Providing Student Feedback in Distance Education Courses
Feedback is an essential part of the process of learning, but nowhere is it more anxiously sought by students than in their distance education courses. Many students find the DE environment to be cold and impersonal. These students may also be new to distance education, and unfamiliar with the particular software and organization of a virtual classroom. A personal comment from the instructor does much to give such students reassurance and confidence.
With all of our teaching faults (and we know there are many), the authors have particular strengths in providing feedback to students. We know this from course evaluations and student feedback. This particular skill is not an accident. We have individually and jointly worked to develop feedback techniques which provide the most useful learning guidance to our students with a minimum amount of pain for the faculty member.
All "feedback" to students is not useful, and even if it is useful, it may not be perceived as useful by the student. In our experience, students most appreciate feedback when it is timely, precise and personal.
To benefit a student, feedback must be timely. Feedback given at the end of the course may be valuable in providing long term guidance, but doesn't help the student's grade or the quality of the work in the present course. It is especially difficult to provide timely feedback to students on their final exams. At UMUC a faculty member has only 72 hours to grade the final exam, evaluate the overall performance of the students, and post final grades with the Registrar. This leaves little time for appropriate feedback. To fill this gap, the authors always offer students the option of sending in self-addressed envelopes in order to receive highly detailed notations on their research papers and final exams. Typically, only a very few students choose this option. This allows the professor to target the individuals concerned with feedback, without the work of providing such detail to students who have no interest in it.
It would be best to provide good feedback early in the course, but that activity also has limitations. Early in the course, the instructor knows relatively little about the student and his/her work. Often feedback given here is relatively mechanical and simple, and has to do with instructor expectations, the rituals of class activities, and the peculiarities of the DE platform. One form of feedback suitable here is to provide a general feedback in context. The instructor should provide a friendly atmosphere, and control the risks in experimentation with unfamiliar tools. For example, the instructor should remove all icons and hyperlinks in the classroom setup that won't be needed in this class. (No chance to go wrong!)
The ideal time, in our opinion, for providing timely feedback lies in the middle of the course, when the student has produced enough material to support a good evaluation, the faculty member has (relative) leisure to assess student efforts, and the feedback will help the student in the current class. For these reasons we provide extremely detailed, elaborate feedback on the mid-term exam. Before the exam is even in the hands of the students, very detailed model answers are composed for each question: "A correct response will contain the following points…." These schoolhouse solutions are included in a personalized email to each student.
Since many students make similar errors, some previously prepared paragraphs (rubrics) can also be prepared to address these anticipated errors. Standard paragraphs may include statements like, "Your knowledge of the technical material is certainly quite good, but your grammar and spelling are so poor the material can't be understood. I suggest you take the online UMUC course in graduate writing." A minimum of one or two such paragraphs specific to each student should be inserted at the end of the general midterm assessments.
Mid term evaluations prepared in this way are often lengthy --10 to 15 paragraphs long --but once prepared, do not require a great deal of the instructor's time. Not only does this type of feedback provide valuable information to the students, it is perceived by the studentas being timely, precise, and personal.
When you use this technique, students in your course are much less likely to contest grades, and are more likely to feel and appreciate the personal attention. In fact, after a little practice, you may get comments like these (real responses from students):
- "WOW! I've never had feedback like this from any other teacher."
- "I liked the way the detailed evaluation for the paper was done, and the proper feedback really helped me."