Online learning, also referred to as e-learning or distance education, has been growing substantially over the past couple decades. In fact, between Fall 2002 and Fall 2012, student enrollment in online courses has more than quadrupled from approximately 1.6 million to 7.1 million in degree-granting post-secondary institutions in the United States (Allen & Seaman, 2013; Ortagus & Stedrak, 2013). Students pursue post-secondary degrees for a number of reasons, but mainly to help them in their careers. Many students find online learning appealing because it allows them more flexibility as to when and where they engage in their courses, without having to totally forfeit their jobs or time spent with friends and family (Huang, 2002). Although more and more adult students are participating in online learning, for some reason, there is a higher dropout rate in online courses than in traditional on-campus courses (Diaz, 2002), and researchers are trying to figure out why.
Online students may drop out for a variety of reasons. Several studies reveal that attrition rates in online education is higher because of personal reasons or conflict with other life responsibilities (Street, 2010; Fetzner, 2013). However, course-specific factors also contribute to student success in an online course. A few years ago, Sull (2008) surveyed over 300 online students to understand their biggest challenges with online courses, and one of the most common (cited by 68 percent of the respondents) was poor instructor feedback. I have taken 18 online courses, myself, and I totally agree that poor instructor feedback is a big problem. As a student, whether online or on-campus, you want to know that your instructor is there for you and cares about the quality of your learning. In online education though, where students tend to feel more isolated (Potvin, 2012), quality feedback is critical to the student’s success and satisfaction in the course (Boettcher, 2009). Insufficient feedback can lead to students feeling unsupported, unmotivated, lose trust in their instructor and institution, and discouraged to continue their studies (Mandernach & Garrett, 2014). Providing effective feedback is not that hard. This blog will review five feedback strategies that online instructors can use to keep their students engaged, motivated, and satisfied.
Feedback should be Timely
A very important strategy for feedback in online courses is that the feedback is given in a timely fashion. The inherent flexibility of online learning results in students interacting with the course at various times throughout the day and week. Students likely live in different time zones, work jobs with various shifts, and engage in course activities at any given time. For this reason, Sull (2008) suggested that online instructors should check their email at least three times a day in order to stay on top of grading assignments and answering student emails within 24 hours. This can be done by setting reminders on your daily schedule. Twenty-four hours is a fair response time for emails (Getzlaf, Perry, Toffner, Lamarche, & Edwards, 2009), and in the event that a student has an emergency, be sure to provide contact information for yourself and technical support, as well as hours of availability. An acceptable turnaround time for grading assignments is within three or four days. This is because students should have ample time to process the feedback and use the information in a meaningful way when preparing the next assignment. Anything later than four days can delay this process (Getzlaf et al., 2009).
Sull (2008) also recommends letting your students know early in the course how soon they can expect to get a reply on their email or a grade once their assignments are turned in. This will help to establish trust and understanding that students should not expect to hear back from you immediately. Once these expectations are established, it is important to meet them. If you know you cannot meet these expectation, let the students know or change the deadline on an assignment to a more appropriate time that fits with your schedule and your ability to grade the assignment in a reasonable amount of time (Boettcher, 2009). If you do not keep your promises, you can immediately ruin credibility with your online students (Sull, 2008). You want to be right on target, or better yet, ahead of schedule to maintain that credibility and for the feedback to be most effective (Getzlaf et al., 2009).
Boettcher (2009) emphasizes that timely feedback is not only limited to answering emails or grading assignments. According to her, “feedback is an element of any communication or dialogue” (p.1), and it should start very early on in the course. In fact, she states that the week before a course begins, as well as the first two weeks, are the most demanding for instructors. Before getting into the nitty-gritty of a course, she recommends having students make a post on a discussion board or privately in an email message to “introduce themselves and make statements about their expected learning goals … for the course” (p. 2). The extra time invested in the very beginning really helps to establish a learning community and lets you get to know your students and their particular goals for the course. Furthermore, the simple act of responding to their initial postings or messages shows them that their submissions are actually being read and that they can expect their instructor will give at least the same level of focus on all their future submissions.
Boettcher (2009) also points out that students tend to be especially anxious about receiving feedback on the first assignment. Knowing how critical you are when grading their assignments basically sets the stage for what will likely follow in the rest of the course. Once that first assignment is graded, your students should have a clear understanding of how closely you follow a rubric, if timeliness is a factor, if you “recognize or expect analysis, innovation, or creativity,” how much research is expected, and how heavily you weigh improper spelling and grammar (Boettcher, 2009, p. 3). With regards to timely feedback, another important strategy is to confirm with your students that their submission was received, which will also help to reduce their anxiety. When a student uploads an assignment to a learning management system (LMS), it should automatically give confirmation, but on other platforms or submission methods, where immediate feedback is not automatic, the instructor should send a quick message confirming the assignment was successfully turned in and that further feedback will be given once it is graded (Hatziapostolou & Paraskakis, 2010).
