Effective writing skills are critical to success in online learning; however, based on estimates that at least 25% of college students have deficient writing skills, online instructors should anticipate the academic writing skills of their own students may need improvement. And resources and tools to support your students’ success in writing will prove invaluable for your online teaching.

Effective feedback as a teaching tool

There is more than sufficient evidence, collected through decades of research in education, that increased learning occurs when instructors focus more on providing feedback and less on teaching. Worthwhile feedback from faculty – that covers a range of content, style, and presentation – can influence the use of the feedback in student revisions of their work. In addition, providing effective feedback enhances the learning process by giving students the opportunity to reflect and revise assignments, based on that feedback.

Delivering feedback in virtual settings

Compared to a traditional face-to-face class, the online venue offers:

  • Students more opportunities for self-reflection and internal feedback
  • Students more opportunities to reflect on feedback and responses to their peers

A review of best practices in online higher education learning and teaching underscores the importance of the use of pedagogy that engages learners through student-centered techniques, which may require a change in teaching from that used in the traditional classroom.

Leverage the iterative process

One of the most effective student-centered approaches directed toward improved writing skills is the iterative process. The goal of the iterative process is three-fold:

  • To improve the academic writing skills of students
  • To ensure that students acquire the knowledge and skills being taught
  • To encourage reflective thinking in student exchanges with their peers

How does the iterative process work?

Here’s an example scenario of how the iterative process works to develop and enhance writing skills:

  • The Student turns in a written assignment for grading.
  • If the assignment does not meet the established standard of effective written work, the instructor provides actionable feedback that is concrete, specific and useful; the feedback given can be enhanced by providing it through engaging online technology tools (e.g., voicethread, jing, Screen-Cast-O-Matic, Zoom, RingCentral, Hangouts).
  • The student reflects on the feedback, reevaluates the assignment, revises the assignment, and eventually re-submits it.

The expectation is that student self-regulation and reflective thinking improve through this interactive, dialogic process and, over time, writing skills are also improved.

What do students gain from the iterative approach?

Students benefit from direct, explicit writing instruction. For example, rather than this feedback, “You need to use correct APA for in-text citations. Please see page 32 in your APA manual,” show them, like this example: “You wrote “The hippocampus serves as the brain’s librarian” (Eric Jensen, 2008, PP.40). The proper in-text citation for direct quotes (you were correct in citing this!) is (Jensen, 2008, p. 40). Note that the period is placed at the end of the sentence after the citation, just as I have done here. Please consult page 32 in the APA Publication Manual.

Win-win for both online students and instructors

Our professional experiences can confirm the validity of the iterative process. Here are a few student comments regarding the use of the iterative process in their online courses:

  • I really appreciated the iterative process as a student. This removed significant stress centered on my need for perfection because I knew that I would have an opportunity to improve the quality of my work if this was required.
  • It was challenging, but rewarding. I think I am a much better writer as a result of this program.
  • The grading system actually supports learning, collaboration and success. It has built me up in ways I could not imagine possible and given me self-confidence that is unshakeable.

And from online faculty regarding the use of the iterative process:

  • I believe this is a great technique to strengthen the students’ conceptual and writing skills.
  • I love the iterative process! I have a student who was REALLY struggling with her writing. The process has allowed her to relax and understand the concepts while she has the opportunity to revise her paper(s). Her writing has dramatically advanced due to this process.

Adult learners are invested in their success. In fact, for many, failure is not an option! An additional benefit in using the iterative process is that mistakes are made in a safe setting that allows the student to learn from them, rather than being penalized, and further promotes a growth mindset.

The iterative process is just good teaching – plain and simple.

Dr. Mary Jane Pearson is the Chief Academic Advisor for HotChalk. One of her notable accomplishments is the design of the highly successful model of support and mentoring for online higher education faculty, which has resulted in over 90% retention rate for online faculty, and an overall average of 4.5/5 faculty rating from student end-of-course evaluations. Dr. Pearson’s unique credentials as a teacher educator include chairing the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CCTC), the largest educator licensing agency in the U.S., during which she co-authored the research on California’s beginning teacher support that has become the worldwide standard for the induction, mentoring and support of new teachers. In addition, Dr. Pearson was appointed by the U.S. President to serve as the Regional Representative for the U.S. Department of Education. In recognition of her service to education, Dr. Pearson was named California Teacher Educator of the Year. Dr. Pearson earned her PhD from the University of Kansas.

Dr. Gail Kirby is the Online Instructional Mentor for HotChalk and is a published subject matter expert in online higher education faculty support & mentoring. In addition, she is an Associate Professor of Special Education at Western Kentucky University. Dr. Kirby has 33 years of experience teaching P-12; over 25 years in higher education, including community college, and both private and public college and university settings. She earned her EdD from the University of San Francisco.