Effective approaches to feedback while students are distance learning

An illustration showing a student receiving feedback remotely

Source: © Roger Chouinard/Ikon Images

How can teachers ensure they are giving effective feedback while teaching remotely?

‘Since when do plants have female parts?’ texted my nephew – who is in year 8 and tackling multiple choice questions at home. It made me consider some of the challenges of remote learning. With distance learning now the ‘new normal’, many teachers are considering how best to assess and feed back to their students.

Feedback is powerful in the learning process if used effectively. Face-to-face teaching comes with a range of informal opportunities for formative feedback to individuals, small groups and whole classes. Without these opportunities, how can teachers ensure that their feedback is effective and that learners respond to it?

Challenges of remote feedback

Meaningful feedback is personal, task-related, specific, positive and timely. These each have their own challenges, whether within the classroom or while remote learning.

In the current crisis, not only are teachers dealing with a change in style of working, but also the stress of ‘lockdown’. Many do not have the time or brain space to develop new resources. In addition, not all students have access to computers, the internet or home conditions within which to work. However, if you are in a position to develop new feedback approaches, here are four opportunities for school science departments to implement some simple, or more sophisticated, methods for online feedback.

What’s available?

Before you start investing time in making your own remote feedback strategies, is your school already signed up to a package that provides this function? Many of the education publishers have generously opened up their online resources to schools for free during the Covid-19 outbreak, some of which include online self-assessments and feedback. For example, the OUP’s Checkpoint activities in their Activate course include a self-test. This asks a student a series of multiple choice questions; depending on their answers, they receive instant feedback and direction in order to help them get the right answer.

Live feedback via email

I’ve spoken to many teachers who are expected to be available on email during set ‘lesson times’ to respond to students’ questions. This is a good way to respond quickly to questions about the work or activity they have been set. The advantages are that it is timely and personal, however not all students feel able to engage with this and literacy can be a limiting factor for some. It is worth checking that your feedback is structured carefully to be specific, positive and understood. Praising and promoting self-regulation and metacognitive skills is also a valuable endeavour in this situation.

Developing your own online feedback

Some teachers are already developing their own approaches to online learning. For example, Norfolk-based chemistry teacher Niki Kaiser uses Google Forms to set and give feedback on homework, as she describes in her blog.

If you are starting out, I would advise keeping it simple at this stage. Set a limit of only ten carefully constructed questions, based on the concepts you hope they have learned.

Feeling creative? If so, this is a good opportunity to think strategically to give students situations to transfer specific feedback to new tasks and apply general feedback to specific tasks. These ideas are brought together helpfully in Harry Fletcher-Wood’s Improving feedback article, where you can also download a useful template to support this.

A shift in feedback focus

Maybe this is the perfect time to support our students with developing their self-regulation skills. Students (and their parents) are feeling frustrated with ‘being stuck’ and ‘not knowing what to do’. So instead of focusing feedback just on concept development, also use it to develop independent working skills. Niki Kaiser’s blog also gives some examples of questions that support self-regulation.

Self-regulation equips students with coping strategies when facing barriers in learning and skills them with being creative in problem-solving. Lauren Stephenson’s article Show students how to direct their own learning comes with a handy template of questions for students to consider when planning, monitoring and evaluating an activity. You could share this with parents at the start of a topic or at the end of a series of lessons.

Deciding what to do

Avoid spending time making one-off activities. Instead think about how these could enrich your teaching once we get back to normal as well. Take this opportunity to work (virtually) with colleagues within schools and between schools. To be useful, do something worthwhile and manageable for you, your colleagues and your students.

Thanks to Niki Kaiser for permission to reference her blog.