Categories and Themes
Fifteen themes describing feedback practices emerged from the open-ended responses. For each of the 15 themes that emerged from the data, descriptors were developed. Confirmatory surveys in phase II validated that the themes developed were appropriate feedback approaches (all respondents, with the exception of one neutral response, agreed).
The 15 themes generated were organized into three faculty practice categories specific to feedback: (1) using best available tools (providing an overview of specific technologies and teaching tools that can assist in providing feedback); (2) having a system (providing guidance in helping faculty to organize systematically in providing feedback); and (3) creating a feedback-rich environment (expanding the concept of diverse feedback modes to integrate into online courses). The following discussion describes the three categories, including sample descriptors and practice tips that emerged from the data.
Category 1: Using Best Available Tools. Category 1 addresses the use of best available tools to help faculty optimize resources for feedback. The following themes were identified: maximize the technology; and use rubrics, templates, and automated responses. This category provides an overview of specific technologies and teaching tools that can assist faculty in providing feedback. Participants noted that their best feedback approaches were often multifactorial. Sample comments are provided for the two themes in this category.
Maximize the Technology. This theme was described as using technology to its fullest potential to promote feedback. It included creative use of newer technologies to facilitate communication. In addition to using more traditional technologies, such as e-mail and asynchronous discussions, to provide feedback, faculty shared a variety of tools that supported enhanced feedback, including online office hours; live chats; voice-over PowerPoint presentations; announcement functions; synchronous presentations, such as Wimba or Elluminate; course management survey functions; tracking changes; messaging; and concept mapping tools. Sample participant comments included the following:
“Using the announcement section is really helpful in answering specific class questions that are common to all students rather than answering them individually.”
“I like to use tools such as Wimba for synchronous discussions with the archive feature turned on for students who can’t be there.”
Use Rubrics, Templates, and Automated Responses. Rubrics provide schematics for assessing knowledge and increasing the efficiency of feedback responses; templates and automated response sets also provide advantages. Sample faculty comments included the following:
“When I provide feedback, I show students what the criteria were, letting them know what went well and what could have improved their grade.”
“I use automated, low-stakes quizzes to test comprehension and completion. I use these to review difficult concepts and allow students to verify their comprehension before we move on to the next topic.”
Providing formative student feedback can be challenging, but tools are available to improve the time spent and value provided with feedback. As educational technologies continue to improve with learning management systems and other resources, information from this category is particularly important. Automated tools, such as self-graded quizzes, within learning management systems provide support for structuring learning opportunities and providing timely feedback. Using prompts or templates within these learning management systems also helps to organize feedback from semester to semester. Faculty can learn about tools that are currently available and learn strategies for optimizing these tools in providing feedback.
Tools such as rubrics can also help faculty to focus their efforts and use time more efficiently (Suski, 2004). These tools are described as explicit summaries outlining essential criteria for a project and including each criterion’s rating potential (Bonnel & Smith, 2010). Rubrics are important guides in promoting communication about the strengths and weaknesses of a project, helping to promote clarity, consistency, and thoroughness. These structured guides may be particularly beneficial for students at a distance.
Using the best available tools can make it easier for students to access feedback and for faculty to acknowledge students. In addition, these tools can help faculty monitor and track student work and follow student progress. Just as faculty keep up with advancing content for teaching and learning, they need to keep up with new technologies.
Category 2: Having a System. Participant responses within category 2 focused on the importance of having a system for providing feedback. The eight themes within this category guide faculty in addressing organizational and time challenges when providing online students with feedback on assignments. Although participant examples addressed basic concepts, such as calendars, schedules, and course phases for feedback, much more information was included. Sidebar 2 lists themes and identifies descriptors for this category. Sample comments are provided for the following themes: be proactive; guide and coach; and synthesize.
Identified Themes and Brief Descriptors
Category 1: Using Best Available Tools
Maximize the technology. Use technology to its fullest potential to promote feedback; this includes creative use of newer technologies that facilitate communication and interactions.
Use rubrics, templates, and automated responses. Use selected best available tools to assess knowledge and increase the efficiency of responses to feedback.
Category 2: Having a System
Be proactive. Minimize potential problems through early guidance and restating or clarifying expectations; act in advance to deal with anticipated challenges.
Schedule feedback. Use a systematic approach to providing feedback; make feedback a priority in your schedule; use prompts such as calendar reminders that are conducive to both the educator’s schedule and students’ needs.
Plan by the numbers. The way feedback is given is affected by the size of the class, so plan accordingly.
Communicate clearly. Model professional communication techniques. Offer praise and constructive feedback to individuals in both private venues (such as e-mail) and public formats (such as online discussions).
Be timely. Share timely, regular feedback with students, particularly focusing on the contracted syllabus guides.
Grade the draft. Provide feedback on student drafts with the expectation that the final project will be improved because of changes made based on the feedback.
Guide and coach. Give feedback that provides direction and offers support and encouragement; use the opportunity to promote critical thinking skills.
Synthesize. Develop summaries from a review of discussions or assignments and share common themes and implications with the online class; this provides further reflection opportunities for course members.
