Email as an Educational Feedback Tool: Relative Advantages and Implementation Guidelines
Research into the pedagogical benefits of email is gaining momentum. The ubiquitous use of email for feedback in the classroom is lending the medium a new level of credence as an educational tool. Assuming that email will only continue to grow in popularity, it behooves one to develop some guiding principles for the implementation of this medium. Currently, there is extensive research into the role feedback plays in education. However, there is little research outlining practical advice on how best to use email as a feedback tool. This article examines the nature of feedback in education, discusses technology implementation issues of email as a feedback and communication tool, and provides a list of suggestions for incorporating email into the classroom to make the most of the medium’s relative advantages.
Keywords: email; feedback; technology implementation; relative advantage; adult learning; computer-mediated communication; cooperative/collaborative learning; distance education; distributed learning environments; improving classroom teaching; interactive learning environments; learning communities; pedagogical issues; post-secondary education; teaching/learning strategies.
One cannot underestimate students’ desire to communicate, and learners in distance education environments are no exception (Leh, 2001). With its ubiquitous nature, relative low cost, global reach, speed, and flexibility, email is becoming the communication choice of many. It seems only natural, given these features, that researchers are looking to email as a promising instructional and learning tool. However, its strength as an educational tool relies solely on constructing a solid email-based environment and a pedagogically sound message. If one is going to integrate email communication in the face-to-face or distant classroom in the hopes of delivering timely and valuable feedback to students, one needs to understand the concept of feedback and how it functions. The purpose of this paper is to briefly examine the nature of feedback in education, to discuss the use of email as a feedback and communication tool, and to provide a list of suggestions for incorporating email into the classroom.
That feedback has an influence on learning is indisputable and undeniable, and feedback’s varying roles in instruction are heavily researched concepts (Mory, 1992). Understanding how feedback facilitates, and, in some cases, hinders transfer of knowledge is essential to creating effective instruction. Researchers have focused on the many aspects and roles of feedback in hopes of developing some synthesis that will increase learner performance and improve instruction. Researchers such as Bangert-Drowns, Kulik, Kulik and Morgan (1991), Brinko (1993), Clariana, R. B., and Lee, D. (2001), Clariana, R. B., Wagner, D., and Rohrer-Murphy, L. C. (2000), Kulhavy (1976), Kulhavy and Stock (1989), Kulik and Kulik (1988), and Mory (1992) to name only a very few, have sought to discern the complex role feedback plays in learning. While many studies have been convincingly conducted trying to ascertain how feedback best works in certain circumstances, a consensus has yet to be reached in most, if not all, areas, and, as Clariana (2000) writes, “There are a number of unanswered questions and perhaps even more unquestioned answers”(¶ 2).
What is Feedback?
Feedback has been defined in a variety of ways. Feedback can be seen as mechanistic: “the return to the input of a part of the output of a machine, system, or process (as for producing changes in an electronic circuit that improve performance or in an automatic control device that provides self-corrective action)” (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary). Feedback can be defined more generally as “knowledge of one’s performance provided by an external agent” (Delgado and Prieto, 2003, p. 73). That seems simple enough. However, the problem with more mechanistic or general models is that human beings can make a simple process unpredictable and complicated.
If we look at basic communication models, then feedback can be seen as “a special case of the general communication process in which some sender (hereafter referred to as a source) conveys a message to a recipient” (Ilgen, Fischer and Taylor, 1979, p. 350).
From the aspect of the behaviorist, feedback is primarily concerned with reinforcing correct responses (Kulhavy and Stock 1989; Mory, 1992). This idea of reinforcement comes directly from Skinner’s behaviorism research. There is often an emphasis on changing behavior to achieve desired outcomes and to meet established criteria that can be measured on such instruments as standardized exams or other performance measures. In education, this often takes the form of drill and practice, habit-breaking, and reinforcement through rewards. However, such an cut-and-dried information-only approach does little to explain the complex nature of information processing.
