Four Good Reasons Why Students Need Instructor Feedback in Online Courses

In this post I describe why instructor feedback in an online course is essential for students that have yet to master a specific skill set and knowledge, and why MOOCs won’t cut it.

girl_thinkingIn a world of MOOC news within higher education, what is getting lost are the other modes of online learning that include closed online classes, offered for-credit at colleges and universities. These courses rely on cognitive or constructive pedagogy, with determined learning objectives and are delivered 100% online to small classes of thirty or fewer students. In this model, the instructor can support and interact with students, provide feedback, and encourage critical thinking. This type of personalized instruction can’t be provided in a massive open online course [MOOC], which leads me to suggest that the MOOC model [as it stands now] is not the right modality for most lower-level college courses required for a college degree.

What is Instructor Feedback?
I want to clarify before going further what instructor feedback means in the context of online learning classes. Instructor feedback is constructive and specific information that is provided by the instructor to the student on his or her course work [artifacts or other] and/or class contributions in relation to the course objectives and expectations. Feedback can be provided in a variety of mediums including, written, recorded voice, chat, video or other. In my next post I’ll address how to give effective feedback to students using various methods.

College Students Need Feedback
College students benefit greatly from instructor feedback, including when it’s provided in a small online learning community where interaction exists between students and instructor and students and students. In a Massive Open Online Course, [or even a F2F class of 100+ students]  it’s impossible to provide the required learning conditions for this type of interaction. It worries me that colleges and universities appear to be moving towards the MOOC model for delivering some or all courses (as in the case of SUNY or California’s public higher education institutions); courses that don’t provide for a student-to-instructor ratio that supports personalized learning. The MOOC model cannot provide the type of learning experiences needed for freshman or junior college students that is required for courses that include writing composition, communications, literature analysis, and other humanities courses. One could even argue that this is the case for some courses in math and sciences. Though I am an advocate of MOOCs, since they provide an excellent learning experience in numerous circumstances, the model which relies on the premise of massive, is not an effective one for every learner in every learning situation.

iStock_studentsCloudXSmallWhy MOOCs Won’t Work for College Students
I am not suggesting that college students can never learn in a MOOC setting, but I do suggest that certain courses not only require a low student-to-instructor ratio, and that colleges need to provide students with the skills in how-to-learn in a networked environment where learning is pulled and not pushed. I’ll use my 18-year old daughter, a high school senior here as an example. She will be a college freshman this September, and though she is a good student, with several Advanced Placement courses under her belt, she in no way would be able to learn successfully in a MOOC in her freshman year. Not that she can’t learn, or won’t be able to at some point, but she is a product of the public school system where students are told what to do, when to do it, how to do it. Furthermore, high school students are not prompted to think outside the box, to create a networked learning environment, or to be a self-directed learner.  My daughter is an expert test taker, she says she has figured out the system, can produce what the teachers are looking for, and thus can get good grades. She is similar to many high school students. How can we expect these students to be successful in a massive course with little guidance let alone feedback?

Four Reasons why Students Need Instructor Feedback and Peer Support
Below are four reasons that support the position that college students need instructor feedback in small, closed, online classes.  I should mention that I concede that small (under forty students) face-to-face classes can accomplish all but point #3, though this point is an essential component for students working within a digital world and can only be accomplished in an online class.

  1. Prompt feedback allows students to assess existing knowledge, reflect on what they have learned, what they still need to learn, and receive suggestions for improvement [Chickering and Gamson, 1997].  The principles in the classic article Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, still apply today; the tools and methods may change but the principles should not.
  2. Students want feedback from instructors. Research suggests that students want feedback, and personalized feedback that includes suggestions for improvement, with explanations (Getzlaf et al, 2009).  In an online course, detailed and specific feedback on assignments or class contributions through discussion forums, live chats etc., is even more critical given the medium.
  3. Students require guidance in how-to-learn in an open and online environment; instructor feedback and peer interaction in closed online courses can develop digital communication skills, including how to seek information, create personal learning environments and collaborate virtually with peers.
  4. Over 60% of newly admitted college students in the US are not ready for college level work. They lack the basic writing and math skills required for the college courses they are enrolled in (SREB, 2010).  For this reason alone, college students need instructor guidance and support in completing lower level college classes, and in some cases remedial classes. Instructors can also guide students to find open resources, and provide support and encouragement to students who might be discouraged or frustrated.

