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Peer Interaction in Distance Learning Prevents Attrition

written by: Sylvia Cochran•edited by: Sarah Malburg•updated: 12/8/2011

Counteract online student isolation with peer feedback. Notice that your virtual classroom not only becomes the hub of enhanced online learning, but it actually experiences fewer student drop-outs than other online college courses. What makes giving and receiving peer feedback work?

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    Rationale Behind Online College Peer Feedback

    Within the virtual classroom, student interaction has the power to greatly enhance the overall online learning experience. When implemented with care, it encourages peer interaction through forum postings, challenges learners to reason through thought models and provides a safe environment in which to make use of newly learned concepts.

    In his book "Effective Feedback Skills," author Tim Russell argues that while new learning is introduced via an input mechanism, it is not actually accepted until it goes through a processing stage. It is at this juncture that peer interactions matter the most.

    Student feedback shows off not only a mastery of material learned and comprehended, but it may also lead to a class-wide paradigm shift as thought models are challenged and -- in some cases -- toppled. This is especially true in the online college course devoted to business or science. As such, online college peer feedback is one of the most important teaching tools that the online learning provider possesses.

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    Development of Excellent Feedback Patterns

    Student feedback that produces true peer connectivity (as well as learning) does not happen automatically. In the July 2007 issue of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, a study devoted to the exploration of peer feedback outlined that in order to derive the full benefit of this teaching tool, student posts have to be gradually raising the bar when it comes to academic quality. Remember that the peer interaction in the virtual classroom is designed to not only counteract the relative isolation of the individual student, but to also enhance the online learning experience.

    Seasoned instructors know that channeling online peer feedback must start out slow with simple posts that encourage students to get to know one another. In some cases, instructors may actually consider online game play as a form of easy initial interaction. Once this stage has been satisfactorily conquered, it is time to steer the peer feedback into channels of higher thinking and learning material analysis.

    The giving and receiving of peer feedback will reach its pinnacle when it becomes a prerequisite to the successful completion of an assignment or task. Savvy online instructors will be careful to not overdo their role of leadership in this situation, but instead assume the role of the Scrum Master – as befits clearly outlined Scrum Roles – and thus enable students to cooperate in the construction of a hypothesis, examination of the facts, and formulation of a reasoned response.

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    Avoiding a Negative Feedback Loop

    Assuming that instructor-led icebreakers and other activities have done away with the initial feelings of shyness and anxiety over giving and receiving peer feedback, there are still some problems within the virtual classroom that will be enhanced with this form of communication. The goal of student retention may be challenged when negative student feedback discourages learners. Much like a loop, negative interactions tend to feed on one another and quickly derail an overall positive environment. Moreover, a failure to clearly outline appropriate feedback behavior could prevent total student participation.

    Instructors will do well to devise and discuss an acceptable framework in which online college peer feedback is to take place. For example, the old adage that a negative bit of feedback must be cushioned with at least two positive bits of feedback in the same posting could still apply.

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    While there is no guarantee that students will not drop out of the virtual classroom, attrition can be greatly lessened by creating the feeling of a vibrant online community to which students are drawn by choice -- not just by syllabus.

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    Sources

    Photo Credit: "Fehler Teufel" by Jlorenz1/Wikimedia Commons at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fehlerteufel.svg