Improving Peer Feedback in Online Courses

In many online courses, the discussion forum remains a central place for student-instructor and student-student interaction.  While is does not have the affordance of immediacy and spontaneity, it does have other benefits.  In a discussion forum, learners can re-read one another’s posts as much as they want, paying more attention to the details of arguments.  After carefully considering the argument, a learner can construct a detailed response, taking as much time and doing as much research as is possible given their time restraints (restraints within the course and the restraints that come for other life commitments). These are powerful affordances when it comes to peer feedback.  However, the fact that these affordandances are possible does not means that learners will leverage them in a way that promotes increased learning.

For an online text-based discussion to be a place of significant peer-to-peer learning that improves personal understanding and future performance, we need to look at certain attributes of these exchanges, considering the types of peer feedback that improve learning.  For the sake of this article, I’m thinking specifically about online discussions where learners post rough draft papers, projects, or products; and then they are supposed to gain peer feedback that helps them improve that draft.  For that to happen, it typically requires training students on how to give this sort of feedback.  Consider the following three tips.

1. Move Beyond “Right or Wrong” Feedback

Help students move beyond right or wrong, correct or incorrect, agree or disagree comments.  Instead, they want to give specifics.  What works especially well is to start with posting a specific comment about an issue in the peer’s work, and then following up with a question or two that can lead them in the right direction on how to address it.  Suppose, for example, that a student posted a paper about how iPads can improve student learning in math, but they didn’t cite any rigorous studies to support that claim.  The best feedback would not simply be, “I think you need more support for your arguments.”  Instead, consider this feedback.  “You note that iPads can improve student learning, but I don’t see any support from scholarly journals to support that claim.  Can you find any studies that deal specifically with how iPad usage improved student performance in math and use those studies to better support your claim?”  Notice that this second piece of feedback is more specific and it points the peer in the right direction on how to address a current weakness in the paper.

2. Check for Understanding & Proceed with Appreciation and Concerns

In David Perkins’s Making Learning Whole, he describes three types of feedback: corrective (right or wrong), conciliatory (encouragements and affirmations), and communicative (“structured to ensure good communication”).  This last type, communicative, is divided into three parts.  The first is clarification.  This is when a peer’s feedback starts with a question that is intended to ensure proper understanding before proceeding.  The goal is to make sure that you understand the paper before you start critiquing it.  While this is difficult in a time-sensitive online threaded discussion (like one that lasts only a week), it is still possible and it is very effective.  Without this step, a peer can unknowingly provide irrelevant or unhelpful feedback. Once clarification is complete, then it is time to move on to appreciation (affirming specific positive attributes of the work) and concerns/suggestions (focusing upon specific ways to improve the next version of this work).  As noted by Perkins, the goal of clarification and affirmation is to be informative, not just encouraging friendly.

3. Provide Feedback Using a Set of Specific Criteria or a Rubric

This is effective in helping students learn how to give specific and targeted feedback.  Learners are typically newer to the content of the course, hence the reason that they are taking it (yes, there are exceptions to this).  So, to give good feedback, some sort of guide will help them to give the type of detailed feedback that can be used to improve a paper or project.  In the example above, one of the items on the rubric might have been, “The paper supports each argument with scholarly research reports that relate directly to that argument.”  Another item might be, “The author is explicit about how any cited research supports one or more arguments in the paper.”  While such comments may seem intuitive to the expert, they are not to the novice, and a checklist or rubric with such items helps all the learners develop the ability to analyze their own work and the work of others in view of specific criteria.  Keep in mind that it is not enough for students to place yes or no check marks beside items in a rubric or checklist, not if the goal is to help them improve their work.  Instead, as noted in suggestion 1, they should follow up with specific comments and questions that guide one another in the right direction.

Training students to use these three steps goes a long way in improving the quality of peer feedback in an online discussion forum.  Of course, these same strategies work in other contexts as well.