Designing Feedback in an Online Course to Prompt Meaningful Interaction

The word feedback written in chalk on a black chalkboard

Interactions between instructors and students are an important component of an online course, however these interactions must be meaningful and support student learning. As such, feedback provides an opportunity to integrate meaningful interactions in an online course to promote student success and ensure that students do not face unnecessary demands on their time. The Rockey’s Guide “Designing Feedback…” summarizes the following recommendations in a format that can be used for professional development or instructional design. 

The recommendations below were based on my study on the ecology of feedback in Brewing Science, an online STEM course in a four-year research university. However, as feedback is central to the success of any course, these recommendations can be applied to courses across disciplines and modalities.

Before the Course 

Before the course even begins, there are three steps instructors can take to plan for feedback effectively. First, during the course design process an instructor should plan feedback with an ecology of feedback in mind. Considering student and instructor perceptions of feedback as well as the mediating technologies through which feedback is provided can give instructors the opportunity to leverage the various integrated technologies in their course to ensure that students receive consistent feedback on their writing and learning while managing instructor time demands. 

Once feedback opportunities have been planned for the quarter with an ecology of feedback in mind, students will need to know how to use all the various types of feedback they will receive. As such, it is important to plan ways that students will be taught to use all the various types of feedback they will receive in the course. Certain technologies can be used better to access different types of feedback. For example, in Brewing Science students used email to ask questions before an assignment was due. Setting parameters on when students can expect to receive a response can help alleviate the time demands placed on an instructor 30 minutes before the assignment deadline. In addition, providing students examples of innovative ways that students have leveraged particular technologies in regard to feedback in previous quarters can provide helpful models for other students. For example, some students in Brewing Science used feedback in ways that not all students and perhaps not even instructors would imagine. In one case, a student used feedback from one technology, PlayPosit, to supplement feedback in another technology, Canvas quizzes. In this case, the student reviewed the captions of video lectures when they answered a question incorrectly in a quiz with limited feedback.  

Finally, once an instructor knows what feedback will look like in the online course and has planned opportunities to teach students how to use this feedback, students need to know what the purpose of feedback in the course is, what types of feedback they will receive, and through what technologies. In Brewing Science, students didn’t really know what to expect in terms of feedback in this course and clarifying expectations would help students know where to look for feedback (Rockey, 2019). Drawing from Universal Design for Learning principles and the argued value of “multiple means of representation” (Meyer et al., 2014, p. 110), communication about the purpose, type, and mediating technologies of feedback should be communicated to students in a variety of ways. For example, this communication could occur in the syllabus, an introductory course video, live lectures, and course announcements. 

During the Course 

Engaging with students in dialogue when they ask for clarification about feedback or share their negative responses to feedback can be a meaningful opportunity for interactions. Miscommunications about feedback happen regardless of whether the course is online or face-to-face (Hewett, 2010), but these miscommunications can be heightened in online courses as these are often the only interactions students and instructors have. As Hewett (2010) notes, students in face-to-face or online courses often feel dissatisfied with the ways in which instructors communicate, however these feelings are often augmented in online courses as “the online setting…is more language-sensitive in that many times what has been written to students is the only instructional contact they receive” (p.115). While the online setting may be more language-sensitive than a face-to-face course, the increased distance in online courses can embolden students to reach out to instructors and work to resolve this miscommunication. If a student has a negative reaction to feedback, this needs to be worked through so students can understand the intended feedback. Hewett (2010) notes the importance of the language an instructor uses to provide feedback. As she says, “how one expresses commentary online (which includes the subtext of why the instructor has chosen certain communicative strategies) can be as important as what one says” (Hewett, 2010, p. 114). While researchers often note the increased potential for miscommunication in online courses (Grigoryan, 2017; Hewett, 2010), there is also the potential to leverage the distance in an online course to provide students the space to express their reactions to feedback in ways that promote and sustain meaningful interactions between instructors and students. 

After the Course

Since feedback is such an important opportunity for meaningful interactions in an online course, reflections at the end of the course are vital for instructors to refine the feedback students receive. Students should be asked what worked and what didn’t work with feedback. In this course, students particularly appreciated the feedback on embedded quiz questions in video lectures and used this feedback in really creative ways to better their learning. Given this knowledge, in future iterations of the course the instructor could teach students how to use the feedback in ways that the case study students did as not all students may have thought to use feedback in this way. 

Reflections on feedback should also include a focus on what feedback opportunities were not utilized by students. Online office hours can be underutilized by students (Lowenthal et al., 2017) and this was certainly the case in Brewing Science. Office hours are an important opportunity for students to receive feedback from the instructor and for the instructor to connect with students, but duplicating them from a face-to-face environment may not be as useful in an online course, especially considering the many time demands due to personal, work, and school obligations that students who choose online courses face (Clinefelter et al., 2019). Leveraging the unique affordances of online courses could overcome obstacles presented with synchronous office hours to make office hours meaningful. Perhaps integrating asynchronous office hours with recorded videos of questions asked and answered could integrate a more personal feel while not ignoring the convenience and flexibility afforded by online courses. In addition, perhaps instead of synchronous online office hours, TAs and instructors could utilize email to ensure students have individual questions answered. 

These recommendations provide a starting point for empirically based pedagogy to guide effective feedback practices in online courses informed by the ecology of feedback in Brewing Science. Providing feedback is an opportunity for instructors to integrate meaningful interactions with students in online courses. Designing feedback before a course, enacting effective feedback practices during a course, and reflecting on feedback after a course ensures that instructors leverage the affordances of online courses while mitigating the constraints.

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