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Planning Feedback Opportunities in Online Non-Writing Intensive Courses

by Alex Rockey

Publication Details

 OLOR Series:  OLOR Effective Practices
 Author(s):  Alex Rockey
 Original Publication Date:  15 October 2019



This practices supports OLI Principle 3. It focuses on integrating a variety of technologies for consistent feedback and telling students upfront how and with what technologies they will receive feedback.

Resource Contents

1. Introduction

[1] As an educator and instructional designer, I know the importance of planning a course. When I first started teaching high school, the credential program I had enrolled in required that we submit detailed lesson plans for each day. I would spend hours detailing learning objectives, activities, and assessments. During this time in my education, I imagined what it would be like when I graduated and no longer had to submit these detailed lesson plans each week. Upon graduation, I was excited to earn a position as a high school teacher. However, I found that, though no one looked at my lesson plans, these lesson plans were essential in ensuring that I was able to best provide my students the opportunity to learn.

[2] Later in my career, I began working at the university as a hybrid freshman composition instructor and as an instructional designer. Given my previous experience, I was not shocked to find the continued value of detailed lesson planning for teaching at the university level. However, given the centrality of technologies in both hybrid and the fully-online courses, I noted the need to consider specific mediating technologies and their particular interfaces in the course planning process. I began to wonder how one could plan a course that considered all of the mediating technologies that instructors and students would interact with on a day-to-day basis. In response, and as part of a study on instructor feedback in an online non-writing intensive course, I have drafted two recommendations that incorporate into the planning process attention to feedback and to the wide range of integrated technologies in online courses today. ​

2. Context

[3] These recommendations have been informed by a mixed-methods study on the ecology of feedback in a non-writing intensive online course. The course, Brewing Science, had recently been adapted from a face-to-face version into an online course. The face-to-face version of Brewing Science consisted of lectures, two midterms, and a final. In adapting the face-to-face version of Brewing Science, instructors replaced the face-to-face lectures with pre-recorded video lectures. The longer, f2f lectures were divided into shorter, 15 minute (or less) interactive videos that included embedded quiz questions. In addition, the midterms were replaced with weekly writing assignments and quizzes. More broadly, in the online version of Brewing Science, the course was divided into weekly modules on different topics related to beer (e.g., hops, water, yeast). Each week, students would read an assigned chapter, watch video lectures with embedded formative quiz questions, write their weekly writing assignment, and complete a summative quiz. For the weekly writing assignment, students were assigned one beer for the whole course and, each week, would analyze the beer for the module’s topic. For example, in week two students would analyze the hops of their assigned beer.

3. Relevant Literature

[4] Ehmann and Hewett (2015) describe the online writing instruction (OWI) setting as “an environment that is by nature text-centric and reading-heavy and that requires intensive written communication” (p. 49). Students likely expect that an online writing course will involve more writing (and possibly) reading than they would expect from a course in the disciplines. However, integrating integrating writing into online courses in the disciplines can mean an “overwhelming reading and writing load” for students and instructors (Skurat Harris, Lubbes, Knowles, & Harris, 2014, p. 113).

[5] Though integrating writing into online courses in the disciplines can be frustrating if student expectations of feedback are not aligned with the instructor’s (Bastian & Fauchald, 2014), scholars have long noted the benefits of writing across the curriculum (WAC) and writing in the disciplines (WID). Some benefits of WAC/WID approaches include providing opportunities for:

  • students to not just learn the content, but also to learn how to write in a particular discipline (Thaiss, 1992);
  • critical thinking (Condon & Valverded, 2014);
  • meaningful interactions between instructors and students (Thaiss, 1992);
  • collaboration (Pittenger & Olson-Kellog, 2012); and
  • instructors to re-envision their course with constructivist pedagogies (Neff & Whithaus, 2008).

[6] To leverage the benefits of WAC/WID approaches, an instructor must be mindful of feedback practices when integrating writing into non-writing intensive online courses. As such, the following two recommendations can guide feedback in this unique context.

  1. Purposefully integrate a variety of technologies to provide students with consistent feedback.
  2. Tell students up front how and with what technologies they will receive feedback throughout the course.​

[7] These recommendations are in no way comprehensive. They do, however, provide a starting point for thinking about how to provide feedback in a non-writing intensive online course with attention to mediating technologies.

4. Recommendations for Planning Feedback Strategically

Recommendation 1: Purposefully integrate a variety of technologies to provide students with consistent feedback.

[8] The online version of Brewing Science integrated a wide range of technologies to provide feedback across the quarter. In online courses, integrated technologies facilitate a wide-range of feedback practices. In this course, the feedback that students received on their weekly writing assignments decreased as the quarter progressed. This tendency has been documented in other courses as well (Ferris, Pezone, Tade, & Tinti, 1997; Morton, Storch, & Thompson, 2014). The reason for this decrease in feedback could be a reduced need for feedback as students better understand the particular requirements of the weekly writing assignments. However, instructor workload might also play a role in the reduced feedback. In the case of Brewing Science, integrating writing assignments into a large course in the disciplines places additional demands on an instructor’s time. Thus, the decreased feedback may indicate instructor fatigue or burnout.

