Feedback Sizzle

Contributor: Iddo Oberski, Senior Lecturer in Learning and Teaching, Queen Margaret University,


Ingredients: You’ll need a timing device that indicates seconds. Participants need a piece of A4 paper, a pen and another small object of choice.

Method: Arrange the group in pairs (if odd number, you’ll have one group of three, which is fine). Explain as follows:

In your pairs we’ll do two very short exercises. In each exercise, one of you will execute a task, the other will observe. So swap roles for the second exercise. For the first exercise, the person doing the task needs a blank sheet of A4 paper. The task takes just 10 seconds and I will tell you what it is and then immediately say ‘Start’ to start the clock ticking. When I say ‘Stop’ after 10 seconds, please stop. [It is key not to reveal the task until the last moment, because you don’t want any discussion or preparation to take place]. Are you ready? Here’s the first task: “Divide the piece of paper in four. START”.

Start clock and say ‘Stop’ after 10 seconds. Now ask the observer to provide verbal feedback to the person who did the task, indicating how well the task was done  (strictly 1 min).

Explain further:

For task two, please swap roles. The person doing the task needs a pen and another small object of choice. [give them a few seconds to get ready]. Are you ready? Here’s the second task: “Balance the small object on the pen. START”.

Start clock and say ‘Stop’ after 10 seconds. Now ask the observer to provide verbal feedback to the person who did the task, indicating how well the task was done  (strictly 1 min).

Now in their pairs ask them to debrief (5 min total, so 2.5 minutes each):

  • what was it like to do the task and be observed and assessed
  • what was it like was like to receive verbal feedback
  • give feedback on how effective you thought the feedback you received was

Special Notes: The purpose of this exercise is to give staff a direct experience/reminder of what it is like to be assessed, in order to better understand some of the challenges faced by students and assessors. It is a deceptively simple exercise, but has many triggers for fruitful discussion around assessment design, marking and feedback.

The exercise is meant to be fun and fast-paced. It is also meant to evoke minor anxiety around ‘doing well’ as the task is not known until immediately before it needs to be done (thinking on your feet required). The tasks are deliberately ambiguous. So for example, the word ‘divide’ in the first task will be interpreted in different ways, including using a pen to simply divide the paper into four (equal or not) sections, folding it, cutting it. The word ‘balance’ in the second task has similar ambiguity, some people will simply hold the other object on top of the pen, they may hold the pen, or put it on a table, they may balance it on the side or tip of the pen etc. All this will feed into discussion around task ambiguity, having an anxiety around ‘getting it right’ etc. This raises questions about how we set assessments (formative or summative). If such a short task can lead to significant ambiguity, then more extensive tasks will likely be open to multi interpretations. So all this can be further discussed and explored.

There are also many triggers for discussion around giving and receiving feedback. What criteria to use for assessing the task, given the existing ambiguity? How to provide effective feedback that helps the learner do better next time? Having experienced both the giving and receiving of feedback in this exercise is vital to a fruitful discussion, as it facilitates empathy with the student experience and thereby fosters a balanced perspective of what constitutes fair, effective and efficient assessment and feedback.

Acknowledgements: I gratefully acknowledge the support and enthusiasm of my colleagues in the Centre for Academic Practice, especially Prof Roni Bamber, as well as the various participant groups of our Short course Facilitating Learning and Teaching, who provided informal feedback on experiencing this activity.


Boud, D.  (1990) Assessment and the promotion of academic values, Studies in Higher Education, 15:1, 101-111, DOI: 10.1080/03075079012331377621

Johnson, C.E., Keating, J.L., Boud, D.J., Dalton, M., Kiegaldie, D., Hay, M., McGrath, B., McKenzie, W.A., Nair, K.B.R., Nestel, D., Palermo,C. and Molloy, E.K. (2016) Identifying educator behaviours for high quality verbal feedback in health professions education: literature review and expert refinement, BMC Medical Education, DOI: 10.1186/s12909-016-0613-5

Sadler, D. R. (2005) Interpretations of criteria‐based assessment and grading in higher education, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 30:2, 175-194, DOI:10.1080/0260293042000264262

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