Feedback In Online Courses: Advice From Emily Dickinson

What Emily Dickinson Can Tell Us About Providing Effective Feedback In Online Courses

We know Emily Dickinson as a prolific and reclusive poet who had a profound impact on modern American poetry. Recently, I completed an anthology of Dickinson’s poems, an amazing collection of writing that holds several layers of meaning, metaphor, and messages. What I never expected, and the reason for this article, is that many of Dickinson’s poems are sublime guides in how we should provide feedback in online courses — because they are metaphors for truth, dreams, communication, and feelings, which are the essence of feedback.

Emily Dickinson died in 1886, well before the age of online learning. In the spirit of learning from dead poets, this article shares some advice from the “Belle of Amherst” on the topic of feedback in online courses.

Emily Dicksinson

I Dwell In Possibility –
A Fairer House Than Prose –
More Numerous Of Windows –
Superior – For Doors –
Of Chambers As The Cedars –
Impregnable Of Eye –
And For An Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels Of The Sky –

Online learners take online courses because we “dwell in possibility”. We know what we know but hope to break through the confines of our knowledge, through the “windows” and “doors” to reach what Dickinson calls “the gambrels of the sky”— our particular learning goals.

Feedback is the foundation of possibility. It is the process of providing guidance and information that helps learners “close the gap” between the house of our knowledge and the sky of learning. It consists of the following 4 stages that constantly “loop” back or form a cycle (Bandura, 1986):

Feedback loop

  1. Evidence.
    Like the “windows” and “doors” of Dickinson’s house, evidence forms discrete pieces of information about performance that can measured and processed.
  2. Communication.
    The information that is taken in by the “eye” and the ear are conveyed to the individual, not as raw data, but in a format that makes it emotionally “resonant” and relevant to the person.
  3. Consequence.
    Like the “gambrels of the sky”, feedback “illuminates” a specific path forward, a specific metaphor or end on which the learner can focus.
  4. Action.
    The learner recalibrates behavior, makes choices, and acts on them to break out of “possibility” and reach those “gambrels of the sky.”

Tell All The Truth But Tell It Slant —
Success In Circuit Lies

How we communicate feedback to online learners is critical in part because new knowledge is fragile, as is oftentimes, learners’ confidence levels vis-a-vis this knowledge. In the online courses I have taught, the cardinal rule is that feedback should be kind. This means being aware that our feedback should not be blunt or direct in ways that can wound. Rather, as Dickinson suggests, we should “tell all the truth, but tell it 'slant'”. For example, using protocols; having learners communicate what they thought worked well and didn’t; starting with positive aspects of learner performance before moving on to what might be improved; or using “warm feedback” and “cool feedback” makes feedback emotionally resonant for learners and more likely that they will take in such information and act on it.

The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually
Or Every Man Be Blind —

Feedback should “dazzle gradually” versus overwhelm. It should be appropriate to the purpose of the assignment; focus on 1 or 2 issues versus a laundry list of things to change; and be channeled toward the behavior to be corrected, not the learner him/herself. When we follow these guidelines, we can help learners better understand where they are in the learning process, in a way that "dazzles" or enlightens versus "blinds" them. By making feedback digestible and discrete, versus "YUGE", learners are much more able to focus on the one or two things that they can change to better move them toward their “truth” or personal learning goals.

Too Bright For Our Infirm Delight
The Truth's Superb Surprise
As Lightning To The Children Eased
With Explanation Kind

Dickinson’s poems repeatedly caution us about the importance of communicating information in ways that use an economy of language, that make information understandable and accessible, but that also make it specific and substantive. Above all, Dickinson’s poems urge us to take the measure of our learners, to be generous — to make, where needed our “explanations kind”. That is, our feedback should ultimately be grounded in the desire to help the learner attain a state of receptivity where he/she is willing and able to take steps to improve. Our feedback should not make learners feel bad or hurt their confidence.

This may mean, as with “lightning to the Children eased”, that we should not confront the biggest areas of need that our learners may have. It might simply be not the right time, or “too bright”, or it may be that our learners don’t yet know how to get to the “Truth’s superb surprise” or what this even looks like. Instead, our feedback may need to be incremental versus transformative and above all, appropriate in relation to learners' understanding of what they should be doing.

Success Is Counted Sweetest
By Those Who Ne'er Succeed.
To Comprehend A Nectar
Requires Sorest Need.

Effective feedback is most important for learners who “ne’er succeed”. It is important to take extra care with such learners. Feedback to these (and all learners) should be timely — the longer learners have to wait for feedback, the weaker the connection to their effort becomes, and the less likely they are to benefit. Like Dickinson, use an economy of language that condenses feedback to its very essence.

It’s also important to help these learners “get it right”. When our learners know we want to see them succeed, and we are willing to help explain how, their learning improves. We can do this by giving them opportunities to improve, try again, and get it right. Most important we can celebrate with them sweet success and the confidence and efficacy gains that occur when we overcome obstacles to do well.

Hope Is The Thing With Feathers That Perches In The Soul - And Sings The Tunes Without The Words - And Never Stops At All.

Above all, feedback is about “hope”— about looking forward and to a future state. It is about helping online learners (indeed, any learners) get the best out of themselves —to close the gap— moving from where they are to where they need to be. Giving learners a clear goal, the means of evaluating their progress, increases the likelihood that they will attain their goal. This process is critical to individual self-efficacy (“the thing with feathers that perches in the soul”)—the belief that with the right tools and information, individuals can attain their goals, keep attaining their goals and develop such confidence and expertise that they “sing the tunes without the words—and never stop at all”.

 

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