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Guide to Giving Negative Feedback in Online Classes

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

Do you want to learn the proper ways for giving negative feedback? Online college courses thrive on constructive feedback but sometimes negative feedback is needed to get the online school’s – or student’s -- attention. Learn how to do it the right way.

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    Honesty in Communication: Rationale

    Properly giving negative feedback helps the distance learner as well as the online teacher maintain integrity in the online school system. Positive feedback has long been thought to be the hallmark of successful online college courses, but this negates the truth that some online classes deserve negative feedback, just like some online students or their assignments.

    "A key tool for any improvement effort is feedback," explains Tom Furnival from the Marshall Institute(1), and it simply cannot be all good.

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    Giving Feedback to an Online School: For the Distance Learner

    Negative feedback should not be confused with disparaging remarks. In his book “Effective Feedback Skills," author Tim Russell accurately points out that constructive feedback is appropriate(2), but also actionable. In other words, when learning how to give negative feedback to an online school, the comments made need to be professional in form and at the same time point to specific situations and instances that allow for a remedying of the issue.

    Overly vague, emotionally based negative feedback offers little value to the online learning environment. In fact, biting sarcasm, the use of expletives or overly vague (or broad) criticisms likely going to be discarded as coming from a disgruntled student who is venting anger over a policy or bad grade.

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    Giving Negative Feedback to an Online Student: For the Online Teacher

    On the other side of the equation is the online teacher, who is the agent of the online school. It is the stated responsibility of the instructor to preserve and heighten the integrity of online college courses, but doing so sometimes necessitates constructive feedback that is not necessarily positive. Learning about giving negative feedback to a student is a crucial component in the distance learner’s academic development. As such, any negative feedback given should be objective, actionable, and balanced.

    In other words, other students’ impressions – such as those that may be posted on the virtual classroom’s forums – should not factor into the teacher-provided feedback. Moreover, the student should be presented with specific areas that require improvements, so he can go after the changes required. The need for balance is addressed by not only pointing out shortcomings, but also achievements of the student.

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    When Criticism Gets Out of Hand

    It is the online instructor’s mandate to teach students about the proper ways of giving negative feedback on class forums and also in communications with the online school. This is a simple lesson that is too often overlooked. When negative feedback eclipses the constructive feedback in a forum or email communication, distance learners lose out and the class becomes ineffective at fulfilling the students' personal as well as academic growth potentials.

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    Photo Credit: "Error" by Sergei Frolov/Wikimedia Commons at