By the end of this module you will be able to:

  1. Identify characteristics of effective feedback.
  2. Use online communication channels to provide effective feedback to your students.
  3. Improve your subject outline to act as a communication device.

In an online context, constant communication is critical to maintaining student engagement and motivation to learn.  But for you, the lecturer, maintaining communication with students requires a lot of time and effort.  This section will focus on providing you with guidelines for effective feedback and for using your subject outline as a communication device. The main objective is to help you optimize communication, to free up some of your time.

On Feedback  

Clear, effective, meaningful feedback is a robust way to foster learning. Actively seeking feedback about the impact of your teaching from students is just as critical. Feedback is defined as “any information provided by an agent (e.g. instructor, peer, book, or one’s own experience) about aspects of one’s performance or understanding” (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). There are four types of feedback identified in the literature:

  1. Corrective feedback that is specific to the requirements of the assignment and content. For example” The instructions called for X, however X was not included.”
  2. Epistemic feedback includes prompts or questions for further thought and explanation or clarification. For example, “Say more about how this concept relates to your point”.
  3. Suggestive feedback contains advice, expansion, or ideas to improve a statement. For example, “By giving an example of courage after you describe the concept would make the meaning of courage clearer”.
  4. Epistemic + suggestive feedback combines the use of prompts/questions for further development and making suggestions for improvement.

There is evidence to suggest that the quality of learner performance improves best with epistemic and epistemic + suggestive feedback (Liebold & Schwarz, 2015). In fact, Hattie and Timperley (2007) suggest that an ideal learning environment is when both teachers and learners seek answers to the following questions: “Where am I going?”, “How am I going?”, “Where to next?”.

The main purpose of feedback is to reduce discrepancies between current student understandings and the learning intentions or success criteria. However, not all feedback is powerful. The following are evidence based suggestions to include or avoid in your feedback:

  • Least effective forms of feedback on enhancing achievement are: Programmed instructional, praise, punishment, and extrinsic rewards.
  • Feedback is more effective when it provides information on correct rather than incorrect responses, when it builds on changes on previous trails, when it is perceived as low rather than high level of threat to self-esteem, when goals are specific and challenging but when task complexity is low.
  • Feedback has the highest effect when it comes after the task, in the form of correct or incorrect statements to improve performance. It is also highly effective when it provides different ways of considering the material or counter arguments in a process, or when it supports monitoring error detection, building confidence to take stances and arguments about the content.

The following video provides an introduction to the Power of Feedback as advocated by Hattie and Timperley (2007):



Learners who receive immediate feedback demonstrate the highest recall, the most accurate identification of initial responses, the most confidence in their answers, and the least amount of continual incorrect answers.

Active engagement in reviewing the projects of peers might facilitate student learning performance. With peer feedback, learners actively engage in articulating their evolving understanding of the subject matter. They also apply the learned knowledge and skills when assessing other’s work. Students tend to improve their writing more by giving comments than by receiving comments, because giving comments involves evaluative and reflective activities in which students identify good writing, problematic areas in the writing and possible ways to solve the problem.

Implementation Tips

Here is a list of best practices for providing online feedback:

  1. Have a system: establish a system of consistent interventions to provide feedback and information, such as making expectations clear, clarifying expectations, and scheduling feedback. Ensure you are timely and regular with your feedback and support, and make your system explicit in your subject outline.  For example, you could establish that all grading and feedback on assignments will be returned to learners within 72 hours.
  2. Consider voice recording your feedback. It saves time in the writing process, increases relevance and personalization. There is evidence to suggest that voice recorded feedback increases the likelihood of your students using it as a reference for improvement (Liebold and Schwarz, 2015).
  3. Use an assessment rubric to focus your feedback on helping students achieve success criteria. You may also instruct your students to refer to the assessment rubric to ensure they provide constructive, peer feedback.
  4. Use peer feedback, group feedback, or automated feedback to promote learner self-reflection and collaboration.
  5. Use the sandwich method of feedback which is a three-part technique: Start with a positive comment, followed by comment about an area of improvement and finish with another positive comment.
  6. Immediate feedback improves performance.    Online  discussion feedback is most effective if provided to learners within 72 hours of the due date and time. Assignment feedback is best when returned to learners in less than one week from the due date.
  7. Be specific with your feedback. A message that includes enough detail so the learner is able to understand the meaning is preferred. Respond with a question to promote critical thinking.
  8. Maximize the reach of your communications by using email communication, course room messaging or the announcement section whenever you want to reach all students in your subject course.
  9. Address the learner by name, use a positive tone, and ask questions to promote thinking.
  10. Record web conferences or lectures, and post office hours.

The following video explains how some of these guidelines may be used to provide feedback as an essential and effective tool of formative assessment:


There is a evidence to suggest a tendency for peer feedback to be focused on grammatical edits rather than knowledge edits. So, it is important to promote critical thinking by specifically including negotiation, probing, challenging peer’s ideas in your assessment rubric (Lim et, al., 2010). Moreover, if your assignment includes writing a blog or a wiki, avoid editing your students’ work before it is published, as it may interfere with learner’s agency for learning and learners’ voice in blogging. The suggestion is to promote critical peer feedback by assigning credit for collaborative feedback and discussion.

