eCoaching Tip 116 Substantive Feedback – Doing it Wisely and Well

October 11 2014

eCoaching Tip 116: Substantive Feedback – Doing it Wisely and Well

Feedback makes a difference. It makes a difference in a student’s learning and their engagement in course content. And research suggests that feedback is one of the key factors in student satisfaction (Yang & Durrington 2010).

In the section on Engaging with Studentsin Duquesne’s newly releasedStandards of Excellence for Online Faculty, one of the standards is to “review and respond to student posts with substantive comments throughout the week.”

This tip suggests some “how to” strategies for doing just that.

This tip first describes ways of achieving the goal of early feedback, particularly in the first two weeks of a course. Then, this tip suggests ways of providing substantive feedback by integrating personalized coaching. Finally, the tip discusses ways of using personal and peer feedback to increase the amount of feedback to keep students’ growth on track.

Don’t miss the chart at the end of the tip showing two distinct purposes of feedback, four different types of feedbacks, and suggested tools for each type of feedback.

 Feedback Early in the Course – How To and When

  • As in any relationship, the first interactions in a course lay the groundwork for what follows. Students want to know about you and your expertise; your students want you to know them.
  • In the preweek and week one, read the students’ introductions carefully and respond to one or more of each student’s statements by acknowledging where they are coming from and also to highlight important connections between the students. Remember, too, that you have — probably — asked them to customize at least one learning outcome to be very specific to their interests. With that information, you can acknowledge their goals, and sometimes their worries and anxieties, and encourage them to find common ground with other students, while reinforcing shared content goals. While doing this, be sure to share connections between your own expertise and, as appropriate, your life experiences, just as you would do in a face-to-face encounter.
  • In the first two weeks of any course, making frequent postings is an extremely high priority. How frequent? The standards suggest postings on four or more days of a week. Daily minus one is often desirable with undergraduate students, and 2-3 posts in each day. Graduate students need a little less handholding, but a focus on developing expertise is highly desirable, and the first week is a great time to focus on core concepts to come.
  • Remember that the first two weeks are special in establishing connections and relationships. As the course progresses, students will be able to take on more responsibility for self-assessment, peer-assessment and community roles. Substantive comments in the first two weeks means careful reading and analysis of students’ first postings.  Use multiple types of feedback, such as group feedback via announcements and forum postings as well as individualized feedback via posting conversations and first assignments. It is important, time-wise to make good use of group feedback that integrates a focus on course content while recognizing individual work.
  • One strategy for saving time is to have the students use their own self-assessment skills by having them specify the thoughts, ideas, or observations on what they most want your feedback. For example, you might direct them as follows:  “After you complete your initial posting on the first assigned reading, add a postscript that identifies the idea, comment or observation on the reading that you most want me to respond to.”

Provide Substantive Feedback by Integrating Personalized Coaching

First of all, what kind of feedback could be termed “substantive feedback?”  Palloff and Pratt (2003) suggest that a substantive post does one of the following: supports a position (with evidence), begins a new topic while building on the previous post, critically reflects on the post or moves the discussion in a new direction.


An instructor’s substantive feedback, in contrast, I believe, is individualized and actionable. Substantive feedback clearly responds to the individual’s work, while providing suggestions for taking action for increasing knowledge, skills, or attitudes. If substantive feedback is personal and actionable, it is natural that we combine substantive feedback with personalized coaching. The best coaching guides, advises, and models the specifics of a student’s direction for growth. This type of feedback takes time and is most appreciated by students as it is the most valuable to an individual. How does an online instructor do this within reasonable time limits?


This is where student responsibility plays a role.  Effective formative assessment requires the student to share what is going on in his/her head, while sharing the results of a created work/assignment.  This sharing can be done in writing or speaking using a synchronous tool. This type of feedback and assessment often makes use of a rubric that the student can use as the basis for sharing his thoughts. This type of interaction also requires an environment of trust.

Use Self-Assessment and Peer Feedback Strategies and Tools

Two feedback types that are generally underutilized are self-assessment and peer feedback. Yet each of these can improve learning and reduce instructor workload. Both, however, require a level of maturity and metacognition on the part of learners.  One definition of self-assessment is “the ability to be a realistic judge of one’s own performance.” (Cornell Center for Teaching Excellence, 2012).  The benefit of self-assessment for the learner is that they develop a greater awareness and appreciation of the created work or production. Self-assessment requires a rubric that clearly communicates expectations and a student who reads and understands the rubric and can then judge or evaluate his work based on that rubric. This can be a relatively high bar and one that students might need help in developing skills to do so.  The benefit to the instructor, once students know how to do it, that a higher level of conversation about skill and content can proceed.


