Online feedback possibilities and challenges

“The most important feedback principle is that students should be thinking about their work rather than the teacher just giving them comments” (Kennedy Chan, Teacher Feedback Award winner, Faculty of Education, University of Hong Kong)

For feedback processes to have an impact, they really need to be designed into the flow of the module so that students have opportunities to use comments to improve their work. In the online space, audio and video peer feedback around work in progress has been shown to be a particularly useful way of engaging students with standards, and supporting them in self-evaluating their own production more robustly. Peer feedback in online learning environments helps students feelconnected to their classmates. When online students compose and receive multiple peer reviews, a sense of community is developed but only if teachers are able to motivate students to engage whole-heartedly.

Collaborative writing enables peer feedback andis potentially facilitated by online environments. The use of wikis or Google Docs enable learners to receive timely feedback from multiple sources, and take action in revising work in progress.

The way modules are structured with final assignments submitted several weeks after the conclusion of the teaching isa major impediment to effective feedback processes. By the end of a semester it is too late for student action, and if the final grade has been awarded, only the most motivated students are likely to engage with any ‘hopefully useful information’ (Boud & Molloy, 2013) provided by teachers. The challenges of end-of-semester marking are also compounded by feedback doing double duty (Carless, 2015): awarding and justifying a fair grade; demonstrating respect and reciprocity for students’ efforts; offering commentary that may be helpful on future tasks; and providing an audit trail for external examiners and quality assurance purposes.

Although teacher transmission forms of feedback are known to be relatively limited because students struggle to decode or act on key messages, there are still some useful online possibilities. The teacher role in online feedback involves social presence and coaching. By showing care, enthusiasm and personal sensitivity, teachers encourage feedback exchanges to flourish.

Teachers can contribute their own audio or video feedback to highlight key issues, and support social presence. Our Faculty colleague, Tanya Kempston, for example, has a lot of experience in providing audio feedback to students. Using and refining the same strategy over time allows practice to evolve.Nicole Tavares has recently been experimenting with video feedback which is generally popular with students. Video feedback should probably be short and to the point to minimize cognitive load; require some kind of agentic student response; and canbe combined with screencasting (Mahoney et al. 2019).

A screencastis a digital recording that captures actions taking place on a computer screen. By capturing what is on teachers’ monitors, screencasts can be used to show as well as tell the teacher response to student work. This is helpful for the student sense-making process because unless feedback connects with students, it has limited impact.

To be effective and actionable, feedback processes need to be designed within module learning activities. Without the potential for student action, any hopefully useful information provided by teachers at the end of the module is inevitably rather sterile. Teachers often complain about students not engaging with, collecting or downloading marked work. The main reason that teachers’ efforts at providing summative feedback are often not appreciated is that by the end of semester, it is ‘marking and grading’ rather than feedback. Advice at this stage might be usefully directed towards future assignments, more than the one that has been completed.

Feedback processes are only effective if they involve shared responsibilities between students and teachers. And that needs the mutual development of feedback literacy: understandings and capacities to enact their complementary roles in maximizing the impact of feedback processes.

“The generation of information to students about their work is one of the most time-consuming activities that teachers engage in. It cannot be justified if there is no explicit expectation that it will be specifically used”. (Boud & Molloy, 2013, p. 206).

Boud, D. & Molloy, E. (2013). Decision-making for feedback. In D. Boud & L. Molloy (Eds.), Feedback in higher and professional education (p.202-218). London: Routledge.

Carless, D. (2015). Excellence in University Assessment: Learning from award-winning practice. London: Routledge.

Mahoney, P., Macfarlane, S., & Ajjawi, R. (2019). A qualitative synthesis of video feedback in higher education. Teaching in Higher Education, 24(2), 157-179.