Category 3: Creating a Feedback-Rich Environment
Optimize student self-reflection. Use assignments such as journal writing or self-assessments that stimulate students’ self-examination and introspection to evaluate performance and promote critical thinking skills.
Use peer review. Provide opportunities for peer critique, for students to evaluate each other’s work or performance and provide feedback.
Vary feedback by the assignment. Consider the type of assignment when determining the best approach to feedback.
Build groups. Use groups in a variety of ways, such as assigning group activities and providing feedback through communication with specific groups; address issues of group grades in the course syllabus.
Continue the conversation. Provide students opportunities to continue learning, such as ending feedback with prompts for goal setting or questions that challenge students to think “what next?”
Be Proactive. Within this theme, faculty were reminded to think about feedback early in the course to prevent later challenges for students. Sample participant comments included the following:
“I use methods that are proactive and that may help the student to improve the final product.”
“If a student is headed off track in a discussion, I usually raise a question, trying to encourage the student to reconsider the issue. Students want to validate their knowledge and get assurances that they are on target.”
Guide and Coach. Participants emphasized the importance of giving feedback that provides direction and offers support and encouragement. They also noted that feedback can be used to demonstrate professional text-based communication and increase critical thinking opportunities. Sample comments include the following:
“I give individualized comments that guide student learning and future learning activities. I explain principles with examples or confirm what is being said.”
“Through my feedback I definitely believe I have a great opportunity to demonstrate genuine interest, expertise, and encouragement of students’ learning.”
Synthesize. Synthesis includes providing a summary to the group. If the assignment is a discussion, synthesis involves reviewing the shared comments, seeking common themes, and relating these points to the purpose of the discussion. Several faculty wrote enthusiastically about the importance of synthesis, as follows:
“This process includes keeping notes as I grade each paper. I gather all of the postings and develop a list of themes or summarize general comments or high and low points about an examination or assignment once it is graded.”
“I keep notes as I grade each paper and then synthesize the notes for a group response.”
Having a system for providing feedback helps faculty focus their efforts and use time more efficiently. A systematic approach also aids in course development, reminding faculty to allocate assignments and provide appropriate feedback over the course of the semester to enhance learning and cope with time commitments (Bonnel et al., 2007). The theme “be proactive” also reminds faculty to consider that students often need more feedback at the beginning of the semester or the start of a project. The theme “guide and coach” conveys the importance of using a planned, systematic approach to foster a positive tone in providing course feedback, supporting and encouraging students while providing guidance. The theme “synthesize” provides an opportunity for faculty to group comments and relate them to learning themes so that all students can benefit and extend their learning.
Other themes identified within this category (see Sidebar 2) include the following: schedule feedback; plan by the numbers; communicate clearly; be timely; and grade the draft. These themes provide further ideas for organizing a system for providing feedback.
Category 3: Creating a Feedback-Rich Environment. Within this category, participant responses suggested a variety of opportunities to integrate and enhance feedback in online courses. This included integrating a variety of sources of feedback to meet diverse student needs. Sidebar 2 lists themes and identifies descriptors within this category. Sample participant comments follow for the following three themes: optimize student self-reflection; use peer review; and vary feedback by the assignment.
Optimize Student Self-Reflection. Within this theme, faculty used assignments such as journal writing and self-assessment that stimulate students’ self-examination and introspection to evaluate performance and promote critical thinking skills. Sample comments included the following:
“I ask students to reflect on a specific area of growth or needed improvement related to a course topic or competency. What was the situation? What did you do? What did you learn? What is the significance?”
“I ask students to comment on their own participation and thinking as part of the course through written assignments, in addition to the content activity. What was the most important information? What was the most surprising finding?”
Use Peer Review. Within this theme, faculty provided opportunities for peer critique in which student peers evaluate colleagues’ work and provide feedback to each other. Sample faculty comments included the following:
“Peers are invited to respond to each other’s postings. I have seen some very good interaction between the students about each topic.”
“I have students do a review of a classmate’s paper, much like the peer reviewer responsibilities for a journal.”
Vary Feedback by the Assignment. This theme reminded faculty to consider the type of assignment when determining the best feedback approach. Sample comments included the following:
“Different feedback tools provide differing learning opportunities.”
“Feedback varies depending on the assignment. It can mean faculty participating in discussion boards or giving rich feedback on graded assignments.”
Further themes from this category (Sidebar 2) included build groups and continue the conversation. Each theme provided ideas for integrating diverse feedback modes into courses. The themes in this category support and enhance the concept of rich and rapid feedback and support feedback opportunities for engaging students in further learning. The use of varied feedback formats provides opportunities to engage students with diverse auditory and visual learning styles.
Optimizing various feedback methods through course and assignment design creates multiple learning opportunities. Fink (2003) identified feedback as a key component of integrated course design. This includes building into the course increased opportunities for diverse sources of feedback. Students have acknowledged that strategies such as group feedback, automated feedback, peer feedback, and self-reflection are important factors in their learning (Bonnel et al., 2007). In courses that provide multiple sources of feedback, such as self-assessment and peer review, students are encouraged to take on new responsibilities and gain new learning opportunities. This can set the stage for further professional responsibilities.