What is formative feedback?

Pamela S. Hogle
Smiling woman with short hair, wearing glasses.
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Feedback is an essential element of learning.

Feedback is information — it tells a learner how they’re doing and whether a response was correct, so-so, or way off base. It lets them know where they are on the path to completing a course or meeting their learning goals. Feedback can also help learners and instructors identify weak areas or knowledge gaps — or figure out what the learner knows so they can skip redundant training content.

2 Types of feedback

Feedback can be provided at the end of a training unit or course. That is called summative feedback. It is often paired with summative assessment, such as a final quiz. Summative feedback is useful in evaluating progress, determining grades, and helping learners know what to do next. But it comes too late to improve performance within the learning module or course it is describing: The learner has already finished!

Formative feedback occurs during — throughout — a learning process. Sometimes called “task-level feedback,” it might follow every interaction or question on an ungraded or low-stakes quiz given during a course, for example.

Both types of feedback are useful to learners and to instructors or training designers, as they can point to areas where more training is needed or even identify problems in the training materials. Formative feedback can also play a significant role in improving learners’ motivation, engagement, and outcomes.

The key role of formative feedback

Valerie Shute defines formative feedback as “information communicated to the learner that is intended to modify his or her thinking or behavior for the purpose of improving learning.” Shute’s paper argues that, delivered correctly, formative feedback leads to “improved learning processes and outcomes.”

Formative feedback has several key advantages over summative feedback.


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Formative feedback is provided the moment the learner finishes an activity or provides a response. It therefore reinforces a correct answer, helping solidify the learning — or it catches and corrects an error before the mistaken belief or incorrect information becomes deeply entrenched in the learner’s mind.

Reinforcing teaching

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By verifying that an answer is correct or letting the learner know that it’s not, formative feedback reinforces learning. Explicit, informative feedback can review or restate key instructional points, further reinforcing learning — or reviewing it for learners who erred. It can even provide additional explanation or guidance, in some instances even functioning as instructional scaffolding.

Reduced cognitive load

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Summative feedback addresses an entire chapter, learning unit, or quiz. The learner has to recall what responses they provided to multiple questions or activities and match the feedback to the correct activity. With formative feedback, the information is fresh, and the learner can instantly relate it to the information they are using and applying in the moment.

Feedback can also step learners through a sample problem if they are struggling; it can provide explanations that help them understand a concept or figure out where they went wrong with their solution.

Reduced uncertainty

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It also, according to Shute, alleviates uncertainty. If a learner is uncertain of their responses or how well they’re doing, they can feel anxious and demotivated. “Because uncertainty is often unpleasant and may distract attention away from task performance, reducing uncertainty may lead to higher motivation and more efficient task strategies.”

By letting learners know where they stand throughout the learning process, formative feedback replaces that uncertainty with confidence or curiosity.

Improve learning outcomes — and processes

Knowing that they will receive high-quality, effective formative feedback can even influence how learners approach a learning task. Regina Vollmeyer and Falko Rheinberg found that learners who expected formative feedback used a more systematic approach to learning, learned the material more quickly, and were better able to apply what they learned than learners who had not received or expected the feedback.

The research team had assumed that formative feedback should increase motivation during learning and lead learners to use “a more effective, but more effortful strategy compared to a condition without feedback.” Instead, they found that, “Even in the first round, an announcement of feedback encouraged participants to choose a more systematic strategy, which then affected motivation during learning.”

Choosing a more systematic approach, they wrote, “requires high cognitive engagement and deeper processing than does an unsystematic, but fast, trial-and-error strategy. This variation of cognitive engagement is a product of motivation.”

Greater engagement with and deeper processing of content also produce better outcomes and stronger knowledge retention.

Provide effective feedback

Shute describes several characteristics of effective formative feedback:

  • Learners expect the feedback
  • It is clear and specific
  • It focuses on the task, not on the learner or their actions
  • The feedback immediately follows an attempt to solve a problem
  • Feedback explains why a response is correct or incorrect

Above all, effective formative feedback is unbiased and impersonal; it does not evaluate or compare learners. Rather, it evaluates and explains learners’ responses.

Smiling woman with short hair, wearing glasses.
Pamela S. Hogle

An experienced writer, editor, tech writer, and blogger, Pam helps you make sense of learning science and eLearning technology. She provides information you can use to drive improvements in your training effectiveness and ROI.

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