Best Practices for Improving Online Courses Using Student Feedback

Like art or cooking, instructional design is a process of continual improvement. Rarely satisfied with their creations, instructional designers revise, update, and improve their courses throughout every iteration of their delivery. The goal is to ensure that the next version of a course will offer an even better learning experience for students than the last one did.

But to create successively improved iterations of a course, you need know what’s missing or lacking from the current version. The best method for doing this is to solicit student feedback from past courses, and then use that feedback to improve future courses. Here are some best practices to help you accomplish that objective and make sure your eLearning courses are providing students with top-rated experiences.

Moving from Good to Better to Best

  1. Offer Multiple Feedback Points: Resist the temptation to only ask for end-of-course feedback. Your course may have multiple areas of potential improvement, but students may forget earlier details if they’re only prompted at the end. For more useful information, capture student feedback near the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of your course.
  2. Make Your Feedback Requests Specific: Vague feedback can be more frustrating than no feedback at all. To maximize the clarity of student feedback, ask for specific quantitative responses (“Rate this course’s quality from 1 to 5”) as well as qualitative verbal inputs (“What 3 improvements would you suggest for the sample exercises, and why?”) to gather specific details about areas of potential future improvement.
  3. Allow for Open-Ended Feedback: The best way to know what to improve in the next version of your course is to ask students to elaborate on their suggestions. For instance, if someone rates your course a 3 out of 5, you might follow by asking, “Did this course help you accomplish your learning objectives?” But this “yes/no” question doesn’t allow for much insight. Instead, asking “How did this course help you accomplish your learning objectives?” frames the question in such a way that students know what area you’re focused on improving, and they can therefore tailor their feedback to suit your inquiry (or diverge from it entirely, if they feel the real issue is something different).
  4. Seek Broad-Based Feedback: Ensure that you seek inputs on a broad array of course aspects – course length; structure; syllabus relevance; content; graphics and video; accuracy (factual, grammatical, or typographical errors); quality and quantity of assessments and tests; feedback mechanism; grading; etc.

By using these four pillars of your feedback mechanism — multiple, specific, open, broad — you’ll develop a more comprehensive picture of how students perceive the current iteration of your course.

Changing the Future

Once you know what students feel is good, bad, or indifferent about the course, you can begin making improvements. To help this process go smoothly, follow these four steps:

  1. Archive: Make sure you create a chronological archive of all the feedback you received – from the very first iteration of the course, right to the most recent version.
  2. Organize: Arrange all comments/suggestions according to focus area: User Interface; Graphics; Assessments; etc. This will allow you to apply your time and resources more effectively when improving the next version of the course.
  3. Prioritize: Arrange all of the feedback in each focus area in terms of criticality. For instance, any flaws that impede the objective quality of the learning itself — such as factual errors, typographical omissions, or grammatical mistakes — should be a much higher priority focus than any subjective suggestions like aesthetics, color theory, font choice, module length, etc.
  4. Review: It’s always a good practice to not only review feedback from the most recent iteration of a course, but to go back several versions to see if the same (or similar) feedback keeps repeating itself. For instance, repeated spelling mistake complaints might mean there is