Reciprocal Feedback in the Online Classroom

Written by: Rob Kelly
Published On: May 3, 2013

Understanding learners’ experiences in the online classroom can help you improve your courses for current and future students and help build a strong learning community. Jill Schiefelbein, owner and guru of Impromptu Guru, a company focused on helping individuals and groups improve communication in both face-to-face and online environments, recommends using a reciprocal feedback process to elicit this valuable information from students.

Giving feedback about the learning experience might be new to some students. In order to get students on board with this process, Schiefelbein includes two videos in her courses: one that introduces the instructor and one that explains course expectations. “I make these two separate videos because they are for two very different purposes. I don’t want to put them together. I want them to be short and to the point,” Schiefelbein says.

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These videos are more personal than text announcements and help establish rapport and clearly explain the purpose and benefits of students providing feedback. “Video is a much more personal channel, and people will gravitate to it more than if you [communicate] via email, for example. Once you’ve established that rapport and that relationship with your students, you can definitely ask for feedback via email because they already feel that they know you,” Schiefelbein says.

Follow-through on this feedback is essential. “Actions speak louder than words, and when you say that you’re open to a culture of feedback, you need to actually be open to that feedback. You need to be aware that what you’re doing may not always be the best way to do things. If you’re of the mind-set that what you do is best and nothing is going to change that, then creating a culture of feedback won’t be genuine and students will see through that,” Schiefelbein says.

Formal feedback
Creating an environment that encourages student feedback is the foundation for actually getting feedback; unless you ask them for specific feedback, it’s unlikely that students will be very forthcoming. This is why Schiefelbein asks specific questions when providing feedback to her students.

In each of her courses, Schiefelbein provides quarterly feedback to students, what she refers to as “email check-ins,” letting students know where they stand in the course. In these emails, she also asks students the following questions: 

  • How has your experience been with the organization of the course and the course materials?
  • How have you found the discussion questions in helping you understand the course content? Have they been helpful? Why or why not?
  • Is there anything else that you’d like to add about your experience in the class? If you’re having any difficulties or if you’re enjoying a particular part of the course, I’d really love to hear about that.

“I always make sure to ask a yes-or-no question followed by why or why not? It balances quantitative and qualitative feedback. At the very least, students will answer that quantitative question. You’ll get some feedback, and the vast majority will also follow up with responses,” Schiefelbein says.

Schiefelbein replies to each of these feedback responses from students. In low-enrollment courses, she sends personalized emails. In high-enrollment courses, she uses a form email that says, “Thank you so much for contributing your feedback. This feedback helps me fine-tune this class not only for you but for other students in the future. Thank you for being part of that effort. As always, if you have any questions, please continue to ask.”

Informal feedback
Beyond the quarterly check-ins, Schiefelbein recommends checking in less formally at regular intervals, which “lets the students know that I care about them as individuals, not just [as] numbers who are enrolled in the course.”

One way she accomplishes this is through engaging with students in “hallway conversations.” Each of Schiefelbein’s online courses has an area where these informal conversations take place. “It’s supposed to mimic what students might talk about in the hallway before class starts or after class ends,” she says.

When topics come up in these hallway conversations, Schiefelbein will mention them in a text or voice announcement. “I’ll post an announcement that says, ‘Check out the hallway conversation area and chime in on the discussion about …’ and I’ll give the subject line of whatever discussion is relevant. A more organic type of feedback emerges.”

In some instances, students will use these hallways conversations to ask one other about assignments or topics that they are struggling with. Schiefelbein responds to these questions and asks other students to share their experiences or offer help. And because of the culture that she fosters in the course, students respond. “Once you foster this community of feedback, you have other students chiming in, feeling a part of this community, feeling this reciprocal relationship with the instructor and with other students in the class and wanting one other to succeed. If you have students in this culture of feedback you’ve created actively participating, it really works to foster that sense of community, and I’ve had many students comment that they feel that they had more input, more agency, and more control over their learning. And I think when students feel that they are in control of their learning, they feel that they have more responsibility to do that learning.”

Audiovisual feedback
Another way that Schiefelbein elicits student feedback is by inviting them to offer their comments and suggestions via audio and video. (Because of the extra effort involved, she offers students extra credit for doing this.) “It’s nice because I get to see them. It establishes a more personal connection with the students. It’s surprising to me with some of the better students I’ve had just how much of a connection I can build via email; however, being able to hear their voices and see their faces just makes the relationship grow even more,” she says.

In addition to helping strengthen relationships, the audiovisual format can improve the quality of the feedback. “When a student is putting a video out there that may be viewed by other people, I believe it causes him or her to think more critically about what he or she is saying. And I think that’s very beneficial. You can put something on a discussion board in 30 seconds, but if you’re going to be on camera, you’re going to think more consciously about what you’re saying and what you’re contributing. It takes some of that anonymity out of the equation. Once you put an image or likeness or voice behind that feedback, it gets a little more real for them, and you have less of an anonymous presence,” Schiefelbein says.

Benefits of student feedback
Opening your teaching and course design to student critique can be a daunting prospect, but doing so strengthens the learning community, and students provide information and suggestions that can improve the learning for current and future students. “I was initially scared by what type of feedback would come back to me. I didn’t want to open a Pandora’s Box when I started this. What I found when I got over that and started asking for feedback was that the comments I received from students, both positive and negative, were communicated respectfully. Students felt agency. They felt more involved in the class,” Schiefelbein says.

Student suggestions can also save time. For example, Schiefelbein produced a video to provide students with assignment guidelines. It turned out that students thought that a simple bulleted list would have been more effective, something she might not have become aware of if she had not fostered a culture of reciprocal feedback.

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This article originally appeared in the newsletter
Online Classroom 12.5 (2012): 4, 5. The Online Classroom newsletter helps you stay current with the latest trends in online learning by offering ideas and advice for the new trailblazers in higher education.