Taking on feedback to boost your exam results

by Dominic Fuge
Experienced Careers and Higher Education Adviser, with a background in teaching GCSE and A Level students

Receiving feedback on your work is a truly natural and perhaps unanimous aspect of education. It is something all students expect to experience during their educational journey. Feedback can be delivered in many forms – such as verbal or written; qualitative or quantitative; electronic or in physical form. Moreover, feedback can have multiple ‘deliverers’ – whether this be a teacher, peer, or even yourself!

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From my experience of working in three different schools, I have come to realise that feedback is often considered in a binary way by different students. On the one hand, this is a formality and to some extent better explains the teacher’s views about your work. That is where it ends – a quick read and nod of the head (or occasional raised eyebrow!). The other form of considering feedback is an opportunity to start a dialogue about what went well and how to do even better next time. One response to feedback may be easier but the other is more likely to yield greater achievements and thus boost your exam results.

In my view, feedback is collaborative and therefore the more you engage the more you do well. Writing about feedback, for many educators, is perhaps the most fundamental and also interesting topic! The education sector is heavily sprinkled with many key terms, theories and processes for both teachers and students to better administer (and absorb) feedback given. For the purpose of this blog, I will do my best in trying to refrain from some of the technicalities and give some hard and fast practical advice for you to use in the immediate here and now.

Break your feedback into different categories

Whilst I promised to refrain (and I intend to keep to this!), if I gave myself the maximum limit of naming just one theorist it would be the late Chris Argyris. Argyris (e.g. 2003), referred to “single-loop learning” and “double-loop learning”. Applying these loop distinctions to feedback, what I have taken from Argyris’ work is that single-loop is a specific aspect of your work that needs to improve following feedback and double-loop is the broader technique within your assignments that can improve. Single-loop examples could be your misunderstanding of a specific historical event or being confused about the differences between osmosis and diffusion in a Biology class. These are specific aspects of your knowledge that need to be addressed. Double-loop is broader and does not link to a specific aspect but is more of a broader theme. For example, perhaps the overall structure of an essay needs to be improved or you may have a habit of not including your working-out in a Mathematics exam paper, where you in fact may get more marks if you did. Thus, double-loop is not about a specific question you have attempted but is about an overall aspect of your work (e.g. essay structure rather than a specific essay question). One part of improving your exam results is to drill down on specific niche areas of your knowledge and get this right (single-loop). The other element is to ensure that you don’t just retain the knowledge but also apply this in the way required to ensure you reach the highest levels of the mark scheme – the broader aspects of your work (double-loop). These two skills are in many ways different and perhaps also require a different kind of preparation. Knowledge is often heavily based on memorising whereas broader focuses of style and delivery of that knowledge can be refined with as much past paper practice as possible. Seeing feedback through the lens of this duality will help you manage the way you improve by identifying the right areas. There isn’t necessarily that much time to ensure that you get the best grades possible and so being efficient will maximise the time that you do have! Ask yourself “What specific aspects of my knowledge need to be improved and am I delivering this knowledge in the best possible way as required by the mark scheme?”.

Many schools and colleges have their forms of disseminating feedback and sometimes the feedback can already be broken down into different categories. For example, the categories could be based on learning objectives or specific skills that you need to exhibit for the subject. Whether this is or is not done for you, you can further break down the main points within the feedback into relevant categories. Consider using “single-loop” or “double-loop” (of course you can change the name of these categories to make them sound more punchy and less mysterious, should you wish!). When I was working for an independent school in Oxford, teaching Psychology, feedback was broken down into “RTU”. The “R” was for “Revision”, “T” for “Technique” and “U” for “Understanding”. I think these are brilliant ways to conceptualise what you need to do to improve.

There are many ways that you can improve memorising and retaining subject information. Try out a few different methods and see what works best for you. Possibly, some methods may be included in the feedback you receive. Active recall learning is what I would consider to be the most effective method and this has some basis in cognitive psychology! Medical doctor and productivity expert, Ali Abdaal (2019), has produced some exceptionally clear instructions for how to use active recall learning. You can find a link to his YouTube video (which now has well over 1.5 million views) in the references section below. There is also a really good book that I’d recommend – see Brown et al. (2014).

