Academic Technology Center
Teaching with Technology Collaboratory

Providing Feedback in Your Distance Learning Course

Introduction to Feedback in Distance Learning Courses

In 1987, Chickering and Gamson identified seven principles for good practice in teaching. One of those principles is that good practice gives prompt feedback. Chickering and Gamson summed up the importance of providing feedback to students by claiming that “Knowing what you know and don’t know focuses your learning.” Hattie and Jaeger (1998) found that positive feedback focused on an assignment has a positive effect on learners in terms of their attitude and achievement.

Providing feedback to students in all class formats is important. In distance learning classes, it can be a bit more challenging than in the classroom. You often end up exchanging multiple e-mails and playing phone tag with students. When it comes to providing feedback on assignments, it can be difficult to figure out the best way to provide individual comments to students and return their written work with meaningful feedback.

Providing quality feedback to distance learning students is particularly important because students have fewer opportunities to ask you for clarification on assignments or your comments about their assignments. Distance learning students often feel a bit disconnected by the technology and are left wondering if you received their messages and assignments and how they are doing in the class. By providing quality feedback you help your distance learning students learn. Quality feedback does not all have to be generated by you. Certainly you should provide substantive replies to questions and comments on assignments, but there are also ways you can automate feedback to students.

Benefits of Providing Feedback to Distance Learning Students

Providing quality feedback requires planning for feedback. The benefits of providing feedback are:

Types of Feedback

There are two main types of feedback:

  1. Information Feedback - this type of feedback is informational or evaluative in nature. It is often given in response to a student question or as an assignment grade and comments.
  2. Acknowledgement Feedback - this type of feedback confirms or assures the student that some event has taken place.

Strategies for Providing Feedback

Not all of the strategies listed below are appropriate for every course. Try implementing a couple of the strategies suggested in each feedback category in your distance learning course.

Information Feedback

Strategy Details
Put a plan in place for grading and returning assignments in a timely manner. Students need timely feedback on assignments, especially if one assignment leads to another. Schedule time immediately after due dates to grade assignments and return them to students. One week or less is a reasonable time frame.
Set a schedule for responding to discussions in myWPI.
  • Set aside time each week for reading and responding to discussion postings. You do not have to respond to all postings, but making a few comments throughout the week lets students know that you are interested in the progress of their discussions. A few postings two to three times a week is usually adequate.
  • Acknowledging good threads in the online discussions helps students feel that they are on the right track with their thinking.
  • Acknowledge individuals with particularly good postings. Positive public acknowledgement makes students feel good about participating in the course.
  • If the discussions are not quite on the right track, provide feedback to the class by steering the discussion in a different direction. Suggest alternative ways of looking at the topic or ask follow-up questions to spawn thinking in a new direction.
  • See Improving the Use of Discussion Boards for more tips on managing discussions.
List grading criteria for the course and for individual assignments. If you clearly state how students will be graded on assignments, they can compare their graded assignments, with your comments, to the assignment criteria you stated. In this way, assignment criteria can be used as feedback.
Arrange office hours or live class discussions.
  • Schedule time when students can reach you live, either by phone or through electronic communications, such as instant messaging.
  • Consider making your office hours public to anyone in the class who wants to attend. This allows students to know the questions of other students and get the answers. Use instant messaging programs (such as AOL Messenger), the virtual classroom or lightweight text chat in myWPI, or Interwise (being released to campus in January 2006).
Use the PDF Scanner to return assignments with your written comments. If you normally write written comments on print copies of assignments for students in your campus-based classes, you can do the same for distance learning students using the PDF scanner. The PDF scanner scans the print copies and simultaneously turns them into PDF documents and e-mails them to your students. Print out student assignments that are submitted to you, write your comments on them, and either visit the ATC in Fuller Labs B24 to send them to students via the PDF scanner, or drop them off with your ATC coordinator and the ATC staff will use the PDF scanner to send them back to students for you.
Use the Assignment Manager in myWPI to indicate grades and comments on assignments. The Assignment Manager in myWPI allows you to enter a grade and type comments that the students can see in myWPI. The grades also appear in your gradebook, making it easy for you to track grades.
Use Microsoft Word or Adobe Acrobat to insert electronic comments into assignments that you return to students.
  • Microsoft Word has a commenting feature that allows you to enter comments into assignments that have been submitted in Microsoft Word. To add a comment, highlight the text you are commenting on, go to the Insert menu and select Comment. Save the file and send it back to the student via e-mail.
  • The full version of Adobe Acrobat (not Acrobat Reader) has a commenting function that allows you to highlight text in PDF documents and type comments. Your students would either have to submit their assignments as PDF files or you would have to convert them to PDF files, which is easy to do if you have Adobe Acrobat. You can then save the files and return them to students who can view your comments using Acrobat Reader.
Use the Test Manager in myWPI to develop tests and quizzes.
  • Tests and quizzes developed using the Test Manager can be set up to automatically be graded and provide both a final grade and predetermined feedback to students. This allows students to get immediate feedback on their performance without action from you, the instructor.
  • Test and quiz scores are saved in the gradebook, making it easy for you to track student grades.
Use the Gradebook in myWPI.
  • The Gradebook allows you to keep track of all students' grades for all assignments in the class. Students can see all of their grades and they know at any given point where they stand in the class, provided you keep your gradebook up to date.
  • The Assignment Manager and Test Manager have grading mechanisms that automatically feed into the gradebook.
  • Make an effort to update your gradebook every week so students are kept current on their status in the class.
Structure assignments so students provide feedback to each other.
  • Try teaming students up in pairs and have them critique each other’s work, or have students working in groups submit their work to the entire class, which then comments on the work.
  • This technique is especially useful when students are encouraged to submit multiple drafts of assignments or when there are multiple parts to an assignment which are submitted in stages.

