Mayo's Clinics

Aug 17, 2022, 18:30
Providing Feedback for Papers in Online Courses

Providing Feedback for Papers in Online Courses

27 January 2016

Dr. Fred Mayo, CHE, CHT, provides instructors insight on grading online papers and when and how to give feedback to keep students motivated and instruction effective.

By Dr. Fred Mayo, CHE, CHT

Last month, we discussed a range of strategies for improving online teaching including communicating a great deal, providing a range of activities and keeping good records. This month, we will talk about a more difficult process – reading and commenting on papers – and ways to make the tasks easier and more effective. 

A common mistake many of us make in online teaching is the limited information we provide students about assignments. Since there is no classroom time to chat about or answer question about assignments, we need to explain more fully the purposes of assignments. We should discuss the structure of reports, papers, or projects and the way that they will be evaluated. In onsite teaching, we may list projects and paper assignments in the syllabus, but few of us provide details about the role of the assignment in helping students use what they have learned in the course or show the information they have acquired. In an online course, when communication is often by email, more information in the syllabus or various handouts helps students understand their assignments. Try providing more information and see what a difference it can make.

Evaluative Criteria and Rubrics
Explaining the criteria that you will use to evaluate papers helps students know how their work will be assessed and encourages them to work more effectively. Many years ago, faculty members did not explain how they would evaluate papers since it was assumed that everyone would know; however, this lack of criteria allowed wide latitude in how papers were evaluated and often encouraged subjectivity in grading. Currently, the focus on listing evaluative criteria help students understand what will be evaluated and how.

Examples of general criteria often used to evaluate papers include:

  • Focus and clarity
  • Comprehensiveness
  • Logic of the argument
  • Effective use of evidence
  • Support for your statements
  • Level of insights about the topic of the paper
  • Lack of grammatical and spelling errors
  • Accuracy in citing sources

Beyond listing the criteria that you will use to evaluate the paper, it is helpful to indicate the rubric, the level of accomplishment of each criteria that is associated with a particular letter grade such as B -, B, or B +. If you can explain what level of clarity and focus would merit a B – compared to a B, compared to the level that would merit a B +, then you have communicated what you are looking for in your students’ papers. This will help them recognize the level of accomplishment they need to aim for and achieve.

It helps in grading and it helps in the discussion students often initiate about why they got a particular grade. In my experience, the more explicit I have been about evaluative criteria and rubrics, the less students attempt to negotiate a grade after they received the paper. See what happens if you explain the criteria and give the students grading rubrics.

Short Hand Markings or Codes
One way to make things easier on you and your students involves developing a list or common phrases or sentences and developing codes or abbreviations for them. Since many times we make similar comments having a form of shorthand saves time and typing as well as the need to review and correct typing errors.

Some common abbreviations you might use include:

  • AWK – awkward; the phrase or sentence is awkward and needs to be revised for clarity
  • NS – not a complete thought or a complete sentence
  • GE – grammatical error; there is a grammatical error in this phrase or sentence
  • SP – spelling error; there is a spelling error in the phrase or sentence
  • D – diction; the word chosen is not appropriate or not the best one to use here
  • C – citation is missing; the paper needs to provide a source for the statement
  • ILL – illogical; the phrase, sentence or paragraph has no clear logic

You may want to develop your own shorthand terms that work for the course you are teaching. But, remember if you use them, try to make them easy to remember and provide a complete explanation of the codes for the students. Also, post that explanation in your classroom management system so students can find it when they read your comments. 

When students work alone in online courses, there is little peer support and classroom feedback – even in online courses that use synchronous discussions. That situation increases the importance of providing compliments to students who have worked hard on papers and projects. It does not mean you should praise them when they have done poor work. Compliment them honestly on parts of the paper that you thought were well done. It could be praise for the topic; compliments on tackling a complex issue or an important topic; recognition of the scope of what they undertook to investigate; or praise for their creative approach or the quality of the logical argument. Whatever you can say honestly, make a comment since they help to keep students motivated and excited about learning. 

Try these suggestions and see if they make a difference. If you have comments, feel free to send them to me and I will discuss them next month when we will focus on other strategies for evaluating papers and written projects.

If you have suggestions for other topics or teaching practices you want to share, send them to me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., and I will include them in future Mayo Clinics.

Dr. Fred Mayo, CHE, CHT, is retired as a clinical professor of hotel and tourism management at New York University. As principal of Mayo Consulting Services, he continues to teach around the globe and is a regular presenter at CAFÉ events nationwide. 

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