June 18, 2008; Checked April 10 2020
eCoaching Tip 59: “Are You Reading My Postings? Do you Know Who I am?” Simple Rules about Feedback in Online Learning
Feedback is simple, right? It just means letting students know how they are doing in a course. However, as research is showing, getting feedback right in an online course is one of the most important determinants of student satisfaction and retention, two results that lead to overall positive feelings about a course and about an institution.
How many types of feedback are there? (Lots.) When is feedback important? (Almost always.) Does feedback always have to address individual’s work or can feedback address the work of groups? (Both types can be useful.)
This tip discusses the most basic of feedback — that of the feedback from an instructor to a student. Other types of feedback include peer feedback, feedback from students to faculty, automated feedback, rich feedback, etc. Research on feedback extends to the many types of interaction as well, including the use of audio email and audio chat. This tip focuses primarily on feedback channels from the instructor to the learner.
Feedback in Online Learning
Feedback is an element of any communication or dialogue. In fact, there is no communication or dialogue without feedback, which generally continues or closes a train of thought. In online learning, the first type of feedback that generally comes to mind is that of feedback from an instructor to students, particularly on written assignments or on discussion board postings. This is the most important feedback from a students’ point of view. They want to know what you, the faculty member, “think” about the work that they, as students, are doing.
The most important rules about feedback from faculty to student are simple. Here are four:
1. Provide feedback early
This means early in the course, including even prior to the formal launching of a course. The first two weeks of a course can be the most demanding on a faculty member. One of the best investments you as a faculty member can make is to plan on spending time in the first two weeks getting to know your students and their particular goals for learning. This is the time you launch a community of learning. You may ask, “How do I provide feedback to the students on in the first week if they have not handed in any assignment?”
In the first week, students will have introduced themselves and made statements about their expected learning goals and purposes for the course. This is a time to identify links and relationships that the students may not have included in their introductions and to help students make explicit how their goals and purposes relate to the content and goals of the course. This simple act sends the message that their postings are not going into a black hole. These links that you identify can include observations such as shared career environments, life experiences or personal connections such as a love of biking.
2. Provide feedback on assignments when it is expected.
Be aware of expectations. If you do not tell students when to expect feedback on their assignments, they will expect it within minutes of hitting the “send” or “upload” button.
State your rule for feedback turnaround times clearly and provide regular reminders. State your general rule of thumb for providing feedback (generally 24 to 48 hours) and then state it again in the assignment deadline. This does mean planning assignment deadlines around your own teaching and life schedules and rhythms. For large projects, the turnaround time might be longer; other times you may want to adjust given unexpected events in your own schedule. If a week’s postings close on Saturday, you will likely need to schedule time on Monday for review and feedback on those postings.
Online learners are particularly paranoid about the first cycle of assignments and feedback, because it is a benchmark for what will likely follow. Students will use the feedback from the first assignment as a marker for what you think about their ideas and how they express themselves. It often determines how much time and effort they put into subsequent assignments. Some of the questions learners often have include: How closely do you follow the assignment rubrics? Do you count timeliness? How much do you recognize or expect analysis, innovation or creativity? How much research do you expect? What are your expectations regarding good writing, grammar and spelling?
3. Rapid response to questions
For general course questions, it is important to answer questions promptly or have a system for questions being answered. An efficient use of the course site is to encourage an “online forum” or “cybercafe” where students can answer questions from other students and that you can monitor for questions that you may need to answer or clarify. A cautionary note here. Avoid providing course feedback in emails except for the personal feedback on assignments, as needed. The course site is the place for discussion and feedback on assignments in general. One faculty I know “channeled all communications into the discussion area to the point of replying to emails with a request to “Please post this in the discussion area and I will answer it there.”
Providing feedback to learners can be very time-consuming. In an effort to provide feedback, but also to save time, systems with automated feedback, embedded feedback, are available. Some of these systems are proving to be excellent and effective, as in the example of using rich feedback in quizzes in large introductory biology classes (Cooper, et al. 2007). These systems are essentially static resources that seem interactive by programmed interactions. These systems work well if students are aware of how they are designed and the purpose of the systems. Students must understand that personal feedback and a relationship with a live faculty member occurs outside the quizzing system itself.
4. Provide feedback that is personal and formative for learning
The best feedback is personal and formative for learning. Effective feedback assumes that an instructor is reading, or listening and then analyzing and reflecting on the work and ideas of the student. Personal feedback means that you the instructor are getting to know the student — as a person and as a mind — and that you are helping to shape and challenge the learning of the student. This type of feedback creates long-lasting and satisfying links and connection. No wonder that feedback is an element of student satisfaction and loyalty.
I imagine that you have stories where feedback to a student has made “all the difference” in someone’s life or learning. Please share your good stories with us as well.
This tip was inspired by the personal communications with Jim Wolford-Ulrich, Associate Professor and Team Leader, Leadership Faculty School of Leadership and Professional Advancement at Duquesne.
Cooper, S. T., Tyser, R. W., & Sandheinrich, M. B. (2007). The benefits of linking assignments to online quizzes in introductory biology courses. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 3(3). Retrieved from http://jolt.merlot.org/vol3no3/cooper.pdf
Boettcher, J. V. (2007). eCoaching Tip 43 Customizing and Personalizing Learning. Retrieved from http://designingforlearning.info/ecoachingtips/ecoaching-tip-43/
Note: These eCoaching 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, expanded and updated in the second edition of the book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips (2016) coauthored with Rita- Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached at judith followed by designingforlearning.org.
Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 2006 – 2020