ArticlesJuly 2023

Reflections on Online Feedback in Writing Courses

By Maria Zaman, University of North Dakota

Maria Zaman

The sudden shift to online learning forced us all to rethink our teaching methods and adapt to the new norm. In writing courses, whether in the students’ first or in a second language, feedback has always been an essential element, an opportunity to guide my students and help them improve their writing skills. The COVID-19 pandemic made the usual way of providing feedback to students impossible, posing a unique challenge, and I had to come up with new ways to deliver my feedback effectively. Throughout the pandemic, I collected insight from my students on the different approaches I took to provide feedback on their papers. In this article, I will be sharing my reflections on the changes I made and the pros and cons of each approach.

Prior to COVID-19, I provided feedback through face-to-face and individualized conferences. I asked my students to bring in paper copies of their drafts to the conference meeting and I would read their work and make notes or corrections on the paper itself. The individual meetings usually lasted for 10-15 minutes. During the meetings, I went over the corrections and notes with the student, explaining what was done well and what could be improved. I also answered any questions the student might have had and offered additional guidance. Students then took the feedback and revised their work, incorporating my suggestions. This one-on-one feedback system allowed for a very personalized approach to writing instruction, as I could tailor the feedback to the specific needs and strengths of each student. It also gave students the opportunity to ask questions and receive immediate clarification, leading to a deeper understanding of the writing process and more effective revision strategies. Additionally, the one-on-one meetings allowed for an intimate and supportive learning environment. I got to know my students and their writing styles, and students felt comfortable asking questions and discussing their work in a private setting. This led to increased student engagement and motivation, as students felt that their writing was valued. However, during the pandemic, internet connectivity issues and even difficulties sharing documents made it difficult to replicate these individual conferences. Hence, I asked my students to upload their work on our course management system. I would give the feedback online within four to five days after their submission. This in fact created a lot of pressure for me because in one-on-one conferences I checked their work immediately, while the online platform presented me with a pile of online documents and a set of tools that were quite time-consuming to use. It took more time to review multiple drafts from students who submitted their work at different times. Some students faced internet connectivity issues while off-campus, causing them to miss the deadline. As an instructor, I prioritized returning their drafts with constructive feedback before the final submission date, and so this process required my constant attention, as I had to monitor their submissions and promptly provide feedback.

When video conferencing proved to be too difficult, I had to make a decision about how to provide comments to students. I felt that written comments were a less attractive option because I wanted the students to continue to feel connected to me through my voice. I decided against video comments also because I am a camera-shy person and as a Muslim woman, using video meant getting ready and wearing my hijab every time I commented on my students’ drafts.

In the end, I chose to use the audio comment tool in our course management system. However, audio comments also presented some challenges, including not being able to see the student’s draft while I was commenting and the difficulty of avoiding excessive noise in the background (challenging with an infant at home). Additionally, I immediately felt that the feedback I was giving was not the same quality as that which I would have given when classes were face to face. This was because of a lack of clarity in my students’ drafts. During face-to-face conference meetings, I had become accustomed to asking my students what they meant in a particular paragraph and giving feedback accordingly. But in the online platform I did not have the opportunity to ask for clarifications and I had to make assumptions if I did not understand something in their draft. Another reason was a lack of time. Since students were submitting their drafts at different times, I had less time to give feedback before the due date of the final submission. This was frustrating for me as I felt that the quality of my comments was deteriorating, and I did not feel that I was helping the students as much as I had been able to during face-to-face conferences.

Later on, I adapted my strategy and decided to give written comments only. I had intended the audio comments to foster a connection with students, but they made me seem robotic and disconnected from my students because I used to read out the pre-written notes from my students draft to provide feedback on their work. The audio comments were monotonous and I felt it did not convey the correct emotion. Additionally, some students faced difficulty in hearing my audio comments and reached out to the IT department, but the issue remained unresolved. To address this problem, I had to type out the same comments, which was a time-consuming task. Eventually, I decided that the best choice was to cancel audio comments for my students’ drafts.  

