Editor’s Note: In communication theory (and practice) we use feedback to confirm that messages are correctly received and understood. It is especially important in teaching and learning for reinforcing correct responses and providing negative reinforcement for incorrect behavior. This is a comprehensive study to determine how well feedback systems in distance learning achieve the desired outcomes.
Can Students Improve Learning with
*5 denotes strongly preferred and 1 denotes the least preferred
Promptness and Helpfulness. There were no categories found for the theme of Promptness, but there were several categories expounding the theme of Helpfulness. The Helpfulness categories include the following: being essential, encouraging, stimulating thinking, reflecting, building a learning community, being personal, revising, enhancing knowledge and skills, and anytime and anywhere. This research report also addresses negative cases and discrepant data as a separate theme—Confusing, but. All the students’ names used in this report are pseudo to protect their identities. The following provides detailed explanations.
In response to why they felt the online feedback was helpful, 11 students particularly noted that the feedback was timely and quick. Because of the immediate feedback, the participants implied that their learning was greatly helped. Alisha wrote: “I felt it was helpful that Dr. Chang provided us with immediate feedback.” Mary and Nina chimed in:
The fact that immediate feedback received a favorable vote from the participants was substantiated by Riffell and Sibley (2003). These researchers found from their survey study that even if the feedback were given in a programmed standard form, the students felt that frequent and detailed hints (programmed feedback) were fundamental to significantly increasing their ability to learn. They reasoned it was due to that fact that adequate feedback was not only helpful, but also enabled them to understand the course materials. Song, Singleton, Hill, and Koh (2004) translated immediate feedback to immediacy. That is, immediate feedback was a manifestation that the course instructor cared about student learning (Chang & Petersen, 2006). Piffell and Sibley further argued, based on the result of a survey study, that immediate feedback was tied to three components useful for effective learning. These include self-motivation, time management, and organization. In this sense, immediate feedback motivated students to learn and encouraged them to reexamine their ways of managing time and organizing their learning process.
Some students appreciated the effort the instructor made to send the feedback to them in a prompt fashion. Myliana wrote, “I think that feedback is great and I really think that you are very good about getting it back fast, that is really appreciated.” The students’ gratitude also alludes to the fact that delayed responses would result in varying levels of student frustration (Riffell & Sibley, 2003; Song et al., 2004). El Mansour and Mupinga (2007) confirmed this through the analysis of 34 online student surveys and found that without the quick feedback, many students would feel lost in cyberspace.
All the participants were either strongly supportive or supportive of the way that the instructor provided feedback to their assignments submitted via Forum on Oncourse (see Table 1). Furthermore, nearly half of the students (14 students) particularly stated that the online feedback provided by the instructor was helpful. The participants’ specific rationales behind their choices vary from student to student and were reported in several sub-categories as follows:
Being essential: Seven participants recognized the feedback provided to them was essential, because “[it] is essential for us to improve [learning] (Kim, 2008). Some students added,
The comments made by Kim, Kathlyn, and John positively supported the notion that detailed feedback was deemed useful, because the feedback assisted them in understanding why certain points or segments of their assignments were acceptable and why other perspectives were off track. With clear directions and support given by the instructor, the students felt confident in moving on to the next level.
Even though there were guidelines spelled out for each assignment available in the course syllabus and even though the students were often reminded and encouraged to carefully follow the guidelines when completing their assignment, there were still some students who were unclear about the expectations. Kathlyn (Fall, 2008) provided the reason behind it by attributing it to a lack of time to read owing to their time commitments. Kathlyn’s notion was echoed in a survey study conducted by Killian and Willhite (2003), which solicited the insights of students concerning online learning. It found that some non-traditional students with long commutes and multiple adult responsibilities commonly recognized that there was an insufficient amount of time for them to communicate with others online. This deficiency, therefore, resulted in their dissatisfaction with online discourse in the preservice teacher preparation program. The circumstance, nevertheless, was, is, and will be pervasive to many commuter campuses. To mediate the situation, coercing these students to read the guidelines would elicit little in desirable learning outcomes. The “double dosage” tactic—encouraging the students to read the guidelines while offering detailed feedback to facilitate their learning—appears to be helpful for student’s learning. However, it deserves a further investigation to corroborate this conclusion.
