How to Get Useful Student Feedback on Online Courses

When you collect useful student feedback on online courses, you can confidently assess and improve the effectiveness of your e-learning programs. However, you need the right type of feedback. Too often, feedback tools elicit useless information because they ask the wrong questions. Good feedback gives you the data you need to improve courses yourself and to make a case for hiring professional instructional designers to develop courses. You can also determine if your existing instructors and learning technology are up to par. You also learn more about your learners and their challenges, preferences, and needs. By repeatedly asking for their perspective, you demonstrate your learner-centric mission: to deliver education that makes a difference in their lives and helps them achieve their career goals.

7 ways to get student feedback on online courses

Don’t wait until the end of a course to send out evaluations—you’ll miss a huge opportunity to improve the course and deepen relationships with students. Also, by the time the course ends, some students will be eager to put it behind them and won’t complete the evaluation. Or, they won’t remember issues that came up earlier in the course. Some students won’t provide feedback because, in their experience, feedback is always ignored. Let students know how seriously your association takes feedback and how you might use it to improve the course. Emphasize the importance of constructive criticism so “people-pleasers” in the group don’t automatically gush about everything or try to “kiss up to” the instructor.

#1: Pre-course surveys or questionnaires

Let students know they’ll have opportunities to voice their opinion throughout the course. At the start, instructors should ask their new group of students these questions:

  • What are their expectations about the learning experience?
  • What most interests them about this content?
  • How do they plan to use what they learn in this course?
  • What previous knowledge and/or experience do they have in this subject area?
  • What concerns do they have about the course?

Give students the opportunity to attach their name to the questionnaire if they want the instructor to follow up with them individually. student feedback on online courses

#2: Feedback loops built into the course

Quizzes are an opportunity to assess student progress and, therefore, course effectiveness. You can see if anyone is falling behind and, together, develop a plan to get them back on track. Or, if a majority of students do poorly in a specific area, then you know information isn’t sticking. Halfway through the course, ask students to complete a feedback form or survey that contains a mix of open-ended and multiple choice questions. Use a tool that provides anonymity so students can be frank. Also give students the opportunity to provide feedback directly to the instructor. Questions could include:

  • What’s the most useful thing you’ve learned in the course so far? The least useful?
  • What’s been the most difficult thing to learn? Why do you think?
  • Which module was the most interesting? The most boring?
  • Where have you wanted to go deeper into a topic?

York University suggests asking students what they would like the instructor to start, continue, and stop doing. Let students know their feedback is reviewed and acted upon if appropriate. Address common themes in the online discussion forum or in a short video. Talk about what can and cannot be changed now, and how the rest of the actionable information will be used.

#3: Office hours

Instructors should post a schedule of “office hours” when they’ll be available via phone or web chat to talk to students about course content or challenges. Students could be required to meet once or twice with the instructor during the course, if the number of students makes that viable. During these conversations, instructors have the opportunity to learn more about student needs, provide feedback to students, and elicit feedback from them.

#4: Student feedback team

Northeastern University encourages instructors to recruit a Student Feedback Team (SFT): “a group of three to five volunteer students who regularly meet and work collaboratively with their instructor to improve the learning community within a course.” Northeastern recommends that volunteers meet as a team every two weeks with the instructor joining them for every other meeting. “The SFT process provides a continuous feedback loop that is more interactive than the one-way process of end-of-course evaluations.” Consider giving the SFT a deep discount on another educational program if they dedicate many hours to this duty. student feedback on online courses

#5: End-of-course evaluations

In some associations, the same evaluations have been used year after year. What do these evaluations teach you about course effectiveness? Do you ask the right questions? Can you apply what you learn? If you don’t already know of Dr. Will Thalheimer, you'll be glad to "meet" him. He’s the author of Performance-Focused Smile Sheets: A Radical Rethinking of a Dangerous Art Form. The “dangerous art form” is the traditional post-course evaluation (or smile sheet) which falls short, according to Thalheimer, because

  • Their timing and delivery context make them prone to bias.
  • Evaluations ask the wrong questions. They’re focused on factors only weakly related to learning.
  • The Likert-like or five-point scale (strongly agree, agree, neutral, disagree, strongly disagree) provides “fuzzy” answer options with “very little granularity between the answer choices” making it difficult for learners to express their true opinions.
  • Evaluations don’t elicit feedback about the course’s effectiveness.
  • Staff turn answers into numerical scores which Thalheimer says is “mathematically illegal.”
  • They don’t provide actionable feedback. “When we see that a course is rated at 4.1 on a five-point scale, we know virtually nothing about what to do… The whole goal of evaluation is to get feedback to enable change. Traditional smile sheets fail miserably in that regard.”

Most importantly, you’re not finding out if the course prepared students to apply what they learned to their work. Thalheimer suggests better questions to ask:

  • How able are you to put what you’ve learned into practice in your work?
  • Now that you’ve completed the learning experience, how well do you feel you understand the concepts taught?
  • After the course, when you begin to apply your new knowledge at your worksite, what supports are likely to be in place for you?
  • Which aspects of the experience helped you the most in learning what was taught?
  • What could have been done better to make this a more effective learning experience?

On his website, he also suggests answer options for each of these questions. Consider giving students these evaluation questions at the beginning of the course so they are reminded throughout about their goal—to learn and apply new knowledge at work. If they know what you’re interesting in learning, they’re more likely to provide thoughtful and accurate feedback.

#6: Post-course individual conversations and focus groups

After the course, talk with students individually or in a group. Select students who represent the diversity of students in the course, for example, a mix of career stage or age, types of positions, or association engagement. Provide discussion guidelines ahead of time so they think about their experience before the meeting. Let individuals decide if they want to talk on the phone or online, and if they prefer audio only or video too.

#7: Delayed course evaluation

When a course ends, students intend to apply what they’ve learned but do they? Does the learning stick? You’ll never know until you ask. Let students know they will be contacted several weeks or months from now to complete a critical evaluation in which you ask questions like:

  • What’s changed as a result of your learning experience?
  • What new skills are you using?
  • What new approaches or strategies are you practicing?
  • What decisions are you able to make that you couldn’t before?
  • How has your new knowledge or skills benefitted you?
  • Are you eligible for new positions? Have you been promoted or taken a new position due to new knowledge or skills?
  • What have you already forgotten? What was the problem?
  • What kind of support would help apply what you’ve learned?

Besides learning how to improve course design and delivery, post-course evaluations also help you collect testimonials for online course marketing. Student feedback on online courses is a powerful program asset but only if you ask the right questions at the right time.


Would you like to learn how to put this into action in your LMS? Request a demo from one of our experts, and we will show you how to get useful student feedback using TopClass LMS.



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