Peer feedback also requires students to understand the use of rubrics and requires a deeper understanding of the content and goals of a course. When a course requires a project with multiple milestones, such as a proposal phase, a partial development phase and a final published and presentation phase, peer feedback can be used to great advantage. For example, at the proposal phase, students can evaluate early ideas, and offer and hear suggestions and thinking behind project proposals.  This builds understanding and an appreciation of the cognitive processes and work required for the   expressive output of each phase of a project.  This means that students and instructors all become quite familiar with projects and students’ skills so that feedback and assessment takes much less time, while providing much deeper understanding and joy in the development of expertise.


More ideas about self-assessment are in a tip Student Self-Assessmentat the Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence.

Purposes and Types of Feedback and the Tools

A critical element of any course is the assessment plan.  An assessment plan builds on a multitude of implicit decisions about the purposes of feedback at each point of a course, the types of feedback, and the tools to be used for each. The assessment plan also makes assumptions about the students’ role in the feedback and assessment actions. The chart at the end of this tip shows ways of thinking about each of the types of feedback and tools. It is a first draft of pulling all these ideas together, so let me know what you think.

Deciding What to Do Next in Feedback Practices

Every time I begin to write a tip on an assessment or feedback topic I quickly feel overwhelmed with all the research and literature. The following resources, thus, are only the barest tip of the iceberg on this topic. I have starred three of the resources that I highly recommend to scan, read or examine when making some decisions about your feedback practices.


Boettcher, J. V. Feedback in Discussion Posts – How Soon, How Much and Wrapping Up.Retrieved October 7 2014 from

Chang, N., Watson, B., Bakerson, M. A., & McGoron, F. X. (2013). Undergraduate students’ perceptions of electronic and handwritten feedback and related rationale. Journal of Teaching and Learning with Technology, 2(2), 21 – 42.  Retrieved October 7 2014 from

* Cornell University Center for Teaching Excellence. (2012). Assessing Student Learning.   Retrieved October 7 2014, from  Note: This site features short descriptions of seven assessment topics such as Using Rubrics, Self-Assessment, Peer Assessment, and What do Students Already Know.

Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence. (2012). Student Self-Assessment. Duquesne University. Retrieved October 7 2014, 2014, from

Ice, P., Kupczynski, L., Wiesenmayer, R., & Phillips, P. (2008). Student perceptions of the effectiveness of group and individualized feedback in online courses. First Monday, 13(3).  Retrieved October 6, 2014 from

* * Naylor, R., Baik, C., Asmar, C. a., & Watty, K. (2014).Good Feedback Practices: Prompts and guidelines for reviewing and enhancing feedback for students. Melbourne, Australia. Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne. Retrieved October 6, 2014 from

Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (2003).The Virtual Student: A profile and Guide to Working with Online Learners. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

* Poe, M., & Stassen, M. L. A. (Eds.). (2002).Teaching and learning online —Communication, community, and assessment. A handbook for UMass faculty. University of Massachusetts Amherst: Office of Academic Planning and Assessment at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  Retrieved October 7, 2014 from

Yang, Y., & Durrington, V. (2010). Investigation of students’ perceptions of online course quality. International Journal on E-Learning, 9(3), 341-361. Retrieved October 7 2014 from



Types and Purposes of Feedback Using Five Types of Tools


Type of Feedback Purposes of Feedback* Tools for Five Types for Feedback
Focus on course concepts Focus on learner’s growth areas Automated, canned feedback, i.e. testing Interactive asynchronous communication using Announcements, Forums Combination of automated, personalized feedback using a database of   comments and rubrics Interactive asynchronous feedback using email and individualized comments on assignments based on rubrics Interactive synchronous meetings using Skype, Google Hangout, Collaborate
Group Feedback by Instructor


Very useful throughout course. Use Announcements, Forums, Collaborate Highlights of each students’

achieved and practice growth areas

NA Announcements and forum postings can provide quick alerts, feedback to course group or subgroups NA Instructor summarizes student’s work, highlighting what is working or not, what is fantastic, insightful, etc. Students share their created works to larger group (s) and instructor.  Instructor provides feedback.
Personalized Feedback by Instructor or Expert


Useful on “created works” and discussion postings Highlight ways of growing, next steps NA One-on-one communication by email, phone, Skype, or social media tools Takes time to develop, but saves time over time for reinforcing core concepts, skills Instructor “meets” with student via email or other asynchronous tools Student and instructor meet one-on-one using phone or other synchronous meeting tools
Peer Feedback With this feedback, students can develop expertise and build networks Small 2-3 student teams do peer consulting on created works and postings. NA Small teams collaborate and consult and discuss on forums, blogs, journals, wikis NA Students consult, discuss, collaborate with each other Students consult, discuss, collaborate with each other and report, present back to others
Self-Review or Assessment Students can review, reflect and create Students review, revise, edit and test created products Students practice, develop confidence and speed on basic content data NA  NA Students use rubrics to self-evaluate, then share results with peers and instructor  NA

* Purposes of feedback might include a third category, that of building community.

Note: These E-coaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized and updated through 2016  in the second edition of the  book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached judith followed by

Copyright by Judith V. Boettcher