Encouraging: The instructor’s feedback worked as a propeller to “push” students to work harder and better with assistance appropriate to their individual situations. Mary wrote, “The feedback was always positive, encouraging the success of the students, including myself.” Even though there are only 13 words in this sentence, an in-depth meaning embedded in it was much sensed. Mary expressly had exchanged the idea with some of her fellow classmates, if not all of them. Their resultant discussions converging on this topic verified the impact that the instructor’s feedback had on students’ learning success. The explanatory feedback explained why a student did a good job and/or why a need for improvement was expected. Such an attentive approach to providing positive feedback was consistent with Sull’s (2008) perspective, which suggested that an instructor always be cognizant to heed word choices when it came to providing feedback. After all, the purpose of feedback was to help improve students’ learning by assisting them in understanding why things that have been done are up to or below expectations.
Stimulating thinking: The students recognized that the content of the feedback evoked their thinking. Anthony wrote, “Your comments make me think.” Michael went on to explain, “You make me think about what I observed and recorded. I [thus] included a lot of thoughts [in my writing].” In the contemporary society, a fast-paced living style is prevalent, leaving little room and time for people to think in depth about things they have encountered or experienced. Effective learning requires deepened thinking, because learned knowledge might possibly become one’s own through the necessary thought processes. If there is no stimulus to stir up one’s thinking, one might simply indulge in receiving, but not digesting information. In this way, superficial knowledge is likely to blossom.
Does the way that feedback was offered to the students’ assignments provide evidence that students’ thinking was provoked, which promoted their desires to extend their learning by including more in their writing or assignments? Garrison, Anderson, & Archer (2000) noted that there was a positive link between written communication and a higher order of thinking. Assisted by the instructor’s explanatory feedback that contains “good insights” (Casity, Fall, 2008) and that provides “good ideas” (Michelle, Fall, 2008), students gradually learn how to think as the dialogical communication is domain-specific and context-dependent; it directs students to focus on what to think (Garrison et al., 2000). “Explanatory feedback becomes crucial when one’s ideas are being constructively but critically assessed” (Garrison et al., 2000, p. 25). This is a strategy to cultivate student’s tendency to question obtained information, rather than to simply translate it into words without thinking and reflection. This is a “knock-on effect,” which is supported by such an e-course instructor’s guidance (Hall, 2002, p. 157).
Reflecting: Some students decided not to revise any or some assignments for varying reasons. Nonetheless, the decisions, as such, are not equivalent to the abandonment of reviewing the online feedback. In fact, they still read the feedback and found that the feedback was meaningful and helpful to them. Synthia wrote, “Due to the many assignments, I did not revise much of my work, but was happy with my grade and reflected after the comments.” Synthia’s expression conveyed a message that the feedback did encourage her to think about her learning experience, thus influencing her performance; it was a helpful way for her to gain knowledge and skills. This is consistent with Garrison et al.’s (2000) notion that critical discourses are fundamental to successful attainment of knowledge and exercised through one’s own reflection on performance. In re-examining what has been done is a process’ one must undertake to scrutinize all pertinent aspects for improvement.
Cultivating pre-service teachers to become reflective practitioners is strongly expected by the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (INTASC, http://www.wresa.org/Pbl/The INTASC Standards overheads.htm). Standard 9 is about “Reflective practice: Professional development.” Specifically, it states, “The teacher is a reflective practitioner who continually evaluates the effects of his or her choices . . .”
