How Can Student Feedback Improve Online Classes?

improve online classesProfessionals in higher education spend a lot of time talking about what online learning should be, what it should look like, and how it should work. But what do the students think? They are on the front lines in our online courses and rely on us to ensure that the experience will be valuable.

Students typically have an opportunity to provide their ideas for improvement through formal end-of-term course evaluations. Unfortunately, this kind of input can be delayed in reaching instructors, as well as course designers and developers. Like many of you, I look closely at course evaluations for clues about how I might make my classes better, but I also like to add other ways for students to share their thoughts about course improvement throughout the term.

In one of my graduate level instructional design classes I ask students to think about how they would advise the instructional designers who are managing new course development and maintaining their existing courses. This is part of a reflection assignment, a journal that only I read. Granted this is a biased crowd, many have worked professionally as eLearning designers, I ask them to think about their broad experiences on the learner’s side of the table. What is it like to be an online student? How are they affected by all aspects of a course from content to color schemes?

Student perspectives vary, as do their suggestions for improvement, often based on their motives for taking a particular class, the level of study, and the topic covered, but there are general themes to review. Many of the ideas presented in recent research, and suggested by my students, fall into three categories: curriculum design, usability, and interaction and engagement. Let’s take a closer look at how improving these areas could help us better meet student expectations and facilitate a more effective online learning experience.

Curriculum Design

At the administrative level of program development, we may have the opportunity to map learning objectives and create plans for courses in a more holistic way. All too often, however, individual courses are designed and developed in a vacuum, and students realize this as they work through programs that feel disjointed.

How does each course relate to the other courses in the program or to students’ education and career goals? The following student suggestions reveal some of the gaps that still exist in the delivery of online learning options:

  • Track the requirements for each course. This is a good place to start when reviewing a program from the student perspective. A textbook or software application, for example, could be useful in more than one class. Coordination among instructors would ensure that the overlap is complementary and not repetitive.
  • Include real-world applications. This is especially relevant in programs that don’t require internships or other kinds of field experiences. Students who have enrolled with career exploration, transition, or advancement in mind are looking for course activities that prepare them for the workplace. The integration of scenarios, simulations, case studies, learning games, and other problem solving assignments provide relevant experience and may even result in items appropriate for a professional portfolio.
  • Explain formal course objectives. In a recent Inside Online Learning chat (#IOLchat) focused on course evaluations, participants noted that students often don’t know how to answer questions like “the course materials helped me meet course learning objectives.” While these goals are often listed in the syllabus and weekly modules, instructors can do more as a course progresses to reiterate why assignments are included and how they are designed to measure specific areas of student learning.

These kinds of efforts have the potential to impact multiple aspects of the online learning experience. Effects many include more efficient use of resources, communication of expected outcomes, and requirements of students’ limited budgets.


Terms like “easy to use” and “user friendly” are frequently mentioned when I ask students how their online courses could be improved. They want to find everything quickly and from one central location, and who can blame them. Hunting for information and logging in to multiple accounts can be tedious and discouraging.

What would improve the experience for students? Navigation, interface design, content organization, and maintenance are all pieces of the puzzle in online learning, and student recommended areas of attention.

  • Establish a consistent approach to course design. Many schools use templates to ensure that items like the syllabus and weekly to-do lists are presented in the same way in every course. Learning Management Systems also help to organize content. If multiple design approaches are currently used within an online program, take a look at the pros and cons of each one, as well as at student evaluation feedback before making the next revision.
  • Balance simple and complex. “User friendly” classes are often very simply constructed, but simple can be boring, especially in classes that rely only on text to convey ideas and instructions. Adding brief video introductions, animated review activities, and visual charts and diagrams bring variety and clarity to the course content.
  • Keep the content up-to-date. Course materials can become obsolete fairly quickly, especially in courses presenting technical topics. Consider scheduling periodic in-depth course review and revision, if this is not already part of a program’s procedures. It’s also a good idea to check each course for broken links and similar errors before each term starts.
  • Notify students of course activity and changes. One of my students recently recommended automatic notifications, which would alert students when feedback is available. Currently they have to repeatedly log in and check the grade center. While the learning management system we are using doesn’t yet offer this feature, others have similar options. Alternatives could be a class email or announcement from the instructor, letting students know that grades for an assignment have been posted.

Interaction and Engagement

What does it take to get students more engaged in their online classes? This is another term we hear often, and it can require implementing different strategies for different courses, students, and instructors. The typical online course includes static content presentation and threaded discussion boards – both have value, but neither offers a lot of inspiration when presented week after week.

How do students want to interact? What are their expectations in an online course? Here are a few observations from a recent survey and my course feedback:

  • Consider in-person alternatives. Tools like Skype and Google Hangouts offer easy access and a way to meet “face-to-face” via two-way video and audio. Instructors and students can meet for appointments and open office hours, and students can use these technologies to meet with each other when working on group assignments.
  • Provide timely feedback. A 2013 study of student satisfaction from Noel-Levitz found that online students identified several areas of student-instructor interaction as “top challenges,” including being “responsive to student needs” and providing “timely feedback about student progress.” These aren’t new areas of concern, but they are always worth revisiting.
  • Provide individual feedback. Students can tell when we are cutting and pasting general comments into rubrics, emails, and discussion boards. Adding more personalized details takes time, especially with a large class, but goes a long way in promoting interaction and engagement.
  • Add social networking opportunities. What if students could post profile information and rate, “Like,” or vote up responses in a discussion or list of recommended resources? My students have suggested integrating social media-type functions within courses, so that they can get to know each other better. Some learning management systems are adding these tools, while others offer ways to embed things like Twitter feeds. Facebook Groups and Google Communities offer other ways to connect and collaborate, even across sections of a course.

I have a lot of work to do if I am going to apply all of these suggestions to my online classes. Not all are probable, or even possible. But one, adding more visual content, is in the works. A small step, perhaps, but every step forward counts in online learning.

What improvements are students suggesting for your courses? Share your plans for review and revision with us here.

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Source: Inside Online Learning Blog