From a cognitive perspective “feedback is regarded as a source of information necessary for verification, elaboration, concept development, and metacognitive adaptation” (Narciss, 1999, p. 3). In a review of Benjamin Bloom’s works, Thomas Guskey (2001) finds that feedback should be diagnostic, prescriptive and appropriate to the students’ level of learning. Pioneers of the field Kulhavy and Stock (1989) define feedback as information consisting of two components: verification and elaboration. Verification is a simple determination of the correctness of a response; it is either right or wrong. Elaboration is information that guides the learner toward the desired response and can be classified as task-specific, instruction-based, or extra-instructional. Several research studies hold that elaboration feedback is more effective than simple verification feedback for promoting learning gains (Bangert-Drowns, Kulik, Kulik, and Morgan, 1991; Pridemore and Klein, 1995). However, like much feedback research, these assumptions are not without critics and many studies have found just the opposite (Mason and Bruning, 2001; Merrill, 1987; Mory, 1992). Butler and Winne (1995) find that feedback can be both internal and external and must be goal-directed to be effective.
Whether one approaches educational feedback from a behaviorist or cognitivist perspective, Bangert-Drowns, et al. (1991) remind one that “any theory that depicts learning as a process of mutual influence between learners and their environment must involve feedback implicitly or explicitly because, without feedback, mutual influence is, by definition, impossible. . .” (p. 214).
The Role of Feedback in Learning
Clariana, Wagner and Murphy (2000) insist that learning “involves the interaction of new information provided by instruction with existing information already in the learner’s memory” (p.5). Narciss (1999) suggests feedback’s role in the learning process is not simply information processing, but a more complex milieu with feedback having an influence on the learner’s affective and motivational processes. Bloom (1976) listed feedback along with cues, participation, and reinforcement as one of his four elements to determine the quality of instruction.
It is generally agreed that feedback is an important construct for improving instruction and performance (Clariana, Wagner and Murphy, 2000; Kulhavy and Stock, 1989; Mory, 1992; Panasuk and LeBaron, 1999). However, even this most basic concept is subject to debate. Some researchers point out “it is impossible to give an affirmative answer to the general question of whether feedback improves performance” (Delgado and Prieto, 2003, p. 8). Kluger and DeNisi (1996) find that over 1/3 of feedback interventions actually weakened performance. Mory (1992) finds that simply providing feedback is not enough: “Feedback can promote learning if it is received mindfully. However, it also can inhibit learning if it encourages mindlessness. . . ” (p. 7). Kulhavy and Stock (1989) report that even after decades of research one cannot say for sure how feedback works in instruction. As one can see, there is no great consensus regarding how feedback best serves instruction.
Feedback is often subject to classification schemes outlining inherent characteristics. Carter (1984) writes of feedback having four characteristics: function, timing, schedule, and type. Brinko (1993) suggests that understanding feedback requires addressing the who, what, when, where, why, and how of feedback method. Butler and Winne (1995) assign five functions to feedback: 1. Confirming conditions; 2. Adding information; 3. Replacing or overwriting prior knowledge; 4. Tuning understandings; 5. Restructuring schemata. The classic Kulhavy and Stock model (1989) describes the feedback process as consisting of three cycles:
In Cycle I, a task demand is presented and the learner receives information from the task, processes this information, and produces a response to the task. In Cycle II, feedback is presented and is processed by the learner to yield any response corrections. Finally, in Cycle III, the original task demand is presented again as a test item, which is processed and responded to by the learner to produce a posttest response. (Mory, 1992, p. 7)
Bangert-Drowns, et.al. (1991), in a synthesis of the literature, assign a five-stage model to the feedback cycle where the learner moves from his initial state through the states of activity, response, evaluation, and adjustment-respectively.
