Giving good online feedback

Last Updated: January 15, 2024
A woman gestures while talking to someone on a video call on her laptop

How this will help:

Give effective feedback.
Have strategies for giving feedback that reflects a supportive tone.

The basics

When you teach a face-to-face course, many instructors develop some kind of relationship with the class as well as individual learners. You may come to associate names with faces, and in turn, writing styles, personality, strengths, and challenging areas. As you assess and evaluate learners, you most likely provide feedback to students in a variety of ways – from formative feedback to feedback on larger assessments.

Feedback in an online course is frequently cited as being perceived by students as being important even than in a face-to-face course. In a face-to-face course, informal or observational interactions between student and faculty help build community. In an online course, sometimes the only perceived interaction a student may have with an instructor is through feedback. Being vigilant with feedback best practices, particularly in the first few weeks of a class helps establish community and presence in the classroom.  While you might have to adjust the modality that you use for feedback in an online course compared to a face-to-face course, the good news is that the overall guidance around feedback is exactly the same. 

General guidelines for effective feedback

  • Timely: Learners need feedback as quickly as possible in order to continue moving forward with their learning.  Some programs may have specific requirements for assignment feedback turnaround. If not, consider setting expectations for students for feedback particularly on anything graded. Even knowing that they should receive feedback within 3-5 days can alleviate student anxiety (and help prevent panicked emails) 
  • Frequent: Feedback is crucial for learning, and without receiving feedback at regular intervals, learners may struggle to know whether they are on the right track. How frequent that feedback should be may depend on your particular course, but in an online course, some kind of weekly feedback is a good starting point.
  • Specific: Learners won’t be able to get a clear sense of what actions to take with generic feedback such as “good job” or “this needs work.” Instead, specific feedback gives clear guidance on what to do or not do.
  • Balanced: Learners need to know about both their errors and successes. When you point out to learners what they have done well, you reinforce those behaviors, help learners feel competent, and also show them how to be critically reflective. For all of us, in any domain, there are things we are doing well and things we can improve.

How  you say things matters too

You probably already know emails and texts are easy to misinterpret. Sadly, so is giving critical feedback to students online — particularly in discussions and on essays. Words can seem harsher when students don’t have a facial expression or tone of voice to give them context. Your intent may be misunderstood if students don’t know you well. However, You can be kind without sacrificing rigor.

Here are some ideas to help you make sure your feedback is taken the right way:

  1. Rubrics and ground rules help. If you’ve set up clear expectations from the start, giving feedback is more straightforward.
    • For grading papers, rubrics will help you give more objective feedback to students, which feels fairer to them and less uncomfortable for you. 
    • In discussions, using rubrics will help you set clear expectations for student participation and give you the guideposts you need to give them feedback if they don’t meet those expectations. They don’t have to be very detailed, it’s about setting the expectation.
  2. Try a less formal tone.Write to students online the way you talk to them one-on-one. You can use your “professor persona” when you’re lecturing. Students expect that, and it’s ok for you to present your expert self at the podium. But when you’re giving feedback, students deserve your “human persona” as well — the one whose voice is softer and less formal, the one whose words are more personal, empathetic, and encouraging.
    • If you aren’t comfortable with writing in a less formal tone, lean more heavily into using rubrics. Or, try giving audio feedback rather than written feedback.  
  3. Make it about the assignment, not the person. Every now and then, check in with yourself about whether your feelings about a student change the way you communicate with them. Ask yourself “How would I say this to my best students?” Craft feedback that shows a) you have high expectations for the student, but also  b) mistakes are ok (they can learn from them), and c) they can succeed and you’ll help them get there. (This is probably how you communicate with your best students.)
  4. Remember the “feedback sandwich.” You have probably heard about the structure of – one positive, one critique, and end on a positive. We know it’s exhausting to find positive “bread” for the feedback sandwich for dozens or hundreds of assignments. We also know that telling students what they’ve done well empowers them and reinforces their efforts. It may also make them more open to critical feedback in the middle of the sandwich.
  5. Be careful with your language. Make sure your words don’t blame or shame. Avoid inflammatory language. Frame your questions and comments in a way that shows you’re supportive and want to help your students improve — rather than making them feel like they’re doing a bad job or aren’t good enough. If you’re not sure, find a colleague who can give you feedback. This takes some vulnerability on your part, but if you’re reading this guide, you’re already motivated to do this well.

Practical tips

  • Try to set guidelines for yourself about when feedback is due. For example, if student discussion posts are due on Thursday, try to have your feedback by Sunday evening. If priorities shift, that’s okay – just communicate it to students. Time management is key.
  • When providing feedback on individual assignments, it can be quicker to record audio feedback rather than typing up your comments. This also helps students hear your tone better, which reduces the chance that your feedback will be misinterpreted. There are a number of apps that do this, such as VoiceThread. This article describes the methods and benefits of giving audio feedback. You can even attach audio comments to Canvas grades.
  • For assignments, curate a document with common or easily re-used positive comments. You will be amazed at how much time you can save by not having to re-type the same sentence. 
  • Some instructors want to meet one-on-one with students to deliver feedback, such as on major assignments like papers. These can be scheduled online via videoconferencing in Canvas.
  • Incorporate peer review to spread the labor of feedback around. Learners also benefit from seeing and critiquing each others’ work. 


Other Resources

Canvas – Leaving voice feedback for assignments  

Forbes – Giving SMART feedback to millennials 

Chronicle of Higher Education – How to give your students better feedback with technology

Inside Higher Ed –  How to provide meaningful feedback online 

Contributors: Center for Research on Learning & Teaching and Academic Innovation

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