Feedback and Format: Effective Teacher-Provided Feedback in Online Courses

If you’ve ever taught or taken an online course, you know how unwelcoming and unmaneuverable many courses are. Where’s the smiling teacher welcoming learners into the classroom on day one? What happened to that home-away-from-home, recently-plugged-in, lavender-vanilla Glade scent? Why doesn’t the course home page have a word wall? Witty Whitman quotes? Inspirational cat posters?

Nothing.

Did you understand the instructor’s comments more effectively?

Did the comments make you feel more involved with the course?

Did the instructor’s comments feel more personal?

What type of feedback improved your performance and finished product?


Cavanaugh and Song
(2014), two researchers who studied the effectiveness of written and verbal feedback in online learning environments, would consider these questions important. In the steps of Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction, feedback’s number seven. It’s after presenting new content and offering learning guidance and support. Feedback should happen just after the learner has performed the skill for which all previous steps prepared him or her. Feedback’s important because It can do several things for learners:

  • Confirm to them they’ve done what they were supposed to do
  • Correct and remediate them based on previously given criteria (No, this is not just giving them the right answer).
  • Inform them of other perspectives, new or different information, or suggestions that could strengthen their knowledge and performance on the task at-hand
  • Provide them with direct suggestions or information that will help them improve their performance on future tasks

In most cases feedback is formative, not summative. It’s meant to make learners better, not destroy them.

But should all feedback look the same?

In an online classroom environment where JPEGS are stadium-facing windows, YouTube-linked videos are field trips, and saving a downloaded file to your computer’s desktop is placing a freshly three-hole-punched handout neatly behind the English divider in your Five Star, the teacher must magnanimously stand out from standard protocol of using two-dimensional default-formatted text-box text.

In an online classroom environment, where JPEGS are stadium-facing windows, YouTube-linked videos are field trips, and saving a downloaded file to your computer’s desktop placing a freshly three-hold-punched handout neatly behind the English divider in your Five Star, the teacher must magnanimously stand out from standard protocol of using two-dimensional default-formatted text-box text.

Here are some ways to get this done (Note: I typically write with the English teacher in mind. I also try to generalize enough that my comments might fit a variety of learning management systems, or LMSes, and courseware: e.g., Blackboard, Moodle, Edmodo, SumTotal, SkillSoft):

The Able

  • Copy and paste the learner’s own words, then give feedback in a bulleted format underneath. Specific words or phrases could be quoted for each bullet with teacher’s comments attached.
  • Beef up the text-response options with  parentheses and brackets and bold, italics, and underlined font options (I’d not recommend changing fonts.). This is especially useful when wanting the learner to notice key aspects of his or her product. Consistency with this sort of thing is important. Don’t use bold randomly. You could use bold for components done well and underlining for weak areas. You could use italics to stress parts that should be reworded for improved effect. You could insert parentheses to suggest what could be added and brackets to suggest what should be deleted. Again, these are just a few ideas to try. Develop your own style. Just be consistent, so the learners know what to expect and how to respond.

The Sustainable

  • Use text-box font color and highlighter tools attractively. When a writer has numerous grammatical and mechanical errors, I try to do this. I copy and paste the learner’s text, then I use the strikethrough feature (seen here) to indicate where the student made a mechanical error that needs corrected. I use the colored text tool to draw attention to words that I add as suggestions to strengthen the grammar, structure, or content of the text. I also use the highlight tool to draw attention to certain parts where I might want the student to determine ways to strengthen the product.
  • Utilize grading do-dads. Using a learning-management-system tool like Blackboard Grade Center, insert colored boxes or markers to draw attention to certain parts of a typed assignment, and provide  quality feedback in their respective comment areas.