Do not hesitate to ask for clarification

If you agree with me that feedback is a dialogue, then feedback is also a form of conversation….A kind of “call and response” that you may remember from Music class, synonymous with African drumming! Therefore, in order for the ‘conversation’ to happen, you need to know what has been ‘said’. Always seek further clarification. The questions you should be asking are: “What did I do well?” (so that you can continue doing this); “How can I further improve?” (get specific examples). In particular, I would recommend that you always go back to the mark scheme (whether this was a practice exam question or a piece of work that was not in exam format), so that you are constantly refining your ways to boost your exam results. Ideally, you should have very detailed feedback. However, for whatever reason, feedback can take many forms and sometimes you are not always able to best ascertain exactly what you need to focus on in your preparations for the big exams. Therefore, ask for clarification and after you have had the chance to showcase your learning following feedback then ask for clarification again on this new work. After all, feedback is a dialogue. If you feel in any way uncomfortable about ‘bothering’ your teacher, take comfort in knowing that seeking clarification actually helps your teacher. Having been an A-Level and GCSE teacher myself, I can confirm that it is a positive experience when students want to go over feedback and continue to improve as opposed to the teacher having to follow up and guess whether all feedback is understood. In the long run, both the teacher and student save time when assessment feedback is collaborative.

Take feedback in all the possible forms

In addition to thinking of feedback as collaborative dialogue and something that should be put into meaningful categories, feedback is also a ubiquitous resource. It is everywhere! Whether you’re speaking to your teacher, reading a report, comparing notes with a friend, or even marking your own work, all of this should be taken on board in order to boost your exam results. Again, as a rule of thumb, always think back to the mark scheme. Looking back on my experience as an A-Level student, I remember finding it useful to not only study independently but also meet with peers specifically for the purpose of providing feedback to each other. Naturally, not all of the time together will be related to the exams – feel free to sit in the canteen with a fizzy drink or hot chocolate (socialising and relaxing are also important during exam periods!). However, when you are together for the purposes of feedback, ensure that you do check the work of your peers and assess using the mark scheme. Something I found particularly useful was to verbally answer a medium-sized exam question and then have my friends critique what I said and how I said it. Opportunities for feedback are everywhere – try and identify these, see what works best and incorporate time for feedback in your everyday routine.

The “Atticus Finch approach”

You may remember coming across the fictional character of Atticus Finch, especially if you studied English Literature. (I did this at GCSE). Atticus Finch is the protagonist of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, called “To Kill a Mockingbird”. To paraphrase Finch, as both a lawyer and supporter of social outcasts during 1930s USA, he effectively said that to fully understand an individual you need to imagine that you are them. As written more expressively in the book, “…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it” (Lee, 1960/1988 pg. 30). In terms of taking on feedback and boosting your exam results, yes, you’ve now probably guessed it…you have to walk in the skin of an examiner! Put yourself in their shoes. Take the feedback, look again at your work and reflect on what an examiner would want to see should the candidate be hitting all of the requirements within the mark scheme for that particular question. Stepping outside of yourself and putting on the unbiased hat of an external marker can give you an unexpected feeling of clarity as you identify what is required to improve. I call this the Atticus Finch approach. Nowadays, as I tend to provide feedback on UCAS personal statements and other university motivation letters, as a careers and higher education adviser, I ask students to imagine being a university admissions tutor and identify what key points and possible experiences are missing that would otherwise make the application stronger. There are many contexts in which you can apply the Atticus Finch approach and I think feedback to boost exam results is particularly effective.

Key takeaways

  • Feedback is a collaborative dialogue. Ask questions and keep it going.
  • If you do nothing with the feedback then the feedback will do nothing for you (learning is an active rather than passive process!).
  • Break your feedback into easy-to-understand categories.
  • Feedback is also a ubiquitous resource – take it from everywhere you can find it. Consider incorporating group feedback into your revision strategy.
  • Always, always link back to the mark scheme.

Please do your best to have fun during the process. Feedback is precious and your choice in how you engage with feedback will undoubtedly have an impact on your exam results. I hope you found some of this blog useful and I wish you all the very best for the hard work ahead!


Ali Abdaal. (2019, November 16). How my friend ranked 1st at Medical School – The Active Recall Framework [Video]. YouTube.

Argyris, C. (2003). A Life Full of Learning. Organizational Studies, 24(7), 1178–92. https://doi.org/10.1177/01708406030247009

Brown, P.C., Roediger, H.L., McDaniel, M.A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Harvard University Press.

Lee, H. (1988). To kill a mockingbird. Turtle Back Books. (Original work published 1960)