According to Mason and Bruning (2001), the literature supports eight common levels for feedback: 1. No feedback; 2. Knowledge of response; 3. Answer until correct; 4. Knowledge of correct response; 5. Topic contingent; 6. Response contingent; 7. Bug related; and 8. Attribute isolation (¶ 9). All of these characteristics can be said to have merit and are worthy of consideration. A review of the research surrounding the nature of feedback and feedback’s role in education reveals a complex and indecisive picture. However, much of what is presented here is worthy of contemplation when moving into the technology arena with feedback through email.
Feedback Through Email
Email can be a wonderful tool for delivering feedback to students. Once a basic understanding of feedback’s role in learning has been established, one can begin to focus on how best to take advantage of the pedagogical functions of the communication medium. There is little doubt that email is changing how we communicate and learn. For example, in an investigation of the effectiveness of email as a communication and instructional aid between instructors and students, Yu and Yu (2002) found “empirical evidence supporting the usefulness of e-mail as a promising aid to promote student cognitive growth pertaining to computer knowledge and skills” (p. 123).
Tao and Boulware (2002) suggest that email communication benefits teachers by “identif[ing] instructional focus and tak[ing] advantage of instructional moments to fit the developmental needs of their students in authentic situations” (p.288). They also find that email motivates learners, encourages authentic communication, and creates new learning opportunities.
Smith, Whiteley and Smith (1999), over the course of three studies, conclude that email is a “viable alternative means of course delivery” (p.24). Debard and Guidara (2000) extol the need for better and more frequent use of asynchronous communication in the higher education classroom. They find that asynchronous communication, such as email, can be adopted to meet Chickering and Reisser’s seven principals of effective teaching. They stress that email can increase faculty-student contact resulting in improved student involvement and motivation. Debard and Guidara (2000) also point to email as a source of more intensive student interaction that can lead to deeper, more active, and more engaged learning. They cite research which shows “an average response in an electronic discussion was found to be 106 words while the average in-class response was only twelve words” (p. 225).
In a qualitative case study of undergraduate students in an online course, Vonderwell (2003) finds that email allows for improved communication and gives students the opportunity to ask more questions of their instructor. She also stresses the use of email can create a sense of anonymity that potentially allows for greater participation by shier students.
In a study investigating the appropriateness of computer-mediated communication (CMC) in distance learning, Leh (2001) found that “CMC was beneficial for communication and learning and that participants were in favor of the use of CMC” (p. 126). In a follow-up study by the same author, Leh (2001) found the positive impact of CMC increased over time.
In a large scale trial study of undergraduate students solely taught using electronic communication conducted at The Open University in the United Kingdom, Carswell, et al. (2000) provide a summary of gains:
They also found that learning outcomes were comparable, that students’ experiences were largely favorable and an experience “. . . they wished to repeat—a major factor in maintaining the enthusiasm and motivation of distance education students. . . ” (Carswell, et al., 2000, p. 45). According to Baron (1998), email can be seen as an “ideal tool for building and maintaining social relationships” (p.155).
Email use in the classroom, both local and distant, is not without caveats. Carswell, et al. (2000) finds that inexperience is an obstacle to internet-based classroom models. Interestingly, they cite cultural inexperience as a bigger obstacle than technical inexperience because the asynchronous environment requires a shift in communication norms, a sensitivity and attunement to internet etiquette and conventions, as well appropriate communication expectations.
Using email in the classroom also requires a certain level of technical expertise and considerable technical support (Carswell, et al., 2000). Training and access are also factors. Both instructors and students need to be oriented to the email system and its many features. The campus must have in place an infrastructure with access to all essential hardware and software (Yu and Yu, 2002). Email communication can be time consuming and often means extra work for professors (Debard and Guidara, 2000).