Building a Learning Community: Emily commented, “I think that the communication and feedback creates a community within the classroom.” In the instructor’s feedback, the students are reminded and encouraged to read one another’s work and to comment on the reading afterwards. The expectation worked as an additional avenue for the students to communicate with one another outside class so as to enhance their understandings of course related materials and to establish ties to one another in and out of school. A dynamic atmosphere positive to learning was initiated in this unique manner. As learners are left alone to work with computers, all visual body gestures are absent. The instructor’s feedback, in a sense, could have a favorable effect on learning in making the instructor’s presence visible (Chang, 2009; Chang & Petersen, 2006). Instructor’s feedback is regarded by students as being supportive of their learning (Lim and Cheah, 2003), which paralleled Garrison et al.’s (2000) “social presence.” Social communication via a course management system is one of the essential means to bring about dynamic interactivity with the guidance of a course instructor, which was beneficial to student learning via an online learning environment.
Being Personal: Being personal was stated by students to be helpful feedback. Christina shared, “I really enjoyed getting personal feedback from you on my papers.” It was viewed that the feedback was at personal levels as it targeted every individual’s paper with individually specific comments and notes toward the student’s paper rather than with a one-size-fits-all approach to treating all the papers received. Christina explained her notion this way: “I think by having you give feedback online, it provides individualized instruction that could not be accomplished in the classroom.” In a traditional face-to-face classroom setting, it is hard for an instructor to provide feedback specific to every student’s concrete learning status. Generalizing how the assignments have been done by the students appears something ordinary for an instructor to do in a group face-to-face setting. An instructor might announced, “You all did well on this assignment.” “I am proud of you for your doing such a nice job.” Yet, this generalized statement would bring on consequent probable questions. Had all the students achieved such a level high enough to deserve the praise like this? Had all the students made similar progress in uniformity? What would the students make out of this general statement with the knowledge that some of them did not do well at all? What would those students feel and think of the biased or untruthful praise? Moreover, as addressed earlier, even if an instructor grades a student’s paper with a few simplified comments here and there, these comments might temporarily perk up one’s either happy or displeased emotion, but hardly could make explicit what was needed so as to help the learners discern the rationale behind the marks or remarks. To address these inadequacies, detailed comments compatible to individual learning levels through the assessment process would be one of the assessment approaches that a course instructor should take into account and exercise (Chang, 2009) and it is one that is significant in student high-level knowledge building (Garrison et al., 2000).
Revising: The instructor’s feedback was conducive to students’ reworking on their assignments. Cheryl commented, “It [feedback allows] me to revise my work individually and [to] strive to perfect my papers.” Lena agreed and said that the feedback was helpful because “your online feedback was very clear and was helpful for me to correct my paper.” It is clear that explanatory feedback is helpful and useful as it supplies the students with orientations for amelioration. The students reasoned that useful and helpful feedback was feedback that the students were able to clearly follow when revising their work. Furthermore, such feedback enabled them to deepen their knowledge through the revision process (Chang, 2007; Hall, 2002), as “[a]llowing the student to rework and resubmit an answer is important in the learning process” (Siew, 2003, p. 46). Although the participants’ wordings, such as “helpful for me to correct my paper” seemed to be indicative of their aim to solely correct papers, a close analysis of the students’ remarks would advert to the notion that the students must reexamine and ruminate on the areas for improvement so as to achieve expected conceptual understanding through the process of revision.
The explanatory feedback given by the instructor could also help move away from the development of learners’ unnecessary frustration and intimidation to a great degree. There might be a gap between a developer of the guidelines and that of a user concerning the way to interpret them. It could well be that the guidelines might be crystal clear to a developer, but confusing to a user. To abate the incongruity and to facilitate student learning, the instructor needs to explicate and reinterpret the guidelines to the user in the process of reviewing the student’s work. This type of individualized assistance and instruction was favored by the participants, e.g. “It showed me the expectations for future assignments” (Clare, fall, 2008). Garrison, et al. (2000) posited the instructor’s active intervention was a way to identify students’ misconceptions and to assist them in constructing deep levels of knowledge. It enables the instructor to remove barriers to student successful learning (Chang & Petersen, 2006).