The lack of feedback can impact students’ learning adversely and it has been argued as a reason for students’ withdrawing from online courses. Some research findings suggested that feedback may be more important in online learning environments due to the lack of regular face to face interaction (Ching & Hsu, 2013). An explicit feedback process is needed in online learning in order to truly support students’ ability to achieve the desired learning outcomes.

Peer feedback may impose cognitive or affective challenges on learners. It is also likely that students may not possess the skills of providing useful and meaningful feedback because students are not domain experts. To avoid low quality comments or anxiety about giving feedback, create a module or allot time during your lecture to explicitly introduce learners to the etiquette and expectations of collaborative discussion. Include tips such as asking thought provoking questions, identifying improvement areas, or using discipline specific jargon.

Feedback Timesaving Tips for Educators

  1. Create a feedback bank in word that include frequently used feedback comments.
  2. Use voice technology to provide audio feedback.
  3. Create an assessment rubric and make it available right from the start.
  4. Provide clear instructions and expectations for the assignment.

Syllabus/Subject Outline as a Communication Device

The subject outline or syllabus is a powerful but often misused communication tool. The tendency is to draft content and policy heavy outlines that usually provide the instructor with a non-negotiable structure to control what happens in the course. Often, the subject outline includes an introduction to the course content, it dictates the policies students need to abide by, and the deadlines for assignments. Notice how in this approach the instructor remains the focus of course delivery, and the rationales behind assignments and policies are left out. There is enough evidence in the literature to confirm student’s lack of syllabus use for course information. This is due to students’ perception of it being too long and filled with irrelevant information.

But what if we could reinvent the subject outline to help us reduce the load of emails we receive from students?

Implementation Tips

Here are a couple of guidelines to help you improve your subject outline. The focus is on using it to communicate to students “how to learn”, rather than just”what to learn”.

  1. Shift towards shorter, and more flexibly constructed documents: You may want to offload assignment descriptions and any unnecessary detail from your subject outline in order to shorten it. Start by questioning the utility of each policy in your subject outline (e.g: how useful is it in helping you manage your course? Will it help your students learn?) A second suggestion is to craft separate assignments files to remind students of each discrete assignment, helping them plan their workload more effectively by chunking information into manageable lengths. Think about what students may consider necessary (e.g.: why do I need to do this assignment? how does it facilitate the skills I need to have a career in this discipline? how do I pass the assessment (success criteria)?, what’s the deadline? How does this information link to the real world?) The clearer and more explicit your instructions are for a task, the less emails you will receive requesting clarifications on an assignment.
  2. Consider the schedule portion of the syllabus as most important to students: Students pay attention to deadlines. So make sure your schedule is clear and explicit.  Use the calendar function of your online platform to make your deadlines even more visible. Ensure that you include within your subject outline a list of available resources to support students achieving the learning objectives. You may also consider directly involving students in the planning and calendaring process.
  3. Consider syllabus design and layout for accessibility and engagement: The layout and presentation of your document will affect how students process and recall information. When it comes to the font, avoid Times New Roman as it is an “old style” typeface conveying formality and solemnity. The recommendation is to use Calibri, as it is considered a more modern, warm and soft option (Lund Dean & Fornaciari, 2014). Use bullet points instead of long, dense paragraphs. Vary heading sizes and spaces to maintain interest instead of using repetitive, unchanging structures. Use coloured fonts to draw attention to critical syllabus information or colour code information for students. Finally, leaving some open spaces on pages assists with perceptual manageability.
  4. Consider designing a subject outline as a resource and go to document: Your design could routinely link learning goals with resources as part of assignment descriptions, making ongoing discussion of both why these activities are happening and how students can personally expect to benefit from doing them. If you are introducing the use of a new technological tool, you may include external links to tutorials to support their ability to use that tool.
  5. Integrate more positive, learning oriented policy statements and include a rationale for them. For example, instead of saying: “Should you miss an exam, a makeup may be available (depending on the circumstance), and is an oral exam to be taken within 5 days of the missed written exam. It is also your responsibility to schedule this with me”. You could say: “I offer makeup exam as an oral exam, because I want to discourage student’s missing exams. We can discuss a mutually acceptable time for you to sit for this exam, should you miss the regularly scheduled one. Sooner is better than later, since course material tends to be fresher for recall”.
  6. Move away from contractual and consequential language toward encouraging and student owned experiences. For instance, instead of saying: “I will take late work; there is a 50% penalty for being late”. You could say: “Let me encourage you to turn in work even if it is late. You may earn 50% of the graded points for late work”.
  7. Have the subject outline available to students in a variety of formats and media choices to increase access to them. Take into account that some students may not have access to the net all the time, so a suggestion is to print out the subject outline and go over it with your students on the first day (blended learning) or open a thread in the discussion forum specifically to discuss the subject outline. This will not only allow you to reach an agreement on policies such as late assignments or missed exams, but it will also allow you to make explicit where information is located, and resolve doubts on expectations.