Email can heighten levels of anxiety for some people (Yu and Yu, 2002). Smith, Whitely and Smith (1999) list students’ willingness and ability to use the technology, the largely text-based nature of the medium, and the loss of nonverbal communication as three disadvantages to the use of email for classroom correspondence. Woods and Keeler (2001) cite research highlighting the potential social negatives of email use such as user isolation, user depression and loneliness, and the potential lack of a learning community. Bloch (2002) is also concerned about the social aspect of email and finds that misunderstandings and conflicts can abound without a face-to-face context, and that language use and “flaming” can also cause problems: “Cyberspace allows for speech to be used for building social relationships, for creative play, or even for resistance, but it can also be used for harassment. . .it is important to understand how email can affect traditional social relationships in a classroom” (p. 120).
Vonderwell (2003) finds that students can be uncomfortable interacting with people they do not know and have never met. She also cites students’ discomfort in the delay of immediate feedback and communication and perceived separation of the instructor.
Debard and Guidara (2000) cite how the user’s perceived anonymity could result in potential encouragement for negative comments and criticisms that one might not offer in a face-to-face setting.
For better or worse, email is growing as powerful educational and communication force. With this integration comes the opportunity for a complete reconceptualization of the delivery of education. Educators must make the commitment to integrate technology into the curriculum. Without a firm commitment and a concerted effort, the potential of this technology will not be realized (Leh, 2001).
Implications for Teaching
Deciding how best to use email in a particular classroom setting is not an exact science. However, the literature and personal experience can guide practice. What follows is a list of suggestions or guidelines gleaned from the research and from my years of experience for effectively using email in the classroom. Many of these suggestions relate directly to improving student-to-student, and student-to-faculty feedback in manners that enhance instruction. In the deployment of an effective email as feedback program there are three phases for consideration: (a) planning before the class starts, (b) using email after the class has begun, and (c) the content of the actual email messages.
Before the Class Starts-Planning to Use Email
Preparation is key. Faculty need to understand how the technology operates and make a commitment to use it. Without at least a basic understanding of the technology involved and a clear plan for its use, the relative advantage of email will be lost. Also, for email correspondence and feedback to be effective, one must plan assignments early and, to minimize delay of response, make sure all assignments are clear and explicit. In addition, I suggest instructors create the following:
After the Class Has Begun-Using Email
If there is one lesson to be learned about email use the classroom, it is this: provide feedback in a prompt and consistent manner (Debard and Guidara, 2000). This idea of prompt cannot be over-emphasized (Yu, 2002, p. 123). Students need quick turn around on their inquiries. Also, make an effort to answer every email even if it is with a simple “thank you” or “I got it” or “nice job” or “see me.” This will cut down on the number of times students call to ask if an email correspondence or attached assignment has been received. Such small gestures go a long way toward alleviating student anxiety.
Studies have shown that frequency of asynchronous responses (email) tends to decrease and response time tends to increase as the semester progresses (Vonderwell, 2003, p. 84). Instructors should try and avoid this late semester lag and keep frequency of responses and response time steady throughout the semester.
Once the class has begun, create and maintain a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page. This will be a time-consuming task at first, but later classes will really benefit from the effort. Each time one answers an email pertaining to a class question, one can copy and paste the question and response into a Word document. After a few semesters, one will have an extensive list accessible to students that answers a majority of their questions. Also, create a class “alias” list for group emails and encourage students to create their own aliases of class contacts (Wallace and Wallace, 2001). Again, such efforts go a long way toward increasing student comfort and sense of community.
Faculty must take a lead in encouraging active student participation and take a proactive role in getting students involved in the technology (Tao and Boulware, 2002) as students “will not collaborate unless collaboration is structured into the course” (Vonderwell, 2003, p. 87). One way to accomplish this is to have collaborative exercises early on that require synchronous and asynchronous components to avoid the “creepy” factor (Vonderwell, 2003) i.e., students feeling uncomfortable communicating with someone they do not know. One suggestion is to use dyads and/or icebreaker activities to start dialogue and familiarize students with the technology; introduction and orientation sessions to all the available communication features are also needed (Vonderwell, 2003; Yu and Yu, 2002). One specific suggestion is to run an “email-test” exercise at the beginning of the class that includes how to deal with attachments. This would also be an appropriate time to point students to the aforementioned photo and information page, so students feel that they “know” their instructor.
