In this section you will find information that will help you design comparison-based activities for students that will help them generate productive feedback.  The information is divided up in the into a number of sections.

SECTION 1: Provides the design template which essentially comprises a "DO-Compare-Make Outputs Explict" structure.  It also includes a set of design principles, a proposed list of comparison artefacts and identifies scenarios where comparison based processes are implicit in teaching and learning but that would benefit from making them explcit as well as the learning outputs from them.



Key Principles of Comparison-Based Feedback Design

  1. Different kinds of comparison information lead to different kinds of internal feedback - hence the need to go beyond comments as the only comparator we plan for as teachers. There are two broad categories of comparison. I refer to these as similar-entity comparisons and different entity comparisons. Each of these categories has a range of possible variations. Both types should be used in designing for feedback. The first is usually used to help students improve the quallity of their work. However, the combination of both turbo-charges feedback processes. It helps students more deeply anchor their understanding in the topic domain, it develops their ability to see their work from different perspectives, to see different ways of doing things, to aquire the discourse of the discipline etc. I believe that by combining similar and dissimilar entity comparisons, we can make feedback serve many different learning purposes. My current research for example involves directly using feedback comparisons to improve students critical thinking, their ability to analyse, synthesis, evaluate create, apply etc 
  2. Similar entity comparisons refers to students comparing their work or the strategies they used to produce that work against similar works or similar strategies. Similar entity comparisons might involve items that are similar in content and form; for example, a student produces an essay or report and compares it with other essays or reports on the same topic. Alternatively the items might be similar in form but differ in content: for example, a student writes an essay or report and comapares it with essays or reports in a different topic domains. The latter will focus students on the writing of the report as the content is not relevant and does not distract. However, another possibility is somewhere between the two. For example, a student might compare an essay they have written on Piaget with a few well written essays on Vygotsky. In this case the topic for the essay is different but the content is related. While students will compare how their essays is written with the Vygotsky essays, and generate feedback about the structure and argumentation in their own essay, the Vygotsky essays might actually extend their understanding of Piaget's writings. 
  3. Diissimilar entity comparison refers to situations where students produce one kind of item and compare it with a different kind of item. For exmple, the student produces a report and compares it against the content of a video discussion, or produces a written explanation of a model and compares it against some diagrams of models in different texbooks; a student produces a solution to a complex problem and compares it against a flow chart of the problem solving process; a student produces a research report and compares it against the assessment rubric. This type of comparison is quite different from similar entity comparisons yet it is equally natural in everyday life and valuable when the outputs of the comparison are made explicit by students. It also follows the same principle, that students might generate different kinds of feedback depending on the comparator.
  4. A mix of simialr entity and/or dissimilar entity comparisons can increase the power of inner feedback. For example, it is better if teachers provide comments and examples than just comments alone (e.g. "the argument here needs to be stronger - try to make it more like the one you produced earlier in your essay" or "the argument here needs to be stronger - here are some examples of arguments - identify the pattern and try to reframe what you are saying in one of these ways"). Another reason for mixing similar and dissimilar entity comparisons, for example similar works and comments, is that this will help students acquire the language to explain similarities and differences across different works.
  5. Multiple sequential comparisons (one after the other) amplify and elaborate the feedback students generate. In Nicol and McCallum (2021) students, made three comparisons of their essay against three other essay. Sixty-five percent wrote self-feedback that matched the feedback the teacher wrote on the essay. After a fouth comparison 90% matched the teacher comments. However, all students generated feedback that surpassed the feedback the teacher provided. For example, they identified areas for improvement and alternative ways of approaching their work that the teacher did not identify and they provided feedback of a type that the teacher would have found it difficult to provide. 
  6. Dialogue is one of the most powerful opportunities for feedback comparisons as students compare their thinking with that of others and generate feedback out of that comparion. Hence, dialogue comparisons can be wrapped around all other comparison activities so as to enhance students' self-generation of feedback.
  7. Perhaps the most important principle is that to leverage the power of internal feedback the comparison process must be deliberate and the results of the learning from that comparison must be made explicit in writing, discussion and action. Writing is especially powerful as students generate self-feedback and have to think about the feedback they are generating. This activates a metacognitive process - thinking about your own thinking - which supports the development of self-regualation and the transfer of learning from (internal) feedback to new situations.
  8. Note: the terminology of similar-entity and dissimilar entity comparisons used here differs from the terminology of analogical and analytical comparisons used in Nicol (2021). I have now revised my thinking in this area and realise that this aspect is underconceptualised and so I intend to provide an update on this very soon (26 November 2021)


SECTION 2: Provides examples of how these ideas might be implemented. These range from simple ideas that can be implemented in a single classroom session (e.g. a tutorial or workshop) through to examples of comparison based activities spanning a whole course. 

Approaches to Implementation

One approach is to turn some of the comparisons that students are already making informally, for example, against rubrics, learning outcomes, exemplars, the work of peers, with texbook explanations, information in journal articles, into formal and explicit comparisons.

