4 Secrets to Giving Feedback Online

Online courses are more popular than ever.

They’re accessible, relatively inexpensive (sometimes free!), and flexible. Students of all backgrounds and experiences are dipping their toes into the virtual classroom and learning math, science, English, and even performance-based courses like public speaking.

The Online Learning Consortium released an infographic highlighting some very interesting online learning statistics:

  • 5.8 million students enrolled in online classes.
  • 75% of undergrads are older than 24.
  • 90% of students “think online learning is the same or better than the traditional classroom experience.”

Merit Mile also conducted a study with similar findings:

  • 79% of current students polled said 50% of their coursework was online.
  • 100% said that their course was either web-facilitated, blended/hybrid, or online only.
  • Of the 9 features polled, the highest rated online feature was communication with instructors.

At a first glance, online learning seems like the last place you’d expect valuable instructor-student communication. But as classroom environments become more digital, instructor and student communication is bound to change along with it—for better or worse.

Online classes are more popular than ever.

In the University of Massachusetts handbook Teaching and Learning Online: Communication, Community, and Assessment, University of Massachusetts faculty explain how to teach and learn in an online classroom, including ways to use feedback effectively. 

Whenever discussing online feedback, the UMass faculty bring up the importance of immediacy. They write, “According to a recent American Federation of Teachers report on distance learning, faculty must be prepared to meet the special requirements of teaching at a distance. [One] of the challenges for instructors of teaching online [is] providing quick responses and feedback to students.”

Related Article: Online Video Feedback for Teaching Skills Crazy Fast

Thanks to technology, instructors now have opportunities like never before to connect and interact with their online students. In fact, one attribute of a successful online educator, according to the UMass faculty, is the ability to “give frequent individualized feedback, using a variety of communication tools . . . [and] help students connect with one another.” 

How quick is quick enough? They suggest that instructors respond and give feedback to students within 24 hours. “Timely feedback makes students feel that the instructor is attentive.”

Frequent connection points throughout the course of an online class develop a foundation of communication that formative feedback can be built on.

“Students need to have a sense the instructor is really ‘there,’ not ‘missing in action.’ This means . . . making your presence known by participating in online discussions [and] giving students regular feedback on their work and their comments.” 

Frequent connection points throughout the course of an online class develop a foundation of communication that formative feedback can be built on.

1. Give your students expectations 

The best primer to help your students receive your feedback is telling them what to expect and when. Then stick with it. This is especially important in the online classroom where you can give feedback through a variety of channels. 

“Clarify the type of feedback you will be giving (regarding discussion, participation, writing assignments, group work, etc.) so students have a clearer sense of what to expect from you” (UMass Faculty).

2. Use your students’ names 

Online students can feel distant pretty quickly if the communication they have with their instructors is little or infrequent. Regardless of how often you communicate with your students, using their name will help build your relationship with them. It’ll also help them open up to the feedback you have for them.

From their article “The Art of Giving Online Feedback,” Nancyruth Leibold and Laura Marie Schwarz posit that “clear, effective, meaningful feedback is a robust way to foster learning (Hattie & Timperley, 2007), especially when teamed with personalization, such as addressing the receiver by their name.”

3. Make it frequent, immediate, balanced, and specific

All the personalization and preparation in the world won’t make feedback formative if it isn’t delivered often, immediately, in a balanced tone, or specifically.

Frequent and immediate feedback promote better learning. Leibold and Schwarz write, “Learners receiving immediate feedback perform better than learners who receive delayed feedback . . . This allows the learner to have rapid acknowledgement of strengths and areas to improve before the next course assignment.”

Timing is only a small part of delivering great online feedback. The content of your feedback is just as, if not more, important. Be sure to give your students specific insights into what worked and what didn’t.

Why? “Vague comments . . . do not provide the learner with enough information to be able to take action to improve performance” (Leibold and Schwarz).

Use a student’s name when giving feedback

4. End with a question

Once your students have your feedback, what next? In some cases students begin applying your thoughts immediately. In other cases students just read what you wrote. Ending your feedback with a question helps students internalize and apply feedback.

Studies show that epistemic feedback—“feedback that includes prompts or questions for further thought and explanation or clarification”—is the most helpful (Leibold and Schwarz).

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