Provide Meaningful and Personally Relevant Feedback
A very important goal for feedback is that it is meaningful and personally relevant to the student. This will also help build trust and credibility, as well as help students make connections between the course work and their own experiences and career goals (Sull, 2008; Kelly, 2014; Boettcher, 2009). This would seem like a common sense suggestion, but you also want to make sure the feedback you provide is tied to the correct graded assignment. I had a very bad experience with an instructor in an online class earlier this year, simply because her feedback was rarely tied to the paper I submitted or to my learning goals. I had three separate papers returned to me with comments that had absolutely nothing to do with the papers I wrote. To be more specific, the instructor referenced my discussion on “bullying” in three separate papers, and not one of those papers had anything to do with bullying. This angered me greatly. I invested several precious hours researching and writing these papers, and instead of giving me meaningful and relevant feedback that showed she valued my hard work and cared about my learning outcomes, she instead copied and pasted feedback from another student’s paper! I was really offended by this. I politely pointed this out to her on the first occurrence of the issue, and although I got a “sorry, I have been busy and it was a mistake” response, it still happened two more times! As a result of this, I lost trust for her as my instructor and I became increasingly disengaged in the course. Please be careful to proofread your feedback.
Effective feedback assumes that the instructor is actually reading what the student has put forth (Boettcher, 2009). Beyond this, the instructor should show interest in the students’ interests by recommending further research or suggestions about how they could gear assignments towards more meaningful and personally rewarding outcomes. For me, this has been a great aspect of the feedback I often receive. While I am pursuing a Master’s degree in Education, I am more interested in organizational development and training than academics. So far, my instructors appear to understand this and allow me to gear my assignments in such a way that I can directly apply my learning to my career and vice versa. This helps make my learning seem more rich, authentic, and meaningful. When instructors provide personal and meaningful feedback and appear to show a genuine interest in their students, it helps keep “students actively involved in a course” (Sull, 2008, para. 3). According to Boettecher (2009), your objective as an instructor is to “help shape and challenge the learning of a student,… [which] creates long-lasting links and connections” (p. 4). I can definitely attest to this. In my last class, my instructor seemed to have a lot in common with me (career-wise), and he made several valuable recommendations for additional resources and further research. In the same way, I was able to point him to similar resources to help him in his job, and we formed a strong long-lasting relationship. To this day, we still keep in touch on LinkedIn and share resources and tips as they come along.
Provide Feedback in a Variety of Formats
Instructors should consider giving feedback beyond a text summary or even beyond text-only. Often, instructors will just write a paragraph or two summarizing their evaluation of an assignment. While a brief summary can quickly expose the key strengths and weaknesses of an assignment, it fails to point to examples. A common strategy to overcome this is to include annotations directly in the student’s electronically submitted work (Hatziapostolou & Paraskakis, 2010). Most word-processing software, such as Microsoft Word, allows instructors to do this. In my experience as a student, I find feedback delivered in this way to be very valuable. Some examples of helpful annotations that I have seen include recommendations for making my paper flow better, pointing out where I am not following APA standards, and offering additional resources to expand my knowledge on a topic. These sporadic annotations should not replace a summarized feedback response, but they help expand on and give examples of remarks made in the overall feedback summary. However, it is important to keep grading and feedback manageable. According to Hatziapostolou and Paraskakis (2010), feedback should “be detailed enough to ensure that students understand their strengths and weaknesses,” but they also warn that overly-detailed feedback and too many comments “can result in confusing students and making it hard for them to separate the important feedback” (p. 113).
Another beneficial and creative way of communicating feedback is to voice record your notes, and create an audio file to send to your students. A common criticism of online learning is that the lack of face-to-face and natural forms of communication can make students feel isolated (Potvin, 2012). Auditory communication is very natural, and for distance education, it can make the connection between students and their instructor seem not as distant. According to Kelly (2014), students tend to like this format because being able to hear the instructor’s voice lets them also hear specific nuances like tone and emphasis, which can make the feedback seem more personal and conversational. In my 15th online class, this form of feedback was introduced to me, and I was pleasantly surprised by how personalized it seemed when listening to my instructor speak about my paper. Kelly (2014) also points out that oral feedback is beneficial to instructors as well, mainly because most instructors can talk faster than they can type, so it tends to be less time-consuming to voice record feedback than typing it.
Be the “Guide on the Side”
Because online learning requires more self-study and independent learning than traditional learning environments, your role as an instructor is to support your students by serving as more of a “guide on the side” rather than a “sage on the stage” (Denning, 2011, para. 16). You should avoid correcting students’ work or telling them exactly what they should do. Instead, you should point students to resources that will help them improve their work and encourage further investigation. As an example, if a student’s paper should be written according to APA standards, and he or she incorrectly cites a resource within the text of the paper, rather than correcting the error, you could make a comment that reads, “Information on citing references in-text can be found in the 6th edition of the APA manual on page 174” (American Psychological Association, 2009). This will also point the student to specific guidelines for how to cite various types of resources and get them used to referencing the APA manual throughout their coursework.