As I continued to give written feedback, I found that written comments allowed me to be more precise, organized, and constructive while giving feedback to my students. My students also preferred written comments because it enabled them to understand their errors more clearly and rewrite them for their final submission. Furthermore, typing out the comments offered me the flexibility to provide feedback at any time, without worrying about external noise, which was a frequent issue with audio comments. The students could also review the written comments at their convenience.

Another method that I used to circumvent the limitations of giving feedback online was to use discussion boards. I created a discussion board post where I provided comments to any queries asked by my students. Students could freely write about their opinions and problems or ask any quick questions, and I or any other student could reply promptly. I made the post available to others so that anyone with a similar problem could look through the solutions provided without repeating the question. This helped to reduce the number of emails that I needed to respond to. I also created two separate discussion board posts where one post was dedicated to course-related topics only, and the other was for casual interaction among the students, where students could communicate among themselves and ask silly questions to one another even if they were hesitant to ask me as their instructor. I felt creating two discussion topics was necessary to keep things professional for the purposes of the course, but also wanted to see my students talking freely in another discussion board so that they understand the difference between being professional and flexible at the same time. That kind of interaction was very important for the students as it was more difficult for them to talk to their peers in person. Sometimes I also offered extra credit for discussion board posts to encourage the students to participate.

An additional way for students to interact with each other is peer review. Peer review provides a chance for students to receive constructive feedback on their writing, improving their skills and producing higher quality work. Furthermore, peer review facilitates engagement, trust-building, confidence, critical thinking, and learning from diverse perspectives. Before COVID, peer review in my class involved in-person interactions where I would create groups of 3 or 4 students and allocate 10-12 minutes for each draft. I always advised students to exchange their peer drafts with their respective group members before the revision began. By reading their own drafts aloud, students could identify mistakes and make necessary corrections. However, during the pandemic, this same kind of in-person peer revision was no longer feasible. Instead, I posted guidelines on how to conduct peer reviews, and students submitted their drafts on the designated due date. To simplify the process, I assigned pairs of students to give written comments on each other’s work at their convenience. The peer revision was done asynchronously because it was common that the assigned partner would be absent in the online class or they would have internet issues. When I instructed my students to engage in peer reviews via the discussion board, I provided guidelines on evaluating the quality of their peers’ work. Specifically, I asked them to consider aspects such as the topic’s appropriateness, the purpose of the draft, and its suitability for the intended audience. I also emphasized the importance of giving constructive feedback to their peers.

After my experience during the pandemic and from interactions with my students, I have concluded that on the whole they prefer receiving feedback on their writing face to face rather than online. Face to face comments from individual conferences make students feel that they are receiving more immediate feedback. Additionally, one of my students told me that during face-to-face interactions the comments felt very personal due to his physical presence, and it seems that it was very easy for him to connect and overcome his confusion, and this seems to encapsulate the attitudes of many students. We also concluded that the negotiation of meaning that happens in individualized in-person conferences is much more natural in a face-to-face setting. As technology tools evolve and advance in the future, these types of interactions will undoubtedly become easier to integrate into online courses.

Despite the preference of my students for face-to-face feedback, online teaching is here to stay, so teachers of writing that are planning to teach in the online modality will need to make well-informed decisions for how to best give students feedback in that format. My experience from teaching during COVID-19 and my interactions with my students both tell me that one of the most important aspects of online feedback is its timeliness. Since this can be challenging in the online environment, it puts an additional responsibility on us as instructors to prioritize the timeliness of our feedback. Because writing can sometimes feel like an isolating activity, building ways for students to interact with each other into the fabric of the course is even more important than in a face-to-face class, and some of the ways this can be done is through discussion boards and peer review.

Teaching online requires flexibility, including by adapting feedback methods to meet students’ needs. Effective feedback is crucial for learning, and it is essential to explore ways to make it effective in both face-to-face and virtual environments.

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