Concluding Thoughts
Bottom line – the MOOC model cannot provide the level of feedback and support needed for many college students.  Instructors skilled in online teaching for small classes can provide constructive feedback to students, create a learning community that promotes interaction, and most importantly, teaches students how-to-learn in an online environment. I’ll be watching closely what happens within higher education with regards to MOOCs, and hope that administrators consider carefully a strategy that supports student development in the first and second year of college. In my next post, I’ll provide practical how-to instruction on tools and methods for giving meaningful feedback to students in an online class.


18 thoughts on “Four Good Reasons Why Students Need Instructor Feedback in Online Courses

  1. Feedback is required not only for undergrads but also for working experienced executives as well. I, at, create and deliver online courses for working executives and the one thing that is in constant demand is detailed feedback on the work and pointing out areas where improvement can be made.

    Both peer discussions and facilitator feedback has thus become important part of our courses.

    While some people can make do on their own, my understanding is that majority want to benefit from detailed feedback.


  2. Reblogged this on Things I grab, motley collection and commented:
    What about feedbacks from other students? I see great power in having students not only interacting with teachers but also with other students. Teachers provide the material, the content, but students in addition to digesting those materials and contents, may want to know how well they managed and how much deeper/further they need to go if they haven’t yet. Teachers can’t tell them that or if they do, they will do so from their perspectives whereas other students, subject to same ‘treatment’, may offer a greater/better help in that they may of grasp problems differently, based on past experience, different background, you name it. It it these differences in the way each understood a same problem that may offer a richer way of learning.


    1. Hi Pascal. Excellent point. I agree that students are also able to provide a perspective that teachers cannot provide. I can see how both instructor and fellow classmates can provide a rich and diverse perspective and provoke intellectual development. Debbie 🙂


  3. Is the problem the MOOC, or how we prepare our kids to think? As you state, ” [kids are a] product of the public school system where students are told what to do, when to do it, how to do it.” Granted, online mechanisms that reinforce the traditional predefined, direct model of instruction fail to utilize paths for self exploration and learning. The current pedagogocal trajectory for MOOCs seems to be driven by economics rather than learning requirements, though a few are beginning to take advantage of adaptive logic to provide the underpinnings necessary to foster and evaluate individualized progress. Clearly, interaction with a qualified instructor is critical in order for online courses to work effectively, but so is the demand for instructors that are able to guide rather than demand traditional student output and traditional methods of assessment just because that output is what has been assessed in the past. It’s time we let students think outside that box, rather than train them to remain in it.


    1. I agree with you. Unfortunately I don’t think public school teachers have the time or energy to change the way things have been done for years. But this is yet another reason that homeschools have become so popular. It’s not that parents want their kids sequestered; it’s that they want the kids to get MORE out of education. To think outside the box. Not just to memorize facts and figures, but to learn how to learn; to explore the different ways to finding the answers. To be self-motivated. It is those kids that could excel in MOOCs and programs where they are left on their own to research and discover. Yet, I have to say, instructor feedback is vital too. I have taken online courses and finally finished my BFA degree that way. The instructors one-on-one feedback time was vital to my being able to find my voice. I love the convenience of online classes and think they are here to stay.


      1. HI Denise,
        Yes I agree with you – I don’t blame the teachers at all, they are also products of the system. Homeschooling provides an excellent option, with the right kind of curriculum and instruction.
        Thanks for reading and commenting!
        Debbie 🙂


    2. Hi Mark,
      You bring up some good points. And your point about qualified online instructors is most significant – instructors that are able to guide students to think critically and learn.
      Thanks for your comment! Debbie


  4. I have been thinking about this point some. For example, in our graduate program, we have students who will benefit from training beyond what we offer in our department. I have taken to recommending that students register for specific MOOCs based on the specific research or career trajectory interests they express. In this way, I see that MOOCs can complement a traditional curriculum. However, to do so, will require that traditional bricks and mortar higher ed programs embrace MOOCs and not view them as part of an evil empire encroaching on their turf. 😉


    1. Hi Robert,
      The idea of using MOOCs to complement education is an effective way to introduce students to a different mode of learning, and one where students are ‘pulling’ content, or seeking out content rather than having is presented by professor in a traditional setting. I see institutions going one step further, within a course, having students complete a MOOC of a related subject and incorporate the learning from the MOOC into the face-to-face class, sharing the different perspectives on the topic, connecting with a group of similar interests. Though you are right, the issue is the tradition university viewing MOOCs in a completely different light :). Thanks for commenting Robert, so good to hear from you as always. Debbie


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