The same strategy should be used for peer-to-peer work, such as online discussions or collaborative work. While being present in discussions or collaborative work shows that you are “mentoring them and that you are active in all aspects of the course” (Sull, 2008, para. 3), you need to be careful that you are not overly involved. deNoyelles, Zydney, and Baiyun (2014) claim that instructor intervention in these types of social activities involves a delicate balance between providing guidance and support and encouraging participation in peer-to-peer communication. Instructors really need to consider when and how they interact with learners in a way that stimulates learning and communication. Therefore, instructor interactions in social activities should be minimal and meaningful. Essentially, instructors can show their presence by “monitoring discussions to keep them on topic, preventing them from being dominated by only a few individuals, and quickly dealing with inappropriate comments” (deNoyelles et al., 2014, p. 160). Anything beyond that may seem too pervasive.
Furthermore, to be that “guide on the side” and encourage deeper learning, it helps to start your feedback with a positive message. According to Kelly (2014), “a positive message provides encouragement” for the student, especially when this is done publicly in a discussion forum or leader board. When an instructor gives recognition of a student’s strengths, pointing out their weaknesses does not seem so critical or embarrassing (Hatziapostolou & Paraskakis, 2010). Also, when you publicly acknowledge students for their achievements, it serves as a model for “the types of responses and critical thinking skills you expect from other participants” (University of Illinois, 2010, para. 9).
Another important strategy for offering quality instructor feedback is to use rubrics (Kelly, 2014). All too often, students are provided grades with no clear logic for the points taken off. As a long-time online student (and a perfectionist), I find this extremely frustrating. There have been several graded papers returned to me with nothing but positive remarks from my instructor, and yet they took off five or ten points! Why? I want an explanation. Your students should have a clear understanding as to what criteria they are being graded on, and their grades should clearly reflect how their work was assessed according to that criteria (Mandernach & Garrett, 2014). This will help to “identify knowledge gaps and address specific errors and preconceptions” (Hatziapostolou & Paraskakis, 2010, p. 113).
Some instructors use a feedback form that has built-in fields for each criterion of the rubric. This will demonstrate specific strengths and weaknesses and show exactly how points may have been taken off. A feedback form would also be helpful for visual learners who may see patterns in how points are being taken off. If week after week, the student sees they struggle to satisfy a particular criterion, it will clearly reveal where the student needs to improve. Another benefit to using a feedback form and grading with rubrics is that it helps to ensure your evaluations are fair and consistent, which also helps build credibility and trust (Mandernach & Garrett, 2014).
Keller’s Motivation Model for an Online Feedback System (OFES)
If you look at Keller’s Motivation Model of instructional design, you really get a sense of how critical of a component feedback can be for motivation and successful learning. Keller’s Motivation Model, also known as the “ARCS Model”, states that there are four elements that are key for motivation in the learning process: attention, relevance, confidence, and satisfaction (ARCS) (Keller & Suzuki, 1988). All four of these elements will be nurtured when following the five previously mentioned strategies for giving feedback in an online course. You can gain the student’s attention by providing timely and meaningful feedback, recording audio feedback, or by using rubrics. You can establish relevance by structuring feedback and using concepts that are related directly to the assessment criteria or to the student’s experiences and/or learning goals. Confidence can be instilled by serving as the “guide on the side” and offering positive messages while still encouraging and challenging students to learn and grow. Finally, student satisfaction will occur when the other three elements are maintained (Hatziapostolou & Paraskakis, 2010).
In 2005 and 2006, Hatziapostolou and Paraskakis (2010) employed an online feedback system (OFES) that incorporated Keller’s four elements for motivation as well as most of the five strategies I suggested for giving feedback in an online course. Their system, which was integrated into a university’s LMS, included a feedback form set-up with additional optional parameters such as “enable automatic late submission penalties”, “allow students to view class performance statistics”, “required to submit to plagiarism detection system,” and “enable motivational images” (Hatziapostolou & Paraskakis, 2010, Figure 1). Furthermore, the system allowed the instructor to type short and personalized messages on the feedback form or personalize predefined messages by typing “[Student_First_Name].” This recalls the learner’s first name, which is stored in the LMS as a system variable.
For the student, the result of this system is feedback that confirms the status of their submission (i.e., received, pending review, graded, etc), shows how their work compares to their classmates’, shows imagery and icons that are positive and encouraging, and details how their grades are directly related to assessment criteria. According to Hatziapostolou and Paraskakis (2010), the OFES design makes feedback manageable for instructors and easily understandable for students. Although they did not directly ask students about their opinions of OFES, the post-course evaluations showed a “sharp increase in the fields ‘timing of marks and feedback’ and ‘clarity of marking’” (Hatziapostolou & Paraskakis, 2010, p. 120).
Although instructor feedback is just one component of an online class, it is a very important one, and according to research, students often cite poor instructor feedback as a primary issue in online courses. Granted, instructor feedback is also important in face-to-face learning environments, but for online learning, where there appears to be higher attrition, effective feedback is vital to keep students engaged and motivated. Providing timely, personal, and meaningful feedback in a variety of formats that encourages growth and directly relates to assessment criteria is your best bet for keeping students satisfied and interested in learning as much as they can in your course.
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