Another approach is for teachers to design or select new types of information for comparison. Technology affords great potential here and the possibilities are untapped. For example the teacher could ask students to solve a problem and write down their step by step thinking. Then the teacher could create a video where she solves the problem on a white board and talks through her step by step thinking. She might ask a colleague to do the same. Then after students have solved the problem the teacher could give them her video and ask them to compare her problem solving strategy with hers and write down where it is similar and different. They could then discuss their findings with peers and write down an agreed set of steps in their own works, then share that with other peer pairs.

An area in need of further investigation is the exact form of the instructions for comparison. More to be added here.

Practice Examples

Lecture-based comparison: In online contexts it has become common to present a brief lecture input (e.g. 10 minutes) then have students do an activity and then follow this with another brief input. This activity-lecture input sequence is easy to turn into an explicity feedback opportunity by asking students to make a comparison of the work they have produced with the second lecture input. This input will very likely build on the activity, However, if the lecturer deliberately plans for this and deliberately asks students to make the comparison and write down what they learn from this then this turns a natural process into a powerful pedagogical process. Of course the lecturer could then ask students to report back in class what they learned from this comparison. I have produced a whole article on this methodology which I will make available soon.

Clickers and peer instruction: Mazur (1997: 2000) has pioneered the use of clickers in the classroom. The normal sequence is that students prepare some work before class, listen to a lecture presentation, answer some multiple choice questions and if the majority in class do not get the rigth answer they are asked to convince their neighbour about their answer (i.e. discuss in groups) and then they are retested. This method could be considerably improved in two ways. First, instead of students' selecting an answer to the multiple choice question, they were asked to also give a reason for their selection. This draws on the comparison principle that the deeper the processing before the comparison the more students learn from it. Second, if after the discussion the teacher gave students a further lecture input, for example, an alternative representation of the answer (concepual, mathematical, diagramatic) and asked students to compare their answers with that and identify any new insights. Note that peer instruction embodies many comparison opportunities both with the material and the thinking of others. 

One-minute paper: The OMP has a long history in education and the basic method is to take 5 mins at the end of a lecture class where students are asked to respond to a question posed by the instructor: e.g. what was the most important concept we discussed today and why? can you draw a flow chart of this process? what was the muddiest point for you?  Students write a response hand it in and at the next session the lecturer gives them some good examples from the class responses and explains where others have misunderstood. Ideally, from a comparison perspective students should make a direct comparison of their prior work with the better responses and identify how they differ for maximum learning rather than passively listen to the lecturer. However, an alternative process that might not take two days to implement would be to have students at the end of the lecture class to make a response and then for the lecturer to give them two or more good quality responses (e.g. from a textbook or created by the lecturer) and ask students in pairs to compare their work with another and with the good quality examples and to identify what they are learning from that comparison and then have some report back to the class verbally.

Group presentations:

Creating powerful questions:

Addressing a client brief:

Writing a good literature review:


More to come in this section....

Other examples: anyone reading this who has other examples please send them for me. Try to keep them brief. Almost anything that is currently being done can be turned into a deliberate feedback opportunity. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

SECTION 3: I am reserving this section for ideas for implementation submitted by practitioners who will be fully recognised in this site. As the number of examples grow I will start categorising them into disciplines. 

Where are these ideas being implemented?

University of Glasgow [accountancy and finance, economics, management, psychology, chemistry, higher education teaching]

University of Padova, Italy [education]

University of Edinburgh [medicine]

Trinity College Dublin [business, computer science, nursing and midwifery, pharmancy, health sciences, higher education]

University of Utrecht [medicine]

City University of New York [education]

Origins of Comparison Idea

My thinking about inner feedback and comparison can be traced through earlier publications, especially an article on how formative assessment could be re-designed so as to support the self-regulation of learning (Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick, 2006). However, it was by interviewing students in 2014 when researching peer review that the role of comparison fully crystalised (Nicol, Thomson and Breslin, 2014). In focus groups I asked students "How did you learn during peer review?" and "What mental processes did you engage in?" Most students said that as they were reviewing the work of peers that they compared that work with their own and generated new ideas about, new perspectives on or new approaches to their own work. Many used the word comparison or a phrase with a similar meaning. It was not until after I had written my own framing of comparison as the pivot for all feedback processes that I then found that there was a literature on comparison in the cognitive sciences (Gentner, 2014) that although it differed from my framing provided some insights for its advancement. 

Given this origin, my early work on comparison was linked to peer review, a multifaceted methodology with considerable power (see Nicol, 2014; Nicol, 2019). However, peer review is not the only locus for the making of comparisons. Comparison is a pervasive and natural process that is 'built-in" to our brains so my current research has started to fan out from peer review and investigate the comparisons students make of their work against information in other resources, for example, in documents, in videos, in lecture presentation, in exemplars and in rubrics. The key is to integrate many different types of comparison and stage them across the timeline of a course.