Enhancing knowledge and skills: Prior to studying in the teacher education preparation program, the majority of students were familiar with the MLA style (citation guidelines by Modern Language Association) although some were exposed to the APA style (citation guidelines by American Psychology Association) to varying degrees. In Block One (the first semester after the students were admitted into the teacher education preparation program), the APA style is the primary expectation when it comes to citation guidelines. The requirement of this citation style often imposes difficulty on student learning. The explanatory feedback assisted the student learning: “It [Feedback] helps me with the APA style” (Synthia, Fall, 2008). Even though examples and instruction of how to cite APA style were accessible to the students online, as with assignment guidelines, the students seemed to feel that deepening their understandings of the APA style with the assistance of the instructor’s feedback was the most helpful.
Such a notion was further substantiated by a student’s voice that the instructor’s feedback was inextricable to student learning. As have been indicated earlier, even though there had been several lectures, class discussions, and group practices taking place precedent to their development of lesson plans through formal assignments, explanatory feedback enabled the students to develop a clear understanding of their lesson planning. Sherry noted, “. . . [feedback] helped me learn the format of the lesson plan. Lesson plan development is construed as one of the most difficult tasks to some education students. It is expected of the students to master numerous crucial aspects in lesson planning so as to execute it successfully. The feedback suitable for the students’ varying levels of learning provides scaffolding to students’ understandings on those seemingly complicated aspects of a lesson plan format.
All the aforementioned findings were echoed in the study conducted by Jelfs, Nathan, and Barrett (2004) regarding when, how, and what students used external help. These researchers argued students expected external help from a course instructor, which would mostly derive from the instructor’s diagnostic and constructive assessment. Evaluating and diagnosing student work is a way to provide scaffolding to student learning.
Anytime and anywhere: Some students perceived the provision of feedback was helpful, because corresponding with the course instructor was ubiquitous and independent of location and time. This method of retrieving and responding to the instructor’s feedback, if a student has access to the Internet, is also unbridled. Becky wrote, “I could get the feedback when I was at home, in class, or other places that have the Internet.” Being omnipresent with the use of course management systems is, by no means, a new topic in instructional technology. However, the feedback that was downloadable from the Internet at a time best suited to a student’s own schedule is of great significance to discuss. As a student is ready to retrieve the feedback from a course instructor, it could also be the time when the student is mentally prepared to read, reflect, and revise the task at hand. Communicating with a course instructor could also be genuine and effective with the learner’s full pledged concentration. This approach to gaining and deepening knowledge might be effective as the student could be very much in earnest. In contrast, when feedback is handed back to students before, in, and/or after a face-to-face meeting, the students might, at best, be able to give it a quick cursory view. Some related questions might arise at the time when the student viewed the feedback, but those questions might not have a chance to survive if the students’ schedules were “hectic” and if their imminent obligations were other than seeking answers from the professor present in the class at the moment. Hall (2002) pointed out that students attending to normally scheduled on-campus meetings once or twice a week might have a limited vision of study. It may be the students’ false perception that learning takes place only a day or two before or after the scheduled class meetings. With respect to communications, they may not be able to have frequent dialogues with their professors due to the limitation of face-to-face meetings offered weekly. Online communication breaks the pattern and allows unconstrained access to materials helpful and useful to student learning.