[9] For this reason, an online course provides instructors the opportunity to integrate a variety of personalized, collective, and automated feedback to ensure students are receiving the feedback they need when they need it while mitigating additional demands on instructors’ workloads. Automated feedback could be in the form of programmed announcements written and scheduled to be sent later in the course or more detailed feedback on video lecture quizzes during certain times. Leveraging various feedback technologies in a course can ensure that students are receiving consistent feedback on their work and ideas. In the case of Brewing Science, these technologies included SpeedGrader in Canvas, through which the instructor provided personalized feedback on student writing; PlayPosit, through which students received automated feedback on their responses to quiz questions; and collective messages on upcoming assignments and general trends noted in the weekly writing assignments via Canvas Announcements. Mapping the feedback given throughout the quarter in Brewing Science shows that while the amount of feedback the instructors provided on student writing decreased as the quarter progressed, students received feedback from either the instructor (via email) or automated feedback (via PlayPosit and summative quizzes) throughout the quarter (see Figure 1).

[10] Taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture of feedback in and across a course supports instructors as they consider how to strategically integrate personalized feedback on writing assignments. In addition, instructors can consider the additional time demands of teaching in an online environment to ensure consistent feedback for students.

Figure 1: Feedback Across the Quarter in Brewing Science

Figure 1: Feedback Across the Quarter in Brewing Science--Chart of feedback platforms for class.

Recommendation 2: Tell students upfront how and with what technologies they will receive feedback throughout the course.

[11] Students received feedback during the pre-recorded video lectures, on their weekly writing assignments, and on their responses to the quizzes. In addition, spontaneous opportunities for feedback could occur via online office hours, collective announcements, or via emails with the instructors. The feedback opportunities for students included a wide-range of technologies including email, PlayPosit, and integrated Canvas tools such as quizzes, announcements, integrated rubrics, and SpeedGrader (see Figure 2). Interviews with the 13 case study students in this course, showed that students valued feedback, but they felt frustrated when they didn’t know where to look for feedback or what feedback to expect. 

[12] As one case study student described it, he was expecting more written feedback on his weekly writing assignments: “I thought that maybe there was feedback that I wasn't, that I didn't look closely enough in finding so I flipped through the assignments.” In this case, the student was unsure if he had received feedback but somehow missed seeing it. Another student echoed this concern: “I still don't know where these written comments are supposed to be at. Usually they're when you submit an assignment and there's like there's a window where it takes you to where these written comments are, but I don't see anything there so I don't know.” Providing clear guidelines about what feedback students can expect to receive and via which technologies would ensure student expectations for feedback are aligned with the instructor’s.

[13] Feedback is especially important when writing assessments are integrated into large general elective courses in the disciplines, because feedback can help students clarify confusions about the genre and requirements for these writing assignments (Thaiss, 1992). In online courses in general, “well-planned feedback can help students feel connected to their instructor and can empower them to take responsibility for their success in the course” (Cox, Black, Heney, & Keith, 2015, p. 390). The second recommendation focuses on resolving this problem by encouraging faculty to communicate clearly with students about feedback in non-writing intensive online courses. That way, students know what kind of feedback to expect.

Figure 2: Feedback Opportunities in Brewing Science

Implementing Recommendations for Planning Feedback

[14] Planning feedback in a non-writing intensive online course is essential to ensuring students are consistently receiving the feedback they need when they need it. This section explains how instructors can apply the two recommendations.

Recommendation 1: Purposefully integrate a variety of technologies to provide students with consistent feedback.

[15] During the course planning process, instructors should ideally think about the assessments in their courses as well as how students will receive feedback on assessments. An especially valuable step beyond just planning is to map where feedback will be happening, on what assignments, and when during a particular term. This visual layout can help instructors to "see" potential feedback workload (see Table 1). The map does not have to be complicated, but could simply be on a sheet of paper with the weeks of the course as columns. ​

[16] During the mapping process, the following should be considered:

  • Are there weeks during the course when it looks like students will be receiving no feedback? If so, a note in the syllabus about this lull in feedback could help align student expectations.
  • Is there a balance between instructor feedback and more automated feedback? (Automated feedback can include comments designed for students to receive automatically when they answer a particular way on a quiz.)
  • ​Are there weeks during the course when it looks like students will be receiving no feedback? If so, a note in the syllabus about this lull in feedback could help align student expectations.
  • What technologies are used to provide feedback throughout the course? Are there times during the course when providing feedback is especially time-intensive? Could feedback be automated through collective announcements before certain assignments with which students may struggle? What have previous students expressed about their expectations for feedback?
  • Has accessibility been considered? Are there ways in which leveraging a variety of technologies can ensure that all students can access and use the feedback provided?

Table 1. Potential Feedback Workload

Recommendation 2: Tell students upfront how and with what technologies they will receive feedback throughout the course.

[17] At the beginning of the course, instructors might explain to students about how they will receive feedback. Include consideration of technologies as well as how feedback may vary on each assignment. This explanation could be placed into a syllabus or included as a short instructional video that walks students through the learning management system and the feedback they will receive throughout the course. Better yet, the explanation could be in the syllabus and in a short instructional video!

5. Conclusion

[18] While these two recommendations are in no way comprehensive, they do offer a starting point for instructors to consider as they plan feedback on writing and learning in non-writing intensive online courses. Both of these recommendations encourage instructors to take a step back and plan for feedback across a course, across assignments, and across mediating technologies. As all feedback in non-writing intensive online courses are mediated by technologies, accounting for the specific technologies utilized to provide feedback is essential to best support student learning and interactions with the instructor.

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