An important difference between a student engaged in an online course and an autodidact researching on the Internet is that a student interacts with an instructor and other students with the expectation of feedback. The instructor’s policies will help facilitate communication among students, but ultimately, the student wants feedback from the teacher that will help him/her learn and grow within the class. At the end of the course, the goal is to have mastered the material and to have a grade that shows it.
Even though the teacher may be miles away, there are many options for communicating directly with the student. My Communications Guidelines post and the News Items! post listed and described the many methods a teacher can employ to inform and encourage students, and many of these methods can also provide specific feedback. Emails and written comments on assignments provide descriptive feedback which begins a dialogue about ways the student can improve. In addition to the written word, the teacher could also use a video recording or audio commentary; both of these methods are less threatening to students, because they convey the tone of the criticism better than if the student is just reading it. Forms of mass communication such as text blasts, announcements, and newsletters should also provide advice for students. Finally, there are many forms of online assessment that could offer real-time feedback without the teacher grading the work. These tools range from informal games on Quia to comprehensive assessments through Diagnoser and Exam View.
Students need authentic, effective feedback to help them assess their own progress through the course and reflect on areas of strength and weakness. Teachers hope that students can learn the content and pass each assessment on their first try, but often failure followed by more-intensive study creates a more impactful learning experience. Quick formative assessments, like matching games and quizzes, help students discover whether they have understood the lesson. Likewise, a synchronous class discussion will help students, who are isolated from their peers when they complete lessons, share ideas and correct misconceptions. When the student finally succeeds after wrestling with difficult content, he/she will feel proud of the accomplishment and will be motivated to keep working hard. Students who do not struggle but get positive results are similarly motivated and encouraged.
Since students require numerous opportunities for feedback, the online instructor needs to use a variety of tools frequently during the course. Beyond educational games and quizzes that provide instant feedback, the teacher can also provide preemptive feedback by sharing common mistakes made by former students. The teacher should facilitate discussions that focus on learning objectives, and the teacher can start these dialogues by reviewing rubrics and past assessments. Continuous dialogues between the teacher and student will also enrich the online learning experience, because the student will feel more connected with and accountable to the instructor.
Most importantly, teacher feedback acknowledges and validates the student’s effort. If I were taking an online course and never heard from the teacher, I would assume all of my work went into a black hole and that it didn’t matter. A very mature and disciplined student may be able to cope and know that the work will make him/her a better learner, but it is rare that a student would be fine with receiving no feedback. Students need to know that hard work and study will help them master the content, and teacher feedback helps them grasp this.