There are many possible problems areas one may come across during the course of the semester. To avoid these, instructors can do the following to help keep things running smoothly:
In the Actual Email Correspondence
In the email, warm and friendly is the name of the game; keep email and chat replies as warm, personal, friendly and positive as possible. Cold, impersonal and task oriented electronic communications, if overused, can alienate students and detract from the online community. Use the student’s name in the email correspondence. If the email is long, repeat the name a few times. This helps put students at ease and makes the asynchronous environment seem more personable. In terms of social presence, it is also a good idea to use acronyms and emoticons to help provide social cues (Leh, 2001) and to limit misunderstandings and miscommunications (Woods and Keeler, 2001). Some research also indicates that adding brief audio of the professor or video attachments of related content to emails may foster a greater sense of community and strengthen social relationships (Woods and Keller, 2001). Much of the nuance of face-to-face communication is lost on email, and these suggestions can help improve the chances that the feedback is received by the student as intended.
If most of the class communication is going to occur in an asynchronous format, there are some areas where the instructor may need to take special care. Instructors should:
Discussion of Philosophical Perspective
It is clear that email correspondence in the educational environment provides many relative advantages such as speed of delivery, improved and more immediate communication, freedom from the constraints of location and time, potential for increased interaction, development of writing skills, decreased social isolation, increased internet experience, and extended learning opportunities, to name a few.
From both a methodological and theoretical/pedagogical perspective, Roblyer and Knezek (2003) lucidly outline the criticisms that technology research is facing. Due to the complex nature of the medium and the relative high costs associated with implementing technology initiatives, it is important to focus research efforts on areas that can improve efficiency and depth of instruction. I agree with Roblyer’s and Knezek’s (2003) call to focus research in the areas of relative advantage and improving technology implementation methods.
From a technology implementation perspective, what I have attempted to provide here is a general outline for how email may be used to greater effect and efficiency as a feedback tool to improve student achievement and satisfaction with courses. Hopefully, this in turn will result in increased student retention.
While this article does not detail a specific study that can lie claim to email as superior to other forms of communication, I feel that the ubiquitous nature of email lends it unique characteristics and capabilities that are worthy of further study and consideration. Gilbert writes that the “. . . course-related use of email is becoming the single most powerful force for integrating information technology into teaching and learning” (1996, cited in Smith, Whiteley, Smith). Email is a growing feedback system in education, and Cohen reminds one that this “component (feedback) is one of the more instructionally powerful and least understood features in instructional design” (1995, p. 33). If one assumes this to be true, then more research is needed to determine to the potential educational advantages and disadvantages of this communication medium.
It is a hope of this researcher that these guidelines will find a place in future studies and bear fruit when it comes to improving future practice.
The ubiquitous use of email for feedback in the classroom is lending the medium a new level of credence as an educational tool. Assuming that email will only continue to grow in popularity, it behooves one to develop some guiding principles for the implementation of this medium. The guidelines presented here should be viewed as suggestions to consider when asynchronous communication is used to communicate with students.
This article outlines some practical measures that can be taken to highlight the advantages of email while limiting the inherent drawbacks. Understanding the advantages of email can increase the likelihood of student achievement and satisfaction and promote learner retention. The successful use of email in the educational arena will be largely determined by how well it meets the identified needs of the learner.
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About the Author
Jason Huett is currently a teaching fellow for the Department of Technology and Cognition in the College of Education at the University of North Texas. He is interested in developing distance education programs at the university level. For more information about his professional interests, please visit http://webpages.charter.net/jasonhuett/
Contact at phone 940-565-4238 or email: email@example.com
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