Though no student marked 3 or below on the 5-point Likert scale, a couple of students were concerned about clarity of feedback. These concerns were classified into two categories:
These two students’ viewpoints toward how the feedback was provided stand in stark contrast to those of many pre-service teachers in this study, such as Tyler, who commented, “[I] was able to really see comments well. [The feedback was] made it easier [for me] to revise [my work].” Although small, the discrepancy, nonetheless, still is worthy of the instructor’s attention. Online communication is largely dependent on text communication. The paradigm of teaching and learning has been shifted from auditory and speaking to visual and writing. To those who are not accustomed to learning primarily based on reading and writing, they very likely will experience a huge learning curve. This level of discomfort was reported by Becky (fall, 2008), “It was a little hard to get comfortable with the comments on the word documents.” While these participants had taken a pre-requisite technology course prior to the course under study, the major learning tasks involved in that course, in essence, were comprised of technology know-how skills. Rarely did these students have a direct experience of communicating with others or a professor in a way similar to that expected by this course. This fundamental change from listening and speaking to reading and writing is challenging and consequently causes discomfort to some students. Another reason for the emerged confusion might be grounded in the fact that the course under study was one of the first courses for the participants in the teacher education preparation program to undertake. Immersed in this learning process, new terminology, jargon, or concepts might become temporary barriers to their comprehension. Although an initiative taken by a student to request clarification from the professor could well be one way to resolve this problem, as one of the students pointed out, “If I was unclear of her feedback meaning, I would e-mail my question. She was very quick to respond and helpful in clarifying.” Regrettably, the instructor had not received many such email queries. This phenomenon could be caused by a lack of time on the students’ part or by the unfamiliarity of this novel way to learn. Facing this circumstance, the instructor might need to modify means currently being undertaken in communicating with students via the text-based medium to assist learners who have much on their plates, who have a weak sense of self-regulation, self-management, and self-organization skills, and who are intimated by this new modality of learning.
Special effort also needs to be made to seek appropriate approaches to interacting and dialoguing with students with special needs. Terri, who wrote the second comment (see (2) above), had a learning disability. Although the instructor had believed that considerable electronic assistance had been rendered to Terri over the course of the fall semester of 2008, it evidently led to an undesired outcome. More adverse effect on Terri’s learning might also lie in Terri’s frequent absences from classes. At any rate, helping students with special needs to strive in class has led the instructor to suggest a future research effort. Essentially, engaging in Content Analysis to compare/contrast between the course instructor’s feedback to those who deemed the feedback beneficial and helpful in various ways and those who held different opinions could be helpful and useful. Wanstreet (2007) found, after engaging in an ample literature review, that there was not much emphasis on how an instructor would know what a learner knew and might be able to do and what the learner might need to know and need to do. The research results may inform the related field as to how to assist diverse learners to reach their learning goals successfully.
This study was designed to explore pre-service teachers’ perceptions with respect to immediate and elaborate feedback that the instructor provided during the fall semester of 2008 as well as their corresponding rationales behind the revealed perceptions. All the students were in support of how the instructor furnished their homework with feedback. The rationale related to their strong preferences involved the following: the instructor’s feedback was prompt, confirmed the expectations of the assignments, stimulated their thinking, and encouraged their reflections upon their work and observations. The instructor’s feedback also has been translated by the students to be personalized and individualized instruction, as it was tailored to their own needs and learning levels to advance their understanding. There were a couple of students who were unable to follow the instructor’s feedback, which is indicative of the need for further improvement so as to arrive at satisfactory learning outcomes. All in all, the ideology of personalized coaching, as such, was consistent with the three presences identified by Garrison et al. (2000), namely, social presence, cognitive presence, and teaching presence. Vygostky’s (1978) theory of the zone of proximal development (ZPD) pointed to the necessity that learning should take place in a social context.
The fact that the instructor analyzed each individual’s work through the assessment process represents teaching presence. Teaching presence is also embodied in the dialogical communication that lends itself to students’ heightened understanding. Cognitive presence takes place when the instructor’s comments had positive effects on the students’ level of understanding and when the student was earnestly engaged in the revision process.
