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The Power of Positive Feedback in an Online Course


The online environment often has us working blind. As an online instructor in a blended program, some of my students are experiencing their first online course. I feel the need to remind them that I can't see them as they work on course materials and assignments. I can't tell if they have that quizzical look on their faces that says, "I don’t understand" and can't see that error message on their computer screens when they try to download a file from the quirky learning management system. They have to let me know there is a problem by taking action in some way, such as sending an email message, posting to the questions and answers discussion forum, and logging in during virtual office hours.

The same is true for students. They can't see our expressions as we read through their papers and projects, and respond to their discussion posts in the threaded forums online. We have to take action to let them know how they are doing. New online instructors can experience a learning curve as they navigate communication options in their first courses. We all know that providing feedback is important, but how, when, and where does it have the most impact on our students? 

A Look at Two Studies

One project conducted by distance education researchers from Athabasca University defined feedback as "information provided from instructors to students about course activities in which students were engaged, including written assignments, conference postings and course interactions," and explained that "effective feedback moves students beyond reflection on what they have accomplished; it moves them forward by helping them to identify gaps in knowledge and goals and strategies for future learning, both in the course and in non-course activities in their lives." This group's 2009 study of instructor feedback from the online student's perspective [PDF] identified five themes related to effectiveness:

  1. Student involvement and individuation: includes students and instructor in the process and is specific for each student.
  2. Being positively constructive: provides supportive and encouraging communication that "builds confidence."
  3. Gentle guidance: provides clear expectations for students, as well as "ongoing coaching."
  4. Timeliness: responds to student submissions and inquiries in a timely manner, within stated guidelines and expectations.
  5. Future orientation: provides evaluation that helps prepare students for both upcoming coursework and practical application beyond school.

While the Athabasca research helps to answer questions of what should be included, a 2010 study from The University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Western Carolina University further addresses types and frequency. This group looked for evidence of three types of instructor-student feedback [PDF] in an online course:

  1. Corrective: identifies student errors or mistakes related to content, and can vary in terms of how much additional information is given to guide student performance.
  2. Motivational: is more focused on the learner than on content and works to encourage students to work toward their learning goals.
  3. Technological: responds to student problems with the technology of an online course, such as hardware, software, Internet access, and email.

In this case study, corrective comments accounted for "more than two-thirds of all feedback, which was more than three times the frequency of motivational feedback and almost seven times the frequency of technology feedback." Motivational feedback was found more frequently at the beginning of the academic term, as might be expected, and often delivered through synchronous chats. Technological feedback tended to be more individual than group-oriented and "while the percentage may not seem enormous, is should be reiterated that in this case there were 172 instances … for only 16 students during a single semester, a substantial amount." The nature of online delivery presents challenges related to technology and working with students, and available support services, to ensure they can access and participate online.

Exploring the Options

The two studies described above represent a small number of students, instructors, and courses. How to they compare with how you provide feedback in your courses? Beyond assigning a grade in an online gradebook, there are many ways to guide students. Consider the following as you plan for your upcoming courses:

  • Explore Multimedia Options: Look beyond the usual ways to connect with students (i.e., discussion boards, chat sessions, assignment comments). Techniques that incorporate audio and video commentary and media richness theory can expand your feedback and communication repertoire.
  • Look for Examples from Your Peers: Many educators are contributing to the field through a range of publications from academic research to personal bogs. Faculty Focus is just one source of reflective articles from instructors sharing their tips for both online and on-ground instructors.
  • Seek Professional Development: Check with your school's faculty development specialists, or teaching and learning center, for opportunities to learn more about assessment techniques and how they may be implemented with technologies supported by your school.
  • Identify School and Program Requirements: Last but certainly not least, inquire about any specific guidelines your school or program may have for how you provide feedback to students. Look for requirements related to delivery, documentation, and frequency.

Taking the Next Steps

My own lessons learned this semester (I absolutely need to provide more specific feedback to my online students) are enhanced through the reading I did to prepare for this post. The Athabasca study also encouraged further research addressing the "feedback cycle" that needs to take place between students and instructors. I hope to incorporate more opportunities to involve students in the process as well.

We can connect with our students in a variety of ways, assisting them with the information, correction, and motivation they need to achieve their learning goals. And as the technologies used to deliver online courses evolve, so do our options for communication. Finding out what works best for you in your classes may mean experimenting a bit. Find ways to share your successes and challenges with your colleagues and a wider audience through research and publication of your experiences.

Image credit: Steven-L-Johnson, Flickr, CC-BY

April 12th, 2012 written by (learn more about our authors)

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