Constructive Criticism in an Online Environment


Dr. Heather Frederick

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Most would agree that constructive criticism is good: it helps us grow. Most would also agree that constructive criticism is an integral part of the online educational process. Simply put, if you are a student who is not receiving constructive criticism concerning your writing, skills, thoughts, and ideas, then you are not getting a good return on your educational investment. If you are a faculty and you are not providing this type of feedback, you are not fulfilling your responsibilities as an educator.

So, why is constructive criticism so hard to give and even harder to take?

Whether you are pointing out someone’s weakness, or the one whose weaknesses are being exposed, criticism (constructive or not) can easily lead to an uncomfortable state. This is human nature. In an online environment, without nonverbal cues, it becomes even more difficult. For example, in a traditional setting an instructor explains to a student in a calm and encouraging voice (while making eye contact) how to revise a paper to meet the course learning outcomes. In the online environment such feedback is stripped of tone and body language and the student sees a paper (that cost family or work time to write) bathed in red, track changes marking most paragraphs, and comments cascading down the margin.

In an online setting, it is important to realize that feedback and grading are part of the education process. One of the chief functions of the faculty is to provide feedback on student work. This involves not only offering guidance and instructions to resources, but also suggestions on how to improve. Feedback also helps students perfect skills and knowledge. Anyone working or learning online should learn to love the feedback; and ask for more!

Take a rational approach to feedback. As constructive and useful as criticism is, it can be difficult to work long hours on a paper or presentation and have errors pointed out. If you find you react emotionally when you receive your grade or feedback, give yourself time to cool down. Read the feedback and then take a break. Come back to the paper later and read the feedback one more time. Be sure to ask for further clarification to eliminate any possible misunderstandings.

See feedback as empowering. The purpose of feedback and grading is to help promote excellence. Thus, use the feedback as a tool for empowerment. If at any time you feel you want additional feedback or support, just ask!

Faculty looking for tips on how to provide constructive criticism should follow these strategies:

  • Point out strengths as well as weaknesses. It can be disheartening to only hear negative feedback and students need to know what they did well.
  • Adopt an encouraging tone. Encourage the student with feedback by ensuring that comments are polite and gentle, yet firm. Be gentle with your criticism. Be firm in holding students to standards.
  • Give feedback that is clear, direct, meaningful, and individualized. Avoid vague and canned comments and make sure the comments contain enough detail so that the feedback is useful. It is important that your comments do not just point out a deficiency or weakness, but that they teach and guide.
  • Check your work. After you are done writing your feedback, imagine you are the student, skim the paper, and read your feedback. Ask yourself these questions: Could the Learner effectively use the feedback to improve the paper?
  • If you provide a lot of feedback, consider a phone call. Many faculty report that conversations over the phone or via Skype are highly effective, plus they allow for verbal cues and also afford the student the opportunity to ask questions and gain clarity.

You may also be interested in OLC’s workshop on giving feedback to students in online courses: Fundamentals: Giving Effective Feeback 


Dr. Heather Frederick received her B.A. in Psychology from SDSU and both her M.A. in General Psychology and her Ph.D. in Social/Developmental Psychology from Brandeis University (with concentrations in quantitative methods in psychology and lifespan development). 

Heather has taught at SDSU, was employed as a research analyst for a private health care company, and ran her own independent consulting business. At Walden University she served as an Associate Director for the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. She has held multiple roles at Northcentral University (NCU), including Dean for the School of Psychology and Vice President of Academic Affairs. In her current role (Dean, Graduate School) she works with an amazing team of incredibly talented Chairs and committee members who mentor doctoral candidates through their dissertation research. She feels incredibly lucky to have job that allows her to be pursue her passion for assisting graduate students in completing their degree. 

A native Southern Californian, she resides in Laguna Niguel, CA. Her ten-year-old twin daughters, who share her love of music, keep her busy. She loves rekindling hobbies that for far too long she said she didn’t have time for: dancing, inline skating, playing harmonica, hiking, biking, creating gluten-free and sugar-free treats, and reading entire books in one sitting.

Melanie Shaw
Melanie Shaw

Melanie Shaw has over fifteen years of educational experience ranging from classroom and graduate level teaching to counseling and administration. She is Director of Online Curriculum and Instruction at Clemson University. In addition, Melanie is a dissertation chair, teaches undergraduate and graduate courses online, and develops curriculum for a variety of higher education institutions. She serves as an education consultant and as Executive Editor for the eLearning Institute.

Melanie’s primary research interests include online teaching and learning, organizational leadership, and distance learning instructional practices. She is the author of several books, articles, and chapters including: The Genre of Instructor Feedback in Doctoral Programs: A Corpus Linguistic Analysis; An Evaluation of Student Outcomes by Course Duration in Online Higher Education; Establishing an Online Professional Development Community to Promote Faculty Engagement and Excellence; Motivational Factors of Generation Y Educators: Implications for Teacher Retention; Distance Learning Courses: A Survey of Activities and Assignments; and Online Course Activities: A Survey of Assignment and Assessment Types. In addition to Melanie’s publications, she has presented at the U.S. Distance Learning Association Conference, Online Learning Consortium Conference, the Ubiquitous Learning Conference, International Learning Conference, and the Distance Learning Administration Conference. She is the winner of the Wagner Award for Outstanding Instructional Support and the Online Learning Consortium’s Effective Practice Award.

Melanie received a Ph.D. in Education with a specialization in Curriculum and Teaching from Northcentral University, a master’s degree in Education Administration from Grand Canyon University, and a second master’s degree in School Counseling for the University of West Alabama. She received her bachelor’s degree in Liberal Studies and Music from Excelsior College. She holds teaching certificates in online teaching, elementary education, and guidance counseling. She lives near Colorado Springs with her husband and two daughters.

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