Feedback Strategies for Online Courses

August 13, 2019

By Megan Lee Pietruszewski

Megan Lee Pietruszewski, lecturer in the Department of English, was awarded a sponsorship from Clemson Online to attend an Online Learning Consortium (OLC) workshop (link to workshops: on giving effective feedback in online courses. 

What is “one of the most powerful influences on learning” (1) that we can implement in our courses? Giving meaningful feedback! Feedback is important because it helps students know what they are doing well and what they need to improve upon to reach learning objectives in our courses (1). Grant Wiggins asserts that, “’no time to give and use feedback’ actually means ‘no time to cause learning’” (3).

In online courses, feedback also helps establish an instructor-student connection (2). Below are strategies for incorporating effective and efficient feedback in your online courses.

How do we give effective feedback?

Make the purpose of feedback clear. The purpose of feedback is to give students a progress update on meeting learning objectives. However, sometimes students are confused about this purpose and may ask questions like, “Why are you telling me to include more sources? Why is this paragraph weak?” Explain the purpose to students so they see feedback as more than a value judgement or a grade justification (3). To help students read and apply feedback, students need to understand that feedback serves to move them towards the larger goal (3).

Use rubrics to make assignment expectations clear. One way to make the connection between learning objectives (the larger goal) and feedback more closely aligned is to use rubrics for assignment grading (4). Rubrics are easy to develop in Canvas and can be saved and used in future courses.

Point students where to access feedback early on (in the syllabus, Module 1, welcome video, course announcement, etc.…).  Remind them early in the course where and how to access feedback, perhaps after the first major assignment (7). There is nothing more frustrating than students asking where to find feedback the last week of class.

Conduct an early semester check-in survey 4-5 weeks into the semester. Anonymously, ask students if they are accessing the feedback and how useful they are finding it. For example, “What about the feedback is helping you learn? What about it could be different to help you learn?” Get feedback on your feedback!

Give balanced feedback. It is just as important for students to know what they are doing well and as it is for students to know what to improve on (5). When students know what they are doing well, they are likely to continue doing it, and this positive feedback can promote motivation (5). Wiggins offers the suggestion of the “mental colon” when writing words such as “Good job!” or “Excellent” (3). For example, “Excellent: the report follows the standard organizational pattern of the field with the introduction, literature review, methods, results, and discussion sections.” Be specific with what is “excellent” or “very good,” and be specific with what is “weak” or “vague.”

Make feedback specific to the individual student. Point to specific parts of a student’s work. This helps them connect your feedback to their specific progress, and shows them you are carefully reading their work, which can further motivate them to do high-quality work, especially when individualized feedback comes early in the semester (4). Cleveland states in an interview that her strategy is to make notes of 3-4 points to address in feedback while reading a student’s assignment (4). This keeps feedback specific to the student. Use the student’s name to add more personalization (6). For example, when beginning written comments, start with “Hi Tony,” and then go into feedback.

Make students do something with the feedback. One common concern by faculty is that students don’t read or use the feedback provided, which is frustrating given the time investment of giving detailed, individualized feedback (7). One way to alleviate this is to ask students to engage with the feedback in some way. This can be a peer review and a summary to the instructor on feedback received or an Action Plan in which students summarize feedback, explain what they agreed/disagreed with, and specify changes they will make going forward (7).

Ask questions. Another idea to promote engagement with feedback is to ask students to respond to feedback (3, 5). Pose questions, such as “How will you use this feedback going into revision (or into the next assignment?)” Asking students questions can help them clarify their thoughts as well as create incentive to read and use feedback (5).

When should we give feedback?

Timely feedback is important. One guideline summarized by Leibold and Schwarz (6) in their literature review of effective feedback practices is 72 hours for discussions and 1 week for major assignments. Research shows that students learn more from feedback when it is given closer to the assignment due date, while the concepts are fresh in students’ minds. As Wolsey (8) states, “When feedback is not provided in a timely way or is not related to knowledge that is familiar to the students, they tend to ignore that feedback and focus on the grade or score instead of what can be learned from the interaction” (pg. 323).

How do we give feedback efficiently and save ourselves time?

Use audio/video feedback. They are many options—free and paid—that you can experiment with. Some include Voice Thread, Audacity for recording audio feedback, Screencast-O-Matic, and Loom. Canvas also has built in video and audio feedback. If you are simply looking to record the screen of the computer (to display the student’s work), Screencast-O-Matic and Loom are user-friendly options. Audio and video feedback may offer a “personalization” factor that students appreciate (9, 10).

Create a template bank of feedback. Making a running Word Document with common student problem areas (such as organization, incorrect comma usage, etc.…). Also write up positive comments that students are doing well. It saves time to carefully word these explanations once and later adapt them to the individual student. It is helpful to add personalization by including an example from the student’s work or highlighting the section and referring to the highlighted section in the comment (10).

Use online, automated feedback when appropriate. Automated feedback is one way for students to receive timely feedback. On Canvas quizzes, there is an option to add a response to the question. Type out responses to the questions explaining the correct or incorrect answer. Point students to other resources in these automated comments. You might link a YouTube video or screencast, a website, or another resource posted on the Canvas page (10).

Develop your system. Leibold and Schwarz (6) recommend, “Set[ting] a pattern for providing feedback to learners” (6). It may be helpful to set aside specific times of the week as “grading time” to encourage timely grading. For example, if assignments come in on Sunday nights, maybe Monday afternoons from 2:00-3:00pm and Tuesday mornings from 9:00-11:00am are grading time. Just as we encourage online students to establish a schedule, we should do the same in scheduling grading time to provide consistent and prompt feedback.


(1) Hattie, J. and Timperley, H. (2007). “The Power of Feedback.” Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81-112.

(2) Rabidoux, S. and Rottmann, A. (2017). “How to Provide Meaningful Feedback Online.” Inside HigherEd.

(3) Wiggins, G. (2012). “Seven Keys to Effective Feedback.” Educational Leadership, 70(1).

(4) Kelley, R. (2013). “Selecting Feedback Techniques.” Online Cl@ssroom, 13(1), 1-8.

(5) OLC Presentation: Balanced and Learner-Centered Feedback, 2019.

(6) Leibold, N., & Schwarz, L. M. (2015). The Art of Giving Online Feedback. Journal of Effective Teaching, 15(1), 34-46.

(7) OLC Presentation: Feedback Challenges, 2019.

(8) Wolsey, T. (2008). Efficacy of instructor feedback on written work in an online program. International Journal on E-learning, 7(2), 311-329.

(9) Wallace, I., & Moore, C. (2012, January). Providing in-depth and personalised feedback to online students using audio recording. International Journal of e-Education, e-Business, e-Management and e-Learning, 2(1), 6-10.

(10) “New ways of giving feedback.” 2010. The University of Edinburgh.