By: Linda Dale Bloomberg

Linda Dale Bloomberg holds the positions of associate director of faculty support and development, and full professor of education in the School of Education, Northcentral University, San Diego. Dr. Bloomberg received her doctorate in 2006 from Teachers College, Columbia University, where she completed the AEGIS Program in Adult and Organizational Learning. Her new book is titled Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction: How to Engage Adult Learners.

COVID-19 accelerated the shift to online education and increased the premium on flexible hybrid formats that can accommodate both in-person and online students. Yet, almost a year after the onset of the pandemic, many educators are still scrambling to adapt their teaching plans, tools and techniques to online and hybrid platforms; including techniques for engaging students, orchestrating effective discussions, and building community. I continue to write about how we can raise the bar on student engagement, and will be writing a series of three blog posts over the coming months to address this important issue of taking learner engagement to the next level. The first of this series focuses on Feedback as the Medium of Instruction.

Let us consider for a moment that in the online environment the primary instructional delivery mode is written, audio, or video feedback. Assignments, tasks, or activities are usually required regularly (mostly weekly) throughout a course as these are a measure of students’ application of knowledge. It is easy to fall into the trap of merely interacting with learners by grading assignments. But this is not sufficient!  Your feedback on assignments, tasks, or activities is the way by which you teach. Therefore, your feedback should be both usable and useful! Consider implementing the following top 10 tips to optimize your teaching, support your students, and set them up for success.

1. Keep your focus directly on student engagement:

Your task is to facilitate engagement and help your students learn, develop, and succeed. Before you begin teaching a course, check with each student regarding their preferred way of receiving feedback and honor their requests. For some, text feedback may be the preferred mode.  Others may prefer audio or video recording or screencast. Screencast-O-Matic is an easy-to-use screen recorder, you can capture any area of your computer screen, and add narration from your microphone and video from your webcam.  This free resource includes best practices for creating quality screencasts, and offers tips for editing videos. Access this tool here. Always be sure to let your students know when you are offering video, audio or screencast feedback, and how to access this as they may need to download appropriate software. Ensuring technical support minimizes stress regarding having access to feedback.

2. Explain the benefit of feedback:

Take the time to explain how addressing your feedback will improve students’ ongoing progress and success. As constructive and useful as critique is, it can be difficult to work long hours on an assignment and receive a less than perfect grade and have errors pointed out. Emphasize that students should take note of all suggestions for improvement, and use the feedback that you provide for better understanding, deeper learning, and ongoing improvement.  Always offer an opportunity for students to follow up with you for clarification if needed.  In my new book Designing and Delivering Effective Online Instruction, I offer a template for a letter you can send your students ahead of their course, to familiarize them with your expectations regarding feedback on assignments, and to convey the message that you have high expectations and that your feedback is intended to help them improve and succeed.

3. Tone and Communication:

Your delivery of the feedback counts! Most communication in the online environment is in written form; hence your writing skills and ability to communicate through writing is critical. With verbal communication, your message comes across not just in terms of what we say but how we say it, including tone, facial expressions, and body language. Written communication does not have the advantage of benefiting from non-verbal cues, and giving critical feedback is especially difficult. Consider carefully how your students may internalize and accept your feedback.  Be sensitive to how you come across, making sure that all feedback is professional, respectful, and clear.

4. Timeliness and Frequency:

Students are more likely to implement feedback when their instructor is “present” and attentive. Students rely on your feedback to guide their learning. If they do not receive feedback consistently and often throughout their course, they may have difficulty identifying where to focus their efforts. Providing feedback as soon as possible ensures that students remain engaged and motivated.  A best practice is to set 24-48 hours as a timeline to access, grade, and provide feedback, as delays may result in a student not being able to move on to the next task or assignment. A recommendation is to always abide by your institution’s timeliness policy so that the expectations are clear, and that you and your students are “on the same page”.