Acknowledgement Feedback

Strategy Details
Set a response policy and state it in the syllabus.
  • Let students know how frequently you will be checking messages, or promise a response within a given timeframe. A response time of 24 hours during week days is reasonable.
  • Recommend the fastest way for students to get a response from you. For example, if you check your e-mail more often than you check your voice mail, let them know that e-mail will generally get a quicker response from you.
  • If you anticipate a response time that is longer than you originally stated, due to unusual circumstances, let the students know in advance, if possible.
Take note of students who fail to participate or whose participation drops off.
  • Students who fail to participate may need some encouragement, especially if distance learning is new to them or if the content of the course is new to them. Acknowledge the students with individual e-mails and encourage them to participate.
  • If a student’s participation drops off during the course, acknowledge the student privately, ask if he/she has any questions or issues to bring to your attention, and encourage him/her to participate.
Set aside time to let students know their assignments have been received. Schedule some time immediately after an assignment is due to send a quick message to students to let them know you have received their assignments. Simple quick messages such as this often alleviate anxiety in distance learning students.
Use the Assignment Manager in myWPI for assignment submission. If you use the Assignment Manager in myWPI, you can eliminate the need to send e-mail acknowledgements to students because they can easily see in the Assignment Manager that their assignments have been successfully submitted.


Black, P. & William, D. (1998). Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education, 5(1), 7-74.

Chickering, A.W. & Gamson, Z.F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin, March, 3-7.

Graham, C., Cagiltay, K., Craner, J., Lim, B., & Duffy, T.M. (2000). Teaching in a web based distance learning environment PDF File . Retrieved September 7, 2005.

Illinois Online Network. (2005). Strategies for providing feedback. Retrieved August 30, 2005.

Padavano, D. & Gould, M. (2004, December). Best practices for faculty who teach online PDF File. DEOSNEWS, 13(9). Retrieved September 7, 2005.

Maintained by
Last modified: Aug 13, 2007, 09:49 EDT
[WPI] [ATC] [Home] [Back] [Top]