For feedback to be an important learning mechanism in your community, it has to be handled well.
Feedback is an essential part of the learning experience. Without a positive feedback loop from the course design, the instructor, and even the fellow students, learners have a hard time assessing their progress. However, for that feedback to work, it has to be supportive and encouraging. When the feedback is overly harsh or negative, it can have the exact opposite effect to the one intended.
In an online community, it is especially important to get the feedback right. The Internet is notorious for having many members who, under the cloak of anonymity, feel no qualms about rushing to judgment or sharing overly harsh opinions that they might have tempered in a face-to-face situation.
So, while it’s important to encourage your learners to respond to each other, it’s equally important to show them how. Here are a few ways to grow a culture of positive, constructive feedback in your online course.
1. Don’t push learners to give feedback just for the sake of giving feedback.
Your learners probably do need to be encouraged to respond to their course mates, but you should avoid policies that are overly proscriptive. For instance, if you’re asking your learners to write a weekly blog post about what they’ve learned in your course, you may have a good reason for asking their course mates to each leave a comment—but you don’t then need to require them to respond to other comments on the post.
2. Encourage your learners to avoid the “criticism sandwich.”
You’ve probably heard people recommend sandwiching negative feedback between two good things to say. Unfortunately, this probably isn’t good advice. See, the people you’re giving that feedback to, they know what you’re doing. The effect of your feedback sandwich is that they discount the good things because they assume you only included them in order to fit the sandwich formula.
My own preference is to give the negative first and finish with the positive. People tend to mentally scratch out anything that came before a “but” in a sentence. If you say to someone “Your essay had a strong conclusion, but I felt the premise was weak” is completely different from “I felt the premise was weak, but you had a strong conclusion.”
3. Ask them to be descriptive and specific.
This may sound a little counterintuitive at first. After all, if you’re critiquing someone’s work, won’t specificity make it sound as though you’re picking it apart bit by bit?
Well, yes, maybe, and if you’re doing that, then you should stop. You don’t need to offer more than a couple examples of what you’re talking about to make your point.
The important thing is that, by offering a specific example and describing what you think about it, you give a person actionable advice. Furthermore, they can look at what you’re saying and decide for themselves how they feel about it.
If you say to someone “I felt your writing style was weak,” that’s vague and uncertain. If you say to them “I felt you used too many qualifiers such as perhaps, I think, and maybe in your writing,” then they can see what you mean and make the necessary adjustments themself.
4. Be clear about your expectations for feedback.
No one wants unsolicited feedback, but in an online course where feedback is encouraged, it can be tricky to see where the feedback is needed and where it is not required. Make it clear to your learners when and where you expect them to leave feedback, and what for you expect it to take. This will also help those on the receiving end of the feedback feel less attacked and defensive when the feedback arrives, because it will be in a context they expect.
5. Do not tolerate abusive feedback.
If a student becomes overly harsh or rude toward other students, be proactive in reigning them in. An overly negative person can create a toxic environment that makes it difficult for anyone to express themselves freely.
That said, some people have different standards for what they consider to be too harsh, so follow the points above this by setting expectations early about how you expect them to conduct themselves, and give clear examples of the type of feedback you will not allow. If necessary, be ready to enact a penalty on anyone who doesn’t abide by your guidelines.
6. Model constructive feedback techniques yourself.
Finally, demonstrate constructive feedback yourself through the way you engage with your learners. A certain level of positivity comes naturally for most of us in the online teaching community, because we’ve worked hard to sign learners up for our course and we don’t want them to leave. But most of us can still improve by setting expectations and providing clear and descriptive feedback.
A healthy feedback culture can help your learners improve while building your community.
Remember that many learners join an online community specifically because they need feedback. Writing groups and language groups thrive on input from others guiding them toward better style or more accurate grammar. And in other cases, many of us need feedback to help maintain accountability.
So don’t neglect creating your feedback culture because you’re worried it will push some people away. As long as you’ve helped establish the right rules and guidelines about constructive feedback, any learner honestly interested in improvement will welcome the comments.