5. Feedback must be individualized and meaningful:

Students are more likely to persist if the educational experience is personalized. As a start, address each learner by name. The way you present and organize your feedback indicates that the feedback has been thoughtfully compiled, and also models and exemplifies the quality of work that we expect of students. Be careful not to provide canned or boilerplate feedback. Not only is generic feedback unhelpful, your students will quickly realize that you are not taking the time to provide personal attention, and their motivation may suffer as a result. Determining the needs of each student depends on your careful assessment of their work. Be familiar with the course learning outcomes and the broader program learning outcomes so that your feedback is directly targeted toward improving specified competencies. Achievement also depends on the extent to which your prior feedback has been addressed. Keep this in mind to avoid a “routine checklist” approach to providing feedback, and ensure that you remain mindful of the individual needs and progress of each student.

6. Feedback must be Balanced:

To sustain motivation and engagement, feedback should incorporate a balance of support and challenge. While you should not shy away from pointing out and addressing areas in need of improvement, be sure also to affirm and acknowledge progress and accomplishments through positive and constructive feedback. Refrain from simply stating “good job!” Letting students know specifically what they did well is empowering, and encourages motivation, engagement, and ongoing learning. This also fosters a growth academic mindset, whereby your students will be motivated to persist because they believe they can succeed. By commending your students, you demonstrate acknowledgment and respect for their efforts, allowing them to recognize and be proud of the positive aspects of their work. Additionally, through supportive feedback, you build rapport and trust, allowing them to feel comfortable with asking questions and accepting critique.

7. Provide practical recommendations for improvement:

Errors become important teachable moments, and so feedback should provide “doable” next steps. There is power in examples, so explain difficult or challenging concepts and ideas with practical examples. Incorporate available resources that will help learners improve, including internet sites, links to social media and audio or video material. Providing too many resources can be overwhelming, so prioritize and offer resources only as needed. Explain the reasons for why it is important to make the recommended improvements. This piece, as I refer to it in my book is, in essence, the “motivation step,” designed to articulate and explain why the course content is significant to progress and real-world success.

8. Thoughtfully incorporate audio and video tools:

Know the features of your learning management system (LMS) and become familiar with the audio and video options. Do some tests before starting your recordings to ensure the quality of the sound. In my book, I talk about the “synchronous-asynchronous balancing act”, which focuses on the skills to ensure that you are providing multimodal feedback. Develop a clear plan, and don’t simply add a new digital tool at the last minute. Less is more! When it comes to technology, take a gradual approach. When we learn about all the tools available, in our zeal to create the best possible experience for students, we run the risk of trying to do too much.  Avoid jumping headfirst into the bells and whistles, giving yourself time to grow incrementally.  As you gain more experience, you will learn which tools best fit with your teaching style and pedagogical strategy. Vary your feedback techniques and select the most appropriate method for each assignment. Speak to students as though they are sitting next to you, acknowledging good work, and suggesting necessary improvements.

9. Don’t overlook “cognitive overload”:

Which occurs when you present too much information too quickly. Make accommodations regarding ADA compliance as necessary. Remember that equal access to education is mandated by law, and is grounded in the hope that all people will indeed have equal access to course content. Offering and ensuring equal access therefore is both an ethical and a legal responsibility. As such, you will need to address access with regard to proper accommodations for those with learning disabilities, including those with mobility impairments, ADD or ADHD, and health and medical-related impairments. Online education is a viable option for individuals with disabilities, and in addition to the convenience, online learning offers benefits in terms of flexibility that may not be as readily available in a face-to-face delivery format.  Automatic closed-captioning is not perfect. Speak clearly and not too quickly to make the content as accurate as possible. If using a tool other than Zoom for recording your lecture, consider uploading your videos to YouTube to take advantage of their automatic (though not perfect) closed-captioning

10. Seek feedback for yourself!

Finally, to be fully transparent and authentic, and gain the trust of your students, listen to their feedback and be open to receiving and addressing it so that you can improve your own teaching practice. Being open to being the recipient of student feedback models that you value feedback too!  Asking students what they think about your feedback practices or the use of a specific technology can be done via a survey or a poll such as  PollEverywhere, Learning Catalytics, Mentimeter. Seeking feedback from your students in this way allows you to learn about which feedback methods work best for them, and can help effectively guide your instructional choices when you next teach the course. Remaining flexible, and making recommended adjustments as needed sets you up as a learning partner, and builds transparency, trust, motivation, and inclusivity.

Photo credit: Ann H via Pexels