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Providing positive student feedback in an online environment

Often, instructors tend to focus their feedback on correcting students. After all, they are the experts, and students are here to learn. However, much research exists to support the benefit of providing positive feedback to students, including motivation, self-confidence, self efficacy, and other psychological outcomes, as well as academic skills (Ani, 2019). Positive feedback also increases student persistence and results in higher levels of student interest (Deci et al, 1999). Here, we suggest ways to include (or improve) positive feedback to students, with a focus on digital feedback and the online environment.

What is positive feedback? Certainly, it is important to point out that we do not mean to imply that only students with good results should be given positive feedback. In contrast, we urge readers to consider all feedback-related interactions as an opportunity to leave students feeling positive or encouraged, even when they have earned poor marks. One’s own attitudes and emotions while creating feedback should be routinely examined, as discussed in emerging teacher-emotion research (Fried et al, 2015). Cultivating compassion and gratitude for our students and their efforts may aid in employing some of the tips regarding positive feedback listed below.

When it comes to feedback medium in an online environment, there are many options to consider. Most instructors are familiar with leaving written feedback on students’ work, but with an increased online presence it has become more important to develop good practices in this area. Having more limited contact with our students, leaving feedback that is accurate and helpful, but also diplomatic and encouraging, is essential. Tone and affect must be carefully considered. As an alternative, consider leaving voice or video feedback when it comes to nuanced communication to increase the accuracy of intention and perception. The social and emotional function of feedback is valued by students and even goes as far as to work as an anxiety-reducer and emotion-regulator, as documented by Rowe (2011). 

Given the potential for social isolation related to online learning even in normal times and which are exacerbated by a global pandemic, positive feedback provides an excellent opportunity to create connection and community.

Other mediums can be utilized to engage students as well, like gifs, images, videos, or other rewards that provide humour or fun in addition to the intended message. Using feed- back as an opportunity to catch students’ attention in a way that reflects real-word digital communication can help build rapport and reduce the emotional distance between instructor and student, especially in the case when the student is quite a bit younger than the instructor.
These options are especially good for quick group or individual formative feedback, or as an accompaniment to more specific or traditional feedback on summative evaluations. Similarly, an ungraded task or other activity where detailed feedback is not required, a digital sticker can be added to the work to positively reinforce students for their effort. If you are more ambitious, you could also make some components of the course gamified where student receive digital badges (many LMSs support this).

Individual feedback can be provided on private assignments or public (or semi-public)
discussion posts. In either case, positive feedback can include emoticons (smile, thumbs up)
to show students your approval. In this way, these act like positive reinforcement, much the
same way that a sticker on an assignment would. Particularly in an asynchronous environment where 1-to-1 contact is minimal, leaving positive feedback provides an opportunity to connect with each student about one of their strengths. These small gestures can demonstrate to students that they are seen and important when large class sizes and online learning threaten to depersonalize their experience.

General feedback can also be disseminated en mass and to large classes. Automation is one way to maximize the positive feedback students receive while not becoming time-intensive for instructors. For example, setting up automated emails when students meet some parameter (in D2L/Brightspace, these are called Intelligent Agents). You may wish to set these up, for example, to provide a congratulatory message following each test and assignment. You may also set one up to let students know you’ve noticed they have been keeping up with the work in the course (e.g., accessed all of the files in a unit or completed a checklist). Another way to provide positive feedback to students is through mass communication such as the course announcements tool (and making use of release conditions). In most learning management systems, you can set up announcements to be seen by only students who meet certain criteria (such as those who have logged in on a specific date, perhaps before the class begins, and you want to tell them it’s great to see them getting a head start). These are only two examples of how instructors can provide seemingly individualized, positive feedback to students even in very large classes.


Our position outlined herein does not propose that all feedback needs to be positive. After
all, students also need to learn how to improve their work (even if the student put in a great deal of effort to produce it), and learn to deal with failure when it occurs. It is also important not to lower our standards in order to be able to provide positive feedback- we can be nurturing and still demand quality work from our students. Positive feedback and other forms of encouragement may lose priority for busy instructors who may focus more on corrective feed- back, especially when adapting to new ways of teaching. The practices suggested here serve as ways to refresh existing practices and include new opportunities for connection. Including these practices can help to increase motivation and social presence in an online environment, and ultimately increase student success.


Ani, A. (2019). Positive feedback improves students’ psychological and physical outcomes. Indonesian Journal of Educational Studies, 22(2),134-143.
Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, M. R. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards and intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125(6), 627-668.
Fried, M., Mansield, C., & Dobozy, E. (2015). Teacher emotion research: Introducing a
conceptual model to guide future research. Issues in Educational Research, 25(4), 415– 441.
Rowe, A. (2011). The personal dimension in teaching: Why students value feedback. The International Journal of Educational Management, 25(4), 343-360. doi:http://dx.doi.org.dproxy.library.dc-uoit.ca/10.1108/09513541111136630


Lynne Kennette, Durham College Morgan Chapman