Giving feedback to your online students provides them with insights into how they are progressing in your course, but ensuring you’re delivering it in a way that’s constructive rather than purely critical is a delicate balance and one that can take years of practice to get just right.

Yet it’s precisely because it’s so difficult to give feedback well that instructors need to focus their efforts on improving the quality and effectiveness of that which they give students, especially when instruction is happening online. Knowing what to say and how to say it can help you to more successfully use feedback as it was intended: to help your students to improve and to grow as learners and as individuals. That’s valuable whether you’re teaching students in the classroom, online, managing others, or just interacting in your everyday life.

Why Feedback Is So Important

To understand why feedback is important, it’s critical to first define just what feedback is. Feedback isn’t the same as grading. While grades can and do play a role in the feedback process, the crux of good feedback is your evaluation of the progress that students are making towards a specific educational goal. It is pointing out to students what they are doing that will help them reach that goal and what they are doing that is holding them back.

But why is it important? Research has consistently shown that feedback is one of the most powerful forces in changing and improving student achievement. In fact, teaching less and providing more feedback is one of the best ways to help students learn. And it’s not just about the numbers—students report feeling more satisfied, engaged, and successful when they receive constant, high-quality feedback on their work.

But while students put a high value on feedback, and rightly so, they also feel like their instructors are falling short in giving it to them.  A recent survey found that just 15.4% of students “strongly agreed” that they’re satisfied with the feedback they get in their courses. This can be especially important in online courses, where attrition rates can skyrocket when students feel that professors don’t care about them or aren’t actively engaging with them in the online classroom.

Improving feedback may take some work but it’s not an impossible task. Even novice online instructors can provide clear, helpful, and timely feedback to their students provided they take the time to learn and think about the ways they’re communicating with students.

What Defines Good Feedback: 8 Questions to Ask

What separates good feedback from bad? Ask yourself these questions before giving your feedback to students to help ensure that you’re maximizing both your effort and theirs to the fullest extent.

  1. Does your feedback call back to clear goals and expectations? Feedback requires a goal to measure students against and students should know what the objectives and expectations of your course are from the first day of class. Clearly post the rubrics you’ll use for all elements of the course so that there are no surprises and so that you can measure all students against the same objectives.
  2. What’s the timing of your feedback? Feedback after an assignment can be helpful, but the best feedback happens during the course and helps students to refine or redirect their work before it’s handed in for final evaluation. Feedback isn’t as useful when students don’t get a chance to actually apply it, so don’t wait to respond to students until the final assignment or exam.
  3. Have you given an actionable critique? Feedback must be actionable. Generic, vague statements like “good job” or “needs improvement” aren’t really helpful to students. Focus on saying things that point to specific trends in the student’s work that need improvement or that are working wonderfully. Ideally, your suggestions should be neutral in tone, backed up by examples from the work, and offer very clear, concise ways to move forward.
  4. Will your students understand what you’re saying? You don’t help students one bit if they can’t understand what you mean when you give feedback. Speak in clear language at the level of the students you’re working with and check in with them to make sure they’ve gotten the point, especially if they seem to be struggling. Also, make sure that students can easily contact you if they do have questions, about your feedback or anything else. Virtual office hours and availability through a variety of avenues (email, phone, chat) can help.
  5. Are you applying feedback consistently? Students shouldn’t feel that your feedback is biased or arbitrary, but you are only human and staying consistent can be difficult. To help ensure you give unbiased, consistent feedback, use a rubric and don’t forget to share it with students so they know what standard they are being measured against.
  6. Are your comments unique to the student? While there is no harm in reusing feedback if you see several students making the same mistakes, students should never feel like they’re being given boilerplate feedback. Make sure what you’re saying feels unique to that assignment and that student and is specific enough for students to actually utilize. Keep in mind the nuances associated with your subject matter and course—different topics require different types of feedback.
  7. Am I giving enough or too much feedback? Feedback needs to be a regular part of the course, but it shouldn’t overwhelm students. The idea is to guide them, not to make them feel suffocated by commenting on every post to a discussion board or slip up in a paper. Tailor your feedback to the needs of your students (some may need more, some less) and the type and level of course you’re teaching.
  8. Am I being positive? Nothing breaks the spirit of a student faster than just focusing on the negative. Start with the positive when offering suggestions for improvement. For example, say, “You applied the concept very well here. Your point would be clearer later on in the paper if you used that same method.” Also, always make sure that feedback never feels like a personal attack—you’re critiquing the art, not the artist. Finally, keep most of your feedback anonymous or private, unless the course necessitates otherwise (for some subjects, public critique may just be par for the course).

Stay tuned for Part II, where we’ll explore some methods for improving feedback and share what researchers have discovered the best feedback has in common.