A “Less is More” Feedback Model for Online Writing Intensive Classes

Last semester I was asked to help facilitate a short workshop on strategies for providing feedback on low-stakes work in online writing-intensive (WIT) classes. It seems the pivot to online instruction has left faculty overwhelmed with the amount of written feedback they think is necessary in an online class. I should mention that *most* of the faculty in this workshop have a 4/4 WIT load with the option to teach 2 classes in the summer. Class sizes are usually around 19-22 people per section. That means that faculty are teaching 76-88 students at a time. IF they are following the recommended two-activities per week model of online learning for composition classes in a 14 week semester, then that means they are (in theory) looking at providing between 2,128 – 2,464 pieces of feedback per semester. Even if you only spent 5 minutes reading and providing feedback on each of those items, it would equal 205 hours or more than 5 40-hour work weeks to get through it. This doesn’t include the considerably longer time faculty likely spend on reading and providing comments on larger projects (of which there are typically three in my department’s composition classes). The other two factors that contribute to the sense of overwhelm and fatigue that faculty face with this feedback load is 1) the turn-around window and 2) the unread feedback issue. This feedback load might not feel so onerous if we had all semester to post the feedback, but often our larger assignments build off of the smaller assignments. In fact, the point of having low-states assignments is often to ensure that the larger assignments are the best work that the student can do, and so feedback on the low-stakes work is, arguably, more important than any comment left on the final draft. Since the works builds, that means faculty are often having to provide 152-176 pieces of feedback within a week’s time. The second issue facing faculty is the knowledge that much of our feedback goes unread by students. Blackboard allows students to see their grades without having to “pass through” your feedback, and so there is often little motivation for the student to read your comments unless they got a grade they didn’t expect. This is demoralizing when we spend so much time (at least a third of each semester) providing said feedback.

I would never claim to have all the answers to these issues (most of which are rooted in far larger systemic problems with higher education), but I can offer some of the strategies that I’ve discovered over the past 10 years of teaching writing in higher education. All of the following strategies are based on a “less is more” philosophy. By limiting the need to provide so much feedback in a given term, I can be more available to students in general and have time to offer better, more meaningful feedback. If you have other strategies that have worked for you, please share in the comments below!

“Less is More” Feedback Strategies

  1. Course Design

Setting yourself up for feedback success starts with good course design. It helps if you have a “less is more” basis for the entire course so that you are not trying to do too much too quickly. Prevailing wisdom for online courses is no more than two activities per week. It may also help you to keep in mind that these activities need not be (and arguably should not be) excessively labor intensive, but rather “checkpoints” to see how students are responding to your course materials and/or to offer them chances to run their ideas by you.

2. Global Feedback

I am a huge fan of class-wide or global feedback. First, let me say that I use course announcements as teaching tools more broadly in an online course and as a supplement to the content that I already have in the pre-fixed modules. One way of using announcements is to provide class-wide feedback. Sometimes this looks like having students post work in the discussion board (but not reply to one another). Instead I will look through their posts, make a list of “don’ts” to keep in mind and call out “example” posts that are doing a particularly good job at whatever skill we’re practicing. That way, I don’t have to write the same critical feedback over and over and students can see examples of excellent work that they can then use as models.

3. Manage Expectations

Sometimes I am teaching three or four sections of the same type of course, and so I cannot possibly get feedback to each section at the same time. This is where managing your students’ expectations becomes essential. I try to be transparent with them (here’s when you can expect feedback on X). I go so far as to explain that each week I will rotate which section gets feedback first so as to avoid prioritizing one section over another. I also specify if it will be a completion credit with comments, class-wide feedback, etc. If I am only providing short comments (to save time), I will alert them that while my feedback might sound “abrupt,” it is just a way for me to get the feedback that they need to them faster. Whatever your approach is for that week, it will help you to explain it to them.

4. Student Engagement w/ Comments

When it comes to the issue of unread comments, I try to take a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, I don’t stress over unread comments too much especially if students are doing relatively well on their assignments. On the other hand, I put systems in place to ensure that this isn’t the “norm” for an entire semester. There are a myriad of awesome ideas I’ve read for having students engage with your comments. I keep it pretty simple with two approaches: 1) Again, I use announcements to remind them to look carefully at my feedback and to tell them exactly how that feedback is designed to help them on the next stage of the assignment. I tend to see a slight increase in questions about my feedback after these reminders. 2) I will have students post short, private journal entries about feedback they received from me and/or their peers to both acknowledge it and to see how they are intending to address said feedback in the next draft.

5. Peer Feedback

Last, but certainly not least, is the peer feedback model. For me this often looks like having students post in the discussion forum and then having students provide *at least* a certain number of replies designed to help their peers. Often I give them a formula to follow to ensure that the feedback is actually helpful (the START, STOP, CONTINUE model works great). I might scan through their posts/replies to get a sense of what is being discussed, but usually if the goal is to get peer feedback, I don’t interfere. I will of course answer questions that come up and/or address the feedback I’m seeing in an announcement, but otherwise I let the peer feedback be peer-centric.

6. Triage Your Feedback

I’ve had a few colleagues balk at this one, but hear me out. Not all students need feedback all the time. While it is nice to be able to provide students who are excelling with praise-feedback, there are not enough hours in the day to do this on every single thing they write. Again, I try to be as transparent with the students as possible. I will let them know (in an announcement) that I am going to prioritize students who need critical feedback for a given assignment. If a student doesn’t need significant intervention, I often post a quick note like “Looking great, keep going!” and then provide individualized feedback for students who need it. Sometimes it is a completion grade only unless feedback is required (because there is often value in doing an exercise regardless of if they got it “right”).

7. Related to Students Reading Comments: Digital “Natives” (Gah)

While you may be tempted to buy into the hoopla that these students are digital wizards who need no instruction about how to access your feedback inside of your learning management system, please resist that temptation. In some cases, students literally don’t know how to access your comments (especially the in-line ones you put on their documents), so explain it in an announcement (preferably with screenshots).

8. Other Hacks

In an online class, you tend to write a lot of the same stuff over and over. Faculty have different ways of managing this so they’re fingers don’t fall off. TextExpander is an amazing tool for creating “short-cuts” for things you write a lot (like you could make ADJ = avoid excessive use of adjectives like “very good”). I will sometimes keep a word doc or notepad open to copy and paste form feedback especially if it refers to a specific resource. Blackboard has a “library” feature that works for a given assignment as well. Rubrics are another way faculty get around excessive typing, but it requires a good amount of work up front to set them up in an LMS. Similarly, auto-assessed quizzes, surveys, and polls ultimately help you get information from students about your course content without needing to provide 1-1 feedback.

Even in the workshop last semester, where the faculty present really wanted solutions to their exasperating feedback workload, I faced some resistance to some of these strategies. Many of us came up learning the “sandwich method” for feedback: praise, critique, praise. The idea of entering a completion grade (with no feedback!) seems irresponsible. We might feel the pressure to provide high quality feedback for every single assignment, but trust me when I say that this pressure isn’t making you a diamond teacher, but rather a squashed rock who’s too burned out to provide meaningful, focused feedback in time for it to actually help your students do better on their work. Streamlining your feedback can only help you provide your students with what they need to sharpen their skills and to realize their potential. It can only help you be a better, more patient teacher with time to meet your students where they’re at and yourself where you want to be.

I’d love to hear what strategies you use on a regular basis (or ones you want to try) for providing feedback. Please comment below!

Stay tuned for (hopefully) more posts this year about teaching, composition, digital literacy, and academia. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @litambitions

5 thoughts on “A “Less is More” Feedback Model for Online Writing Intensive Classes

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