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 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.
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.
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.”
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.”
Excerpted from Reciprocal Feedback in the Online Classroom Online Classroom, 12.5 (2012): 4,5.