Future research effort is needed to corroborate the present research results by utilizing a diverse and comprehensive sampling. Additionally, considering online teaching and learning is still in its infancy, there have been a growing number of research studies looking at this novel way of teaching and learning. However, there is a scarcity of literature addressing the issue of feedback to student learning (Gallien & Oomen-Early, 2008; Mason & Bruning, 2003). Therefore, effort should be made to converge on questions, such as, “How can instructors interact with online learners in this novel teaching and learning environment so that students are apt to self-regulate their own learning?” More understanding is useful with respect to how, what, and when automatic/machine generated feedback and/or individually tailored feedback is suitably employed to accurately, authentically, and fairly assess and facilitate student learning. A further investigation also involves seeking ways to encourage students to feel free to ask questions without feeling intimidated in an online learning environment. Howland and Moore (2002) found that some students lacked initiative in asking questions online because “it was hard for me to compose a question in writing that didn’t sound rude or silly” (a student comment in Howland and Moore, p. 191). Furthermore, according to Wanstreet’s (2007) extensive literature review, it is noticeable that social connection has been enormously and frequently addressed, whereas psychological connection has been unfairly underrepresented with respect to e-classroom instruction. Future research foci, in this sense, should be placed on how to successfully and effectively promote student affective involvement in learning. Lastly, considering that the participants were mostly seniors, young (ages ranging from 21 to 24), and somewhat academically advanced (the grade point average was about 3.0), future research may specifically be desired to investigate the relationships between these variables and their respective preferences toward the way that the personalized feedback is provided. Could those factors affect the outcomes of the study?
This new modality might lessen the burden of an instructor as a large chunk of work (grading papers from every student in the class all at once) can thus be reduced into smaller, more manageable pieces. The short turnaround period between receiving and returning the work promotes effective learning as well. It is because concepts just learned might still be fresh in the student’s mind, which is conducive to students’ deepened understanding. Students using this new method of online submissions and a new way of interacting with a course instructor might be enabled to learn how to work with computers to assist in their learning. They also may learn how to organize and regulate their own time in a more productive manner. While it is a rewarding and worthwhile effort, a course instructor might need to be flexible, expecting students to submit their work anytime prior to the expected deadline. To this end, an instructor ought to find a way to help his or her students to change their mindset by fully taking advantage of e-communication that is available 24/7.
To provide students with immediate and elaborate feedback requires a course instructor to make a large commitment as executing this undertaking is time consuming. An instructor has to write detailed comments to different segments in a student paper and must do so for every student’s paper. This commitment provides scaffolding for students’ learning, because some students have not yet possessed skills to communicate in a text-based context (Jelfs & Colbourn, 2002). Some have not yet been exposed to experiences necessary for learning success in higher education, nor have they learned self-management skills. These students have a high propensity to hinge on external assistance (Li, Lee, & Kember, 2000). Dialogues between an instructor and a learner in a constructivist manner whereby the student is learning how to construct knowledge with the use of computer technology are consistent with Vygotsky’s (1978) notion of the zone of proximal development (ZPD). ZPD defines scaffolding as “an activity in which teachers or more experienced learners provide support and guidance” to the learner (in Jelfs et al., 2004, p. 87). Providing assisted learning is to foster “independent and non-assisted learning” competency. 1st phrase: The scaffolding strategies appropriate for the needs of the students and for being responsive to learners might help them to move closer and closer to the new way of learning. This typology of interaction might also establish a rapport between the instructor and student.
The participants involved in the study largely were first generation college students. As this was a survey-based study, the data were entirely drawn from the participants’ insights. It could be that the participants might not have completely recorded their responses. The sample used for this study was not large enough and was an examination of one university in the Midwest. Generalization of the research findings should be made with caution. However, the findings of this study are provocative and may help interested e-instructors. Those instructors who may have recently begun a similar teaching adventure may see similarities between their own classroom situations and the context described in this study. The findings of the present study could help such persons seek innovative ways to reach out to their students in an individualized manner to facilitate learning.
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Dr. Ni Chang is Associate Professor of Education at Indiana University South Bend. She received her master’s and doctoral degrees from Peabody College of Vanderbilt University. She has over 12 years of web-based and hybrid teaching experiences. These experiences have been researched and transformed into numerous conference presentations, book chapters, and refereed journal articles.