The Valuable

  • Record audio feedback. This is one of my favorite ways to provide feedback. It’s more personal, as it allows the teacher to speak conversationally rather than write plainly. It also saves the teacher time. Clicking on the QuickTime button and beginning an audio recording takes a few seconds (This time-saving can be defeated if you write your comments down before recording them. In that case, just type them. Comments read verbatim from notes might not carry the same personal effect anyway.). Add the short time it takes to record comments. According to Cavanaugh and Song (2014, p. 130), teachers tend to offer more holistic, global feedback (e.g., focusing on content, organization, and structure) than micro-level local feedback (e.g., focusing more on editing and mechanics) when providing feedback in an audio format. Related concerns you might consider before starting: (1) Make sure to include enough positives as to avoid pushing learners away; (2) Know how to use the microphone and audio-recording software on your computer, including how to upload audio files to your LMS; (3) Be aware of length. Trust me, I know. Feedback that goes on and on often loses learners; (4) Make sure learners know about the feedback. There’s no feeling like learning that learners just looked to see the grade they received and didn’t even click once or twice more to check the instructor’s feedback/comments box for written or embedded audio feedback. This happened in a study conducted by Borup, West, Thomas, and Graham (2014). Ten out of 200 online students enrolled in a course did not view teacher-provided feedback. That’s not bad; but still, it’s not good, either.
  • Create video feedback. Borup et al. concluded that a large part of the benefit of audio and video feedback is rooted in theory — namely, Social Presence Theory. Social Presence Theory is composed of two main related concepts: intimacy and immediacy. So as far as video feedback is concerned, when learners see and/or hear their instructors emotional cues (i.e., smiling, eye contact, relationship to the camera/microphone) while watching a video, it gives them a feeling of proximal and psychological closeness. Like the four-year-old who picks up toys while his mom’s in the room smiling at him — K-12 and adult learners aren’t much different. Practically speaking, video feedback makes the most sense when an assignment is especially influential on numerous follow-up assignments or when it is a nearing-the-end-of-a-unit or semester summative activity (i.e., project, video, speech, writing assignment, etc.). I find it most valuable for screen capturing an individual’s rough draft to talk through my suggestions for improving the product. It gives learners the opportunity to read what I type or see what I highlight within their work and hear constructive feedback I verbally present. I also find it useful for screen-capturing exemplars for students to analyze quality work while I verbally guide them through the criteria of its exemplariness.

Make sure learners know about the feedback. There’s no feeling like learning that learners just looked to see the grade they received and didn’t even click once or twice more to check the instructor’s feedback/comments box for written or embedded-audio feedback.

More Personal? That’s why? Really?

Why do teachers have their students do icebreaker activities on the first day of school? Why do they call learners’ parents to sing them praises of classroom successes or plead their intercession for classroom shortcomings? Why attend a learner’s basketball or volleyball game, concert, or play? Why let them go to the restroom one time beyond their three-pass limit?

It’s about being personal. And students generally appreciate that.

Students know what classifies as special forms of feedback — when their teachers do something a little unexpected or different in order to help them perform better. Audio and video feedback fits, don’t they? And a big reason for using them is to keep learners aware of the fact that the teacher personally cares that they demonstrate significant academic growth throughout a course.

Advice: Gauge Your Learners and Do What’s Best

Once you’ve experimented with a variety of feedback methods, survey your students to see what they think of each method: written/typed, audio, and video (or any other methods you’ve used). Be careful of how you word questions (for help, see the list of survey items in Cavanaugh and Song’s article); in surveying my students, I want to know specifically about which feedback method best improves their performance and which method seems more personal and communal.

Some students still prefer written feedback. So, guess what? I give it to them. But, if I know another method gets better results, then I’ll mix it up — this gives them what they want and satisfies my conscience that they get what they need. This mixing of methods also makes giving feedback more enjoyable for the teacher. A teacher enjoying giving feedback and learners enjoying receiving it? Imagine that.

Want More?

Check out these links to related best practices and studies of audio feedback:

Mr. Somers (aka S’mores)


Reference

Cavanaugh, A. J., & Song, L. (2014). Audio feedback versus written feedback: Instructors and students’ perspectives. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching,10(1), 2014th ser., 122-138. Retrieved from http://jolt.merlot.org/vol10no1/cavanaugh_0314.pdf


Thanks for reading! Let me know what you think. What feedback works best for you? Do you find audio and video feedback can be more effective than typed feedback? I’m listening. Comment below.

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