23 Fair and Formative Feedback in Online Learning

Sharon Lauricella and Robin H. Kay

Introduction

Effective feedback provides more than information on whether a student is right or wrong; it gives them clear directions about how their performance or knowledge aligns with assignment expectations (Feldman, 2019). Good feedback will also provide students with information on adjusting or changing their work to achieve success (Talbert, 2015). For large projects that have many phases, it is helpful if students can receive feedback throughout the process of an assignment, project, or performance. Online feedback works best when students have the opportunity to incorporate that feedback into further practice (Ambrose et al., 2010).

Feedback consists of two primary categories. Formative feedback provides students with guidance and supports them while learning, leading to modifications and improvements (Ambrose et al., 2010). This kind of feedback is non-judgemental and supportive. On the other hand, summative feedback or evaluation explains how and why students achieved a final grade (Ambrose et al., 2010; Formative vs. Summative Feedback). This chapter is primarily concerned with formative feedback or helping students learn and grow.

Digital Feedback

Digital feedback can potentially reshape assessment feedback (Bahula, 2021), particularly in online learning environments. In addition to detailed written information typed directly into a student’s digital document, instructors can record audio or video clips with transcription so that students can hear the instructor’s tone and read the transcribed comments. Benefits of media-delivered feedback include a clearer, richer quality of personalized feedback, increased understanding and higher-order thinking skills, more personal, authentic, and supportive communication, and a more interactive feedback process (Bahula, 2021). Using video feedback can help create a meaningful connection between you and your students (teaching presence in Garrison, 2011), develop a culture of collaborative assessment (Fullan, 2013) and stimulate a growth mindset (Dweck, 2007) and cognitive presence (Garrison, 2011).

Peer Feedback

Feedback amongst peers provides timely comments on student work and improves self-reflection (Meeks, McLeod, Grabill & Hart-Davidson, 2021). When students review one another’s work, feedback can often be completed more quickly than if the instructor reviewed each student’s work individually. Further, when students consult one another’s work, they have the opportunity to consider their work, how it may be improved, and how it meets assignment criteria. Peer feedback can be challenging because it may be affected by friendships or race (Dancer & Dancer, 1992; Pond et al., 1995), but when instructors provide clear direction and questions with which students can engage, peer feedback can be constructive and helpful (Nilson, 2003).

Feedback for the Instructor

Soliciting feedback from students about the impact and quality of your course is critical for successful teaching, particularly in online learning environments where the terrain is relatively new to many educators (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). When we first taught online, we were anxious – both of us had taught for over 20 years but felt like first-year teachers. Robin solicited anonymous feedback from students weekly, and it was one of the best instructional decisions that he made. Responding to student feedback is essential and helps increase teacher presence (Garrison, 2011) and develop a true community of learners who have an active role in their learning (Fullan, 2013). After a decade of teaching online, we would argue that gathering feedback from students about the course is one of the easiest and most effective strategies to improve teaching and learning.

Learning is the Focus

Regardless of how and when feedback is delivered, the purpose is to communicate where students are with respect to their learning. Some educators prefer to recast feedback to the term feedforward (Goldsmith, 2012). This revised moniker is more readily understood as formative and assists and guides students as they move along in a course or assignment. Waiting to give feedback until an assignment is completed points out all the ways a student could have improved or what they did wrong – at that point, students can’t do anything about it. Hirsch (2017) suggests that feedforward is helpful because Instructors can find ways to give students specific direction while working, and consequently, students can make immediate changes or adjustments.

General Guidelines

Guiding students means careful consideration of how we provide feedback to students and how students receive feedback (Hattie, 2008).

  1. One suggestion/idea at a time. In general, it is best practice not to bombard students with too many suggestions at one time (Ambrose et al., 2010). Organize and focus on one suggestion or idea at a time
  2. Timely feedback – don’t delay. Timely feedback is essential for student learning (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). If you wait to provide feedback, the connection between learning and this feedback is significantly reduced.
  3. Balance and Growth Mindset. You should try to provide balanced feedback, noting positive efforts and opportunities for growth. Many instructors struggle with this balance because we want to get right to the point. Regardless of whether you provide positive or negative feedback, always focus on helping your students learn and grow. A statement like, “one opportunity for growth here is …” is much better than “what you did wrong was…”. Bottom line: focus on what students can do to improve.
  4. Watch the tone. Tone and meaning, especially in text format, can easily be misinterpreted and may unintentionally alienate students. They may not digest the feedback if the tone is too strong. Be conscious of tone and, if need be, use video feedback for the more challenging issues.
  5. Opportunities for revision. Ideally, students should use feedback to learn, grow and improve. If there are no practical follow-up opportunities, suggestions for growth may be lost. Best practice includes offering all students the opportunity for re-submission of specific assignments. At first glance, that seems like an unreasonable offer given the potential assessment workload, but we have found that only a few students take us up on the offer, even in large classes. At the very least, assignments should be designed so that the feedback from one assignment can also be used in subsequent assignments.
  6. Scaffolding Peer Feedback. When using peer feedback, offer guidance and training on how to give meaningful and effective feedback. Please see the resource list below on Teaching Students to Give Peer Feedback.
  7. Receiving feedback. Students need to be taught how to receive feedback, and it is not as easy as you might think (Malecka et al., 2020). Emotions can get in the way of assimilating the suggestions and ideas that you offer. Please see the article in the resource list below on Receiving and Giving Effective Feedback.
  8. Consider audio or video feedback. Consider adding audio or video feedback for more complex assignments involving higher-level thinking or integrated tasks that cannot be easily assessed using a rubric. Refer to the activities below on how to do this effectively and the Chapter on Video Feedback.
  9. Use Google Docs. If your institution’s technology parameters permit, encourage students to submit their assignments in Google Docs so that you can easily provide feedback and suggestions within the document. Students can also add their responses to your feedback, thus making the process interactive.

Activities

Activity 1: Scaffolded Feedback

Overview

Consider how you plan a road trip. You probably will organize snacks, podcasts, and an ample supply of coffee. Key to your trip is a navigation system – a GPS that tells you how to get where you are going and how long it will take to get there. This experience is similar to completing an online assignment: students are often equipped with a rubric, an overview of each assignment, and/or video recordings outlining expectations. But beyond the basics of an assignment, students require guidance as they take on this work. Feedback and check-ins help guide students along, improve their work, and help them reach their goals.

Description

Scaffolded assignments are long-term projects composed of several steps or phases. In each step of the project, students complete a component which is a part or section of the larger project or assignment. For example, for a lab report, students do background research for a lab project, create an experiment, conduct an experiment, and then write up the report. For a term paper, students could create a research question, gather sources, submit an annotated bibliography, write a literature review, draw their own conclusions, and then submit a full paper.

  1. Use backward design (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). What do you want your students to submit at the end of the term? Once you know what you would like students to do, write, submit, or perform, consider the components of this larger project carefully. Does the project include data gathering? Research? Synthesis? Sketch out each of the components of the larger project.
  2. Organization. Create clear assignments for each component of the summative project. Consider each of these chunks or elements of the final assignment. Each component assignment should include instructions, a rubric, and feedback opportunities. Explain to students that each smaller assignment contributes to constructing a larger summative project.
  3. Medium. Decide how feedback will be provided for each component of the assignment and in which mediated format (see below). Some components will be best suited to peer feedback, others feedback from the instructor (via video, audio, or written comments), and others will be best suited to video conferencing.
  4. Revision. Offer students the opportunity to revise their work, and resubmit if necessary.
  5. Rubrics and feedback. The rubric is not feedback. Rubrics tell students what score they got on an assignment. The rubric can communicate what elements of an assignment are done well or are missing. However, the rubric itself does not serve as feedback. Students require the why or how to improve.

Possible Challenges

  • Grades vs. feedback. Studies show that when receiving both a grade and feedback, students focus more on the grade and less (if at all) on the feedback (Butler & Nisan, 1986; Butler 1987, 1988). Ensure that students understand that feedback is intended to help them improve and that the scaffolded nature of the feedback is in their long-term interest. Revision based on feedback early on will enhance the quality of their final, summative assignment.
  • Resubmission. Offering students the opportunity to resubmit an assignment after feedback is essential but can be time-consuming. Communicate with students whether you will re-grade the assignment, use the higher mark, or average marks.

Resources

Activity 2: Peer Feedback

Overview

As authors of this chapter, we work together frequently and share our work regularly. We work together well because we share idea generation, drafting, and revising. Much professional work is collaborative, and sharing ideas, drafts, and revisions is fundamental in the working world. In our objective to prepare students for post-academic life, peer review helps share work and provide feedback and critique.

The benefits of peer review in secondary and postsecondary education include:

  • Time-efficiency. Peers can often provide more timely feedback than an instructor, thus enabling quick and sometimes even immediate direction or assistance (Meeks et al., 2021).
  • A level playing field. Rather than receiving feedback with a top-down approach, students have the opportunity to engage with others in a non-hierarchical model (Hirsch, 2017).
  • Reflection and revision. Hart-Davidson (2018) describes giver’s gain. Being a helpful peer reviewer comes with significant gains: What you read, you too can imitate. What you detect, you too can correct. What you explain, you too can retain. What you suggest, you too can try.

Description

Good peer feedback is constructive, helpful, and kind. Establish clear parameters and objectives for students:

  1. Aim for improvement. Explain to students that constructive feedback respects their peer’s work and can help to highlight what they did well and what they can do to build a better draft. Peer feedback aims to collectively improve a submission by rethinking the purpose, goals, audiences, message/thesis, or problems addressed by the assignment (Meeks et al., 2021).
  2. Feedback should not be judgmental. Yes/no questions such as “did the assignment meet the requirements” are problematic, and students are unlikely to be equipped to answer such questions (Nilson, 2003).
  3. Structure the feedback exercises. It is not enough to ask students to consult their classmate’s work and offer comments. There should be clear instructions for giving feedback on online submissions. Depending upon the discipline, instructions could include:
    1. Format with a yellow highlighter the strongest sentence/solution.
    2. Underline something that needs further clarification or that you found confusing.
    3. Outline your peer’s paper/speech/project/process at the bottom of the submission (Nilson, 2003). Is there anything missing that needs to be added?
    4. Format in red font anything that needs a citation that does not yet have one.
  4. Product vs. person. Remind students to direct feedback toward the submission/product, not the person.
  5. Play nice. Making feedback personal means being kind (Meeks et al., 2021). The online disinhibition effect sometimes permits people to say things in digitally mediated spaces that they would not say to someone in a face-to-face conversation (Suler, 2004). Remind students that everyone is human, has feelings, and that peer feedback aims to improve their work and the work of their colleagues.
  6. Wrap-up. Allow students to have sufficient time to receive their feedback, ask questions, and integrate suggestions.

Possible Challenges

  • Bias. It is possible that students might feel concerned about providing feedback to someone they don’t know well or could be too generous when paired with a friend. Dancer & Dancer (1992) and Pond, Ulhaq & Wade (1995) have shown that peer assessments are biased by friendship and race. One way to avoid this challenge is to make the feedback blind/anonymous. Another is to encourage students to be honest and kind. Structured questions, as described above, help to remove subjectivity or judgement, which should result in a more thorough and honest review.
  • Trust. One of the biggest challenges with peer feedback is anxiety (Meeks et al., 2021).
    • Explain to students that they should have confidence in their peers’ feedback, especially if it is structured in response to a guide described above.
    • Encourage students to recognize that they are qualified to give meaningful and constructive feedback, and the feedback is a dialogue. After all, they are in the course, have completed their drafts, understand the challenges of the assignment, and are following a structured guide.

Activity 3: Mote for Audio and Transcribed feedback

Overview

Students report that they like receiving audio feedback from instructors because it is clear, engaging, and helpful (Brearley & Cullen, 2015). Further, research suggests that giving students the option to receive audio feedback can help motivated, engaged students connect more fully with their instructors (Bilbro, Iluzada & Clark, 2013). While audio feedback can be helpful to students, it is also beneficial for instructors because minute-for-minute speaking can provide more detail than a written script (Ekinsmyth, 2015). Further, audio notes help to convey tone; one student in our research told us that “when I read comments, it’s in a teacher’s mean voice. When I heard the Mote, I could tell that [the instructor] was being helpful and nice.”

Mote is a free add-on available for Chrome users. Paid upgrades are available, but the free version works fine for most instructors. This tool allows users to capture audio in the form of a voice note (it’s almost like the digital form of voicemail) and insert it digitally onto online documents, sheets, slides, forms, or email.

Description

Using Mote is fun and easy.

  1. Go to mote.com and install the add-on.
  2. Open the student’s submission – this could be anywhere in the Google suite, so long as the Chrome browser is in use.
  3. Review the student’s work and consider where feedback is best suited.
  4. Highlight an area, click on the purple Mote button, record your audio, and click again to stop.
  5. Press Comment, and the comment immediately embeds into the document with a message guiding the student to “click here to listen to your Mote.”
  6. Add as many Motes as you like; some instructors prefer to add several short ones, but it is also helpful to provide a summative comment after the submission that offers direction and encouragement.
  7. The paid version of Mote permits transcription; this is helpful for accessibility. After Mote automatically transcribes the voice note, the instructor can edit it for accuracy of spelling and punctuation.
  8. The Mote voice notes do not expire; students can listen to them as many times as they like.

Possible Challenges

  • Hearing-impaired students. Audio feedback can be challenging for hearing-impaired students; the transcription option is helpful in this instance.
  • Short videos. You only get 30 seconds of recording time with the free version, 180 seconds with a paid version. More detailed nuanced feedback might be challenging to provide

Resources

Activity 4: Video Feedback

Overview

Providing video feedback can help build teacher presence by building a strong connection between you and your students, particularly in blended and online learning environments. One of the key benefits is offering a more detailed, clearer, and a richer quality of feedback and increased understanding and higher-order thinking skills, which leads to greater cognitive presence in your class (Bahula, 2021). Furthermore, video feedback can lead to interactive, collaborative assessments (Bahula, 2021; Fullan, 2013). This type of video is generally reserved for more detailed, higher-level assignments that require extensive feedback. We have found it is much easier to articulate complex, nuanced and detailed feedback using video or audio compared to text. Please refer to the Video Feedback chapter for a more detailed discussion and guidance on creating video feedback.

Description

First, get yourself both a good headset (e.g., Logitech or Plantronics) or stand-alone microphone (e.g., Yeti or Blue Snowball) and screen recording software (e.g. Screencast-O-Matic) to create video feedback. Next, open the student assignment and review it carefully, and take brief notes on what you would like to include in your video conversation. When you are satisfied with your brief guiding notes, create videos to fully explain the feedback you wish to give. Once you have completed the video, share the link in the assignment at the point where the feedback makes the most sense. You may wish to record after each set of notes to ensure that you do not forget key points that you want to communicate.

Here is our recommended six-step approach:

  1. Open the student’s digital assignment and review, adding short comments on the work to guide the video.
  2. Open video recording software and test the recording first to ensure it is working.
  3. Create a 1-3 minute video on one point or issue you would like to make.
  4. Get the link to the video and insert it into the document using the comment function.
  5. Repeat until finished.
  6. Take at least a 5-minute break before you start reviewing the next student’s assignment.

Refer to the General Guidelines for creating video feedback in the Video Feedback Chapter – they will be helpful.

Possible Challenges

  1. Setup time. It will take time to learn and set up a video feedback approach. Once you have that in place, though, video feedback is often quicker than written feedback, especially when communicating in-depth suggestions.
  2. Do I need to use video feedback? Sometimes, written feedback or rubrics might be a better, more efficient choice, especially with assignments focussed on skills and procedures as opposed to higher-level thinking. Video feedback is quite effective when providing feedback on writing skills.

Resources

  • Screencast-O-Matic: Free (although it does have a paid version), easy to use, and perhaps most importantly, easy to store and share videos
  • Screencastify: This tool is simple and easy to use – it also works well with Google Chrome as an add-on. Many teachers swear by it.
  • Snagit for Education: About $50, but offers some editing options and provides a quick upload to YouTube.

Activity 5: Video Conferences

Overview

Engaging in individual or group video conferences helps strengthen teacher presence (Garrison, 2013), stimulates greater cognitive presence (Garrison, 2011), and improves critical thinking (Fullan, 2013). This approach is a good option when providing feedback for smaller classes (15 – 60 students). Many instructors might consider video conferences a potentially time-consuming process, but these meetings can clarify expectations, focus students, and reduce the number of emails that require clarification. Sometimes, it is easier to explain critical issues and concerns in real-time than in a recorded format.

Description

Setting up a series of video conferences is relatively straightforward:

  1. Length. Determine how long the video conference should take. For example, 10-15 minutes for individual meetings and 15-30 minutes for groups is about right.
  2. Sign up sheet. Create a table in Google Docs or Sheets with at least two columns: student name and time slot for an appointment.
  3. Share the link. Share the Google Doc or Sheet with students – make sure they can edit and add their names. It is helpful to use the first-come, first-served approach to entice students to sign up quickly.
  4. Student preparation. Provide explicit instructions on how students need to prepare for the video conference. For example, ask students to come to the conference with two questions, one idea for their next project, etc.
  5. Prepare notes. Create a series of points for each meeting to share with students – this is an agenda for the video conference. What would you like to cover?
  6. Questions. Allow time for questions and discussion.
  7. Record. Encourages students to take notes during the conference or record the session to review it afterwards.

Possible Challenges

  1. Time. Discussions can be fun, and it is easy to run out of time. Ensure that everyone focuses, has good guiding notes, and uses a timer.
  2. Students are not prepared. Some students or groups may not have prepared for the meeting. It is best to ask students to go back, prepare, and schedule another session when this happens.
  3. Key issues not recorded. Individual or group meetings can be productive but are less helpful if students do not take notes or record the session. Set up a system of recording before you start the discussion.
  4. Students/Groups do not sign up. Sometimes students or groups do not sign up. When feedback sessions are optional, this allows students to control the flow of their learning and make choices accordingly.

Resources

Activity 6: Feedback from Students

Overview

Hyperbole aside, obtaining regular feedback from your students during your course is essential (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Generally speaking, secondary school instructors rarely collect feedback from students on teaching and learning. Higher education instructors gather this feedback at the end of their course when it is too late to make adjustments. Both of us began gathering student feedback in face-to-face courses 20 years ago. Extending this practice to online learning environments has been – again, forgive the hyperbole – absolutely key to our work in teaching and learning. Put simply, gathering feedback from students is one of the easiest and most effective ways to improve the quality of your instruction.

Description

Soliciting student feedback is a relatively simple process.

  1. Feedback on what? Do you want feedback from students on a specific activity or practice, or do you want general comments on the course?
  2. Open-ended comments. Free-response questions that focus on learning (e.g., how ‘fill-in strategy’ impacted your learning) tend to be most helpful.
  3. General feedback questions. For general feedback, three questions are usually sufficient:
    1. What do you LIKE about the course?
    2. What do you DISLIKE about the course?
    3. What suggestions do you have for making the course better?
  4. Format. Anonymous feedback is essential because there is a power differential between the instructor and students. We use Google Forms to collect feedback, but any anonymous survey tool would work.
  5. Respectful feedback. Tell students not to vent, rant or make feedback personal. It is human nature to have a tough time interpreting forceful or highly negative feedback. Invite students to provide detailed feedback with thoughtful reasoning that can result in meaningful changes if necessary.
  6. Timing. Start early – within the first 2-3 weeks of a new course. Then ask for feedback at least two more times before the final course evaluation.
  7. Class discussion. After students give feedback, summarize it in a list and respond at the start of the next class. Students want to know that instructors listen to and act on feedback.

Possible Challenges

There are several challenges with soliciting feedback from students.

  1. Getting enough responses. Sometimes there are not enough student responses to get an accurate perspective, especially if you ask students to provide feedback via email, which they would complete on their own time. Set aside 5 minutes at the beginning of a class to ensure feedback from most students.
  2. Identifying clear patterns. Look closely at the feedback and its patterns. It is crucial not to react to a single strong comment because it may not represent the entire class. Try to establish a consistent theme before you make significant changes.
  3. Rants and raves. Some students want to vent, and the comments are not particularly helpful, and sometimes they are hurtful. Before asking for feedback, remind students that you have feelings and that it is tough to listen and respond to extreme, negative comments. If they want changes, note that it is best to offer reasoned suggestions.
  4. Consistency of gathering feedback. Try to establish a routine of student feedback that works for you and stick to it. After gathering feedback on the first four to five online courses, feedback is solicited less often. That was a mistake – A growth mindset is critical here.
  5. Reacting to feedback. We design our courses to be successful, and it takes a long time to create the best learning experience possible. So it can be hard to receive and process negative feedback from students. After all, you have created this amazing course! Read student comments and take a few days to respond – this waiting period is essential to let your emotions settle. Then you can focus on the message. Then be curious and open to change.
  6. Long class discussions. Responding to class feedback can take time, especially if you are not organized. The discussions can quickly go off on a tangent and take too much time from an instruction period. When discussing feedback, have a clear plan for responding to the patterns you have observed. Tell students what adjustments you can and cannot make and why. Thank them, have a brief discussion, and then begin class.

Resources

General Resources

References

Bilbro, J., Iluzada, C., & Clark, D. E. (2013). Responding effectively to composition students: Comparing student perceptions of written and audio feedback. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 24(1), 47-83. https://www.learntechlib.org/p/132560/

Brearley, F. Q. & Cullen, W. R. (2015). Providing students with formative audio feedback. Bioscience Education 20(1), 22-36. https://doi.org/10.11120/beej.2012.20000022

Ekinsmyth, C. (2010) Reflections on using digital audio to give assessment feedback. Planet 23(1), 74-77. https://doi.org/10.11120/plan.2010.00230074

Hirsch, J. (2017). The feedback fix: Dump the past, embrace the future, and lead the way to change. Rowman & Littlefield.

Malecka, B., Boud, D., & Carless, D. (2020). Eliciting, processing and enacting feedback: Mechanisms for embedding student feedback literacy within the curriculum. Teaching in Higher Education, 1-15. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2020.1754784

Meeks, M., McLeod, M, Grabill, J. & Hart-Davidson, B. (2021). Feedback and improvement: Becoming a better writer by helping other writers. Eli Review. https://elireview.com/content/students/feedback/

Nilson, L. (2003). Improving student peer feedback. College Teaching 51(1), 34-38. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27559125

Suler, J. (2004). The online disinhibition effect. CyberPsychology & Behavior 7(3), 321-326. https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1089/1094931041291295

Wiggins, G. P. & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design (2nd ed). Pearson.


About the Authors

Sharon Lauricella is a Full Professor in the Faculty of Social Science and Humanities at Ontario Tech University in Oshawa, Ontario (Canada).  She is the university’s inaugural Teaching Scholar in Residence and is a scholar of Communication Studies. Sharon holds a doctoral degree from the University of Cambridge (UK) and a BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts). Her research focuses on teaching with technology, digital feminist identities, and the mental health of undergraduate students.  She tweets via @AcademicBatgirl and is an active member of the #AcademicTwitter community.

Dr. Kay is currently the Dean of and a Full Professor in the Faculty of Education at Ontario Tech University in Oshawa, Canada.   He has published over 160 articles, chapters, and conference papers in pedagogy, technology in education. He taught computer science, mathematics, learning and development, and educational technology for over 25 years at the high school, college, undergraduate, and graduate levels.  Current projects include research on laptop use in higher education, BYOD in K-12 education, web-based learning tools, e-learning and blended learning in secondary and higher education, video podcasts, scale development, emotions and the use of computers, the impact of social media tools in education, and factors that influence how students learn with technology.  Dr. Kay received his M.A. in Computer Applications in Education at the University of Toronto and his Ph.D. in Cognitive Science (Educational Psychology) at the University of Toronto.  ​

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Thriving Online: A Guide for Busy Educators by Sharon Lauricella and Robin H. Kay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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