Feedback in Online Learning Environments

Never Stop Learning

By Deborah McCallum


The provision of feedback is necessary for learning. Feedback is an essential academic activity that is embedded into education curricula to enable students to learn and improve. One of the goals of technology tools, either in a fully online or blended learning environment, is to provide learners with effective feedback. Now more than ever, technologies and eLearning applications are implemented in learning environments to promote communication practices between students and teachers. In the last decade, opportunities for learning online have grown exponentially. The flexibility and asynchronous nature of many eLearning platforms is an attractive option for personalizing learning in many different ways. While there are many technological tools including surveys, comments, chat functions, exit tickets, assessments, observations, conversations, and other ways that can provide feedback, the tools alone do not determine whether learners will receive effective feedback that will increase student achievement. How do we set the stage for effective learning in an online environment? What is the role of feedback in online learning processes? And finally, how can we measure the impact of the feedback being shared online in our learning environments. These questions and more will be addressed in the following sections.

Setting the Stage

For feedback to be effective, teachers need to first set the stage for trust, safety, and social presence. Digital introductions and personal avatars are good starts to build a sense of connection with and between communities of learners, that will set the tone for effective feedback practices in an online environment. However, more needs to be done. Feelings of social presence by using video, establishing clear learning objectives, processes and guidelines, and individual setting goals will have tremendous impacts on feedback practices for both teachers and learners. Thurlings, Vermeulen, Bastiaens & Stijnen (2014) focussed on feedback in online learning and conceptualized feedback as a social interaction process. They found that students who received feedback that was goal-directed, specific, detailed, and neutral, believed that this feedback was of better quality and quantity than participants who received non-goal directed, general, non-detailed, and too positive or too negative.

Feedback effectiveness is built by providing opportunities to allow for learner-to-learner, instructional leader-learner and learner-content communication. According to Lowenthal (2017), deep and meaningful learning is supported as long as one of those forms of interaction are taking place at a high-level. Therefore, we need to ensure that no matter what eLearning opportunity we are using, we need to ensure that we have laid out clear guidelines for not just peer feedback and instructor feedback, but also clear guidelines for how learners need to interact with the content. This is essential for promoting self, peer and instructor feedback opportunities as well.

Safety, Privacy & Policy

Feedback will be more effective when learners know that taking risks with the learning will be honoured and remain private, that their data will remain privately secured, and that student identity will be honoured. This is essential for building trust, creating safe environments to take learning risks, and discussing student work samples without breaking copyright, avoiding third party platforms, and putting student privacy at risk. It is essential to establish rules for socializing in your online learning environment and create a safe learning culture. Co-creating these criteria for ‘netiquette’ within the online learning environments is critical. The importance of co-creating discussion norms to set the tone where all learners can follow the expectations, success criteria, learning goals and more to always presume positive intent, and support each other in ways that we may not be able to experience in other forms of daily communication at work like email and text.

Educators need to read all posts, and regularly show a social-presence by posting, sharing and modelling, to effectively managing the feedback systems that will not allow insulting, abusive posts or confidential information to be abused.

Learning Goals and Success Criteria

Feedback will work best when the course expectations are mapped out with rubrics, checklists, look fors are essential to building a feedback-friendly eLearning environment. Success Criteria-Single Point Rubric that candidates will use at regular intervals to continually self-reflect on their own strengths and weaknesses for their participation and share to the drop box for the instructor to provide additional feedback regarding participation, content learning, and ability to use the technological communication tools, including the discussion board.


There are many tools including surveys, comments, chat functions, exit tickets, assessments, observations, conversations, and other ways to check in. It is important to think about the overarching ‘architecture’ of your learning organization. The Learning Management System (LMS), for example, provides opportunities for asynchronous discussion threads, uploading personal reflection rubrics to the drop box, embedding Google Drive presentations with audio, creating videos, chat forum, and accessing other apps including Mathies, and embedding twitter and other forms of social media for learners to share. We need to ask ourselves, what tools have been deemed to be appropriate, necessary, welcome, safe, and effective? Just because a tool sounds great for providing feedback, does not mean that high quality feedback will be delivered. Educators also need to continually monitor the effectiveness of their feedback systems that have been set up within an eLearning environment.

How do we monitor the effectiveness of our feedback?

One of the biggest questions that we need to consider, is how do we know if what we are doing is working? We cannot wait for another app, or employer, Principal to tell us. We have to be able to use the evidence of what our learners are telling us in our online platforms in order to make sure that what we are doing is purposeful, and to ensure that our feedback is having the intended effects. Ongoing checklists and reflection forms are valuable to help learners identify how they are meeting their own goals and course goals. It is also essential to keep your own documentation of the learning goals, and the feedback that you are giving, and that others are giving to move the learning forward. Then the next task should be an opportunity to build on the previous feedback. Thus, you can track and see the progress, and learners are also continually monitoring how they are achieving their goals.


To learn more about students’ experiences of receiving feedback, Getzlaf, Perry, Toffner, La march, & Edwards (2009) specifically asked, ‘What should be included in effective feedback?’, and ‘How should feedback be provided?’ The major themes revealed from their research into these questions showed:

  • students want to be able to use feedback to make improvements to future assignments;
  • students are interested in applying feedback to practical situations in daily lives;
  • that an important characteristic of feedback is the clarification of timelines, expectations and ground rules for the course, and that
  • effective feedback can help support students to reaching the application phase of their learning.
  • students further noted that feedback should be a mutual process and that they wanted to be involved in effective feedback processes from the outset of the course. This helps to inform future research into whether candidates see themselves as part of the feedback process.

This is also in line with what we already know about feedback.

What we already know about feedback

Hattie & Timperley (2007) who highlighted the importance of providing qualitative feedback versus evaluative feedback in the form of quantified grades. This is very true in an online course, where we honour the quality of the contributions made, versus assigning grades and marks for various responses, or quantity of responses. Though feedback is a consequence of performance, good feedback should also incorporate the answers to three questions: Where am I going, How am I going, Where to next? (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Therefore, another issue becomes how to help learners harness feedback opportunities that not only lessen evaluative feedback and the power dynamic from Educator to Learner, but also increase a future focus to equalize the power dynamic, promote equity, engage in co-learning, and create growth beyond the eLearning event or task.

Peer feedback opportunities are essential. Feedback only coming from the teacher will not have impact. Instructors need to identify appropriate ways of assuring quality of online feedback, by providing self and peer feedback opportunities (Costley & Lange, 2016). Peer feedback is also an effective strategy to facilitate learning when educators grapple with questions of how much and in what way to intervene in student discussions to aid learning. Black & Wiliam (2018) explain the importance of alternatives to instructor feedback that includes peer assessment. Peer feedback provides opportunities for students to compare one another’s work and develop it further their understanding of learning goals. Peer feedback opportunities thus reinforce collaboration and a sense of social presence, that can greatly impact perceptions of feedback effectiveness. These efforts ensure that the Educator is not the only one controlling how often feedback is provided, how clear feedback is perceived to be, and how connected it is to the learning goals. This also equals out the power dynamic.

In face-to-face learning environments feedback is also supported with social elements that are not present in online courses. Therefore, in online learning, feedback needs to play an even more prominent part of the learning process because it has the potential to make up for the lack of personal contact opportunities and fill in the gaps where educators and learners are separated in space and time. Innovations including evolving textual, audio and visual technologies have improved the ability facilitate feedback provision and have made online course delivery a viable learning platform for modern learners. Online learning with collaborative and constructivist methodologies can now include asynchronous forms of feedback. Web 2.0 technologies are also continually evolving and allow instructors to dramatically increase the level of feedback to students, and from students to students, and students to instructor.

Video vs Text

When only working in an online learning environment, always provide video and textual feedback. West & Thomas (2015) studied both student and instructor perceptions of feedback coming from either video or text media. They found that there were no significant differences in perceptions of feedback quality and delivery between students who received video feedback versus text. However, the affordances of text enabled more efficient and organized feedback, whereas video encouraged more supportive and conversational communication. Further, video elicited longer and more supportive feedback, whereas text elicited more specific critiques. Both students and instructors alike valued the efficiency of text over the more affect benefits of video.

Feedback for the Beginning, Middle & End of a Learning Event

While ample previous research has focused on the characteristics and processes of good feedback delivered Face-to-Face, by contrast, little research has delved into online feedback processes and how learners perceive the effectiveness of this feedback. Some of the themes that seem to emerge in the online feedback research include the implementation of different types of feedback being effective at the beginning, middle, and end of an eLearning event.

Beginning with Feedback

At the start of a lesson, unit or course shared online, instructors need to spend a lot of time helping learners navigate the success criteria, look-fors, guidelines that ultimately support feedback. Feedback provided here is starts out as teacher-driven, and is essential to support learning in other areas including technology, course organization, modelling and providing exemplars for posts, comments and responses, establishing equity and building a sense of community. This kind of feedback sets the stage for future learning as it will allow candidates to not only build trust and a sense of safety, but also to create mental frameworks for assessing how past performance will influence future performance. It will also help candidates to understand the importance of collaboration, inquiry and setting professional and personal goals. These characteristics are essential to harnessing the feedback that will improve the quality of their own personal learning journey.

Research demonstrates that students want instructors to consult them at the beginning of the course to determine what kind of feedback is most helpful. Getzlaf, Toffner, Lamarche, & Edwards (2009) also found that the feedback plans that involved students from the beginning were very conducive to learning. When learners were engaged and involved right from the beginning to co-create norms, they saw feedback as a mutual process. It is important for the teacher and student to come to feedback agreements early on. This can include co-creating success criteria, creating and setting personal goals, in addition to understanding the course objectives.

Feedback for the Middle

As online learning experiences begin to develop and progress, feedback needs to evolve toward helping learners take increased levels of personal responsibility for also providing and attending to self and peer feedback. The course theory and key constructs become more meaningful when helping other candidates apply them in new ways to their own learning situations and those of other candidates (Stavredes & Herder, 2014). Therefore, modelled feedback and expectations are required here to ensure that peer feedback continue to be based on course standards, learning processes, skills and work habits to create much more personalized feedback. Self-feedback and personal reflection is essential for learners as they begin to construct deep feedback foundations via key reflection opportunities. Various types of reflection activities can also help to prompt a rich base of personalized feedback for candidates, and further removes the burden on the instructor as being the sole responder to student work. Marriott (2009) discussed the importance of harnessing innovative reflection practices that can help engage students and increase their motivation for learning. Sources of motivation can be different for each student, and feedback can generate the opportunity for reflection that also promotes motivation to apply what is learned to a teacher’s real-life experiences. Reflection plays a critical role in the assessment process and enables the student to assess, understand, and learn through their experiences. Survey questions for the purposes of this study should therefore address reflection and how it helped promote instructor, peer and/or self feedback.

Feedback for the End

As the online learning event or course nears the end, the feedback shifts toward highlighting the learning that has already occurred and evolving to information that will help candidates understand to what extent their expectations have been met and why. This feedback also begins to serve the purpose of helping learners build motivation for applying their knowledge and skills beyond the course once it is complete. Essentially, using feedback to help learners build skills and knowledge relevant for personal and professional goals after the course is finished. Summative tasks are often provided at the end of a module or course.

McCarthy (2015) evaluated feedback models for summative assessments. Their goals were to understand the advantages and disadvantages of written feedback, audio feedback, and video feedback. found it was important for the feedback method to match the assessment, and that video-based feedback was important for students working in visual-based fields of study. In the survey, it would be important to inquire into how summative feedback aligned with summative tasks that were submitted, and if this is an important factor in helping candidates perceive feedback effectiveness.

Finally, at the end of the course, we can see that if we have helped our learners to buy into the learning guidelines, objectives, criteria and learning processes early in the course, then by the end we hope that they will also apply important learning processes beyond the course itself and reflect on how to bring their learning into their own personalized learning environments.


Feedback is not a standalone process and students need to understand when and where they are receiving feedback, to be able to reflect and create next steps. In addition, they need to be able to answer the questions of Where am I going, How am I going, Where to next? (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). These questions help learners to also apply learning processes outside of the eLearning environment. It is also essential to make students aware of the feedback they are providing, and feedback processes need to be clearly understood by both students and teaching staff. Feedback can be harnessed with many new technological innovations, tools and strategies can be harnessed to promote strong online learning environments for students in all subjects. The key is to be a critical consumer of the tool and look toward how the tool can be harnessed to provide timely, effective and safe feedback opportunities for learners. Educators should have a plan for measuring the feedback processes including learner to learner, instructor to learner, and learner to content, and a way to gather evidence that this feedback is effective for increasing student achievement in an online learning environment.


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Costley, J., & Lange, C. (2016). The effects of instructor control of online learning environments on satisfaction and perceived learning. Electronic Journal of e-Learning, 14(3), 169-180.

Getzlaf, B., Perry, B., Toffner, G., Lamarche, K., & Edwards, M. (2009). Effective instructor feedback: Perceptions of online graduate students. Journal of Educators Online, 6(2), 3.

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81-112. doi:10.3102/003465430298487

Lowenthal, P. R., Snelson, C., & Dunlap, J. C. (2017). Live synchronous web meetings in asynchronous online courses: Reconceptualizing virtual office hours. Online Learning Journal, 21(4), 177-194.

Marriott, P. (2009). Students’ evaluation of the use of online summative assessment on an undergraduate financial accounting module. British Journal of Educational Technology, 40(2), 237-254.

McCarthy, J. (2015). Evaluating written, audio and video feedback in higher education summative assessment tasks. Issues in Educational Research, 25(2), 153-169.

Thomas, R. A., West, R. E., & Borup, J. (2017). An analysis of instructor social presence in online text and asynchronous video feedback comments. The Internet and Higher Education, 33, 61-73.

Thurlings, M. Vermeulen, M., Bastiaens, T., & Stijnen, S. (2014). The role of feedback and social presence in an online peer coaching program for student teachers. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 30(3), 326-341.

Deborah McCallum

Deborah McCallum is an Instruction and Assessment Facilitator and former teacher-librarian for the Simcoe County District School Board in Ontario. Deborah is a highly-regarded blogger, sharing her ideas at Big Ideas in Education. Deborah is the author of the very successful book, The Feedback-Friendly Classroom: How to equip students to give, receive, and seek quality feedback that will support their social, academic and developmental needs (2015).