that you understand what's asked of you?
  • Would a weekly Canvas Announcement reminding you of what to expect for each new lesson/module be helpful to you?
  • Have you benefitted from our class discussions? How? Or why not?
  • Do you feel welcome and included in our classroom community? Why or why not?
  • What can I do to help you succeed in this course? Please explain. You may also use this space to record anything else you'd like to communicate to me.


  • For maximum student engagement and agency, it is important to inform students about when their mid-semester concerns will be addressed.
  • Student anonymity is important in surveys that ask students to share their opinions and perceptions. The instructions for filling out the survey should contain a statement that reassures students that they are free and safe to express themselves.


Survey example. Text in paragraph below
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Credit: © Penn State is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 

Do you ever notice that a large percentage of students are having a hard time grasping a concept or following procedures properly? It might be time to send out a quick survey to figure out what’s going on. Soliciting student feedback to gain an understanding of where students are coming from can help you hone your teaching to make the maximum impact.

One reoccurring issue that many instructors report is their students’ lack of proper use of citations in their work. A survey addressing this problem could contain the following questions:

  • Do you know when you need to cite other peoples’ work?
  • On a scale of 0 (no confidence) to 3 (full confidence), how confident are you in your ability to cite other peoples’ work properly?
  • When, in the course of your education, did you learn to give credit or cite properly?
  • What tools do you use for citing others’ work? (Penn State Libraries; Zotero, etc.)
  • Why do you think citing others’ work is important?

The information collected in this survey could result in tailored messaging about citations and adding additional instruction to the course. This could include inviting a writing specialist as a guest lecturer or adding instructional materials, self-checks, and quizzes to the course.


Ask students to close their books and put their notes away. Now ask a broad recall question. Below are some examples. 

  • Use the next 3 minutes to write down everything you remember from the previous lecture/video/activity/page, etc. 
  • Write down 3 things you remember from this lesson. 
  • List one thing you learned, one thing you already knew (or thought you knew and now know you misunderstood), and something you are still confused about. 
  • In 1-2 sentences, how would you describe what you just learned/read/watched to your family at the dinner table?  
  • What are two things you learned in last week’s lesson? 
  • Write down everything you remember about xyz topic that we discussed last week. 
  • In your own words, explain how the xyz reaction behaves. 

This can be done in real-time in a traditional classroom or using technology, such as H5P or a survey, quiz, or discussion board in your LMS in an online class.  

Broad Recall Question

Close your notes and resist the urge to look back at the lesson material, Now take 3 minutes to write down everything you remember from the previous video.

Asking students to close their books, put away their notes and write down what they have learned about a topic is an effective way to help students remember and learn. You can do this at the end of a topic, lecture, video, etc. Repeating similar questions at spaced intervals, such as at the end of a unit, or before or after the next lecture, will increase the retention benefits of the exercise.

Allowing students an opportunity to check their recall is a good idea. This can be done by allowing 2 – 3 minutes for students to look back at their notes or doing a quick Think-Pair-Share activity immediately following the broad recall activity.

There is no need to grade this activity, although attaching a small grade in an online class might increase the student’s engagement with the activity.


This practice can be used online, using interactive tools like H5P, or in your LMS using surveys, quizzes, and discussion forums. It is also effective in resident and hybrid courses. 


Credit: David Babb

Historically, students in Meteo 101: Understanding Weather Forecasting have a difficult time converting local time to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), an essential skill for forecasting the weather and passing the class. This is taught during the first week of class but is used, and assessed, throughout the semester. Failure of students to master the conversion leads to poor outcomes. 

To help students grasp the material and create durable learning, the faculty use the “testing effect.” They provide several opportunities for students to test their understanding with the low-stakes quiz above. Similar self-checks are interspersed throughout the course and are officially assessed in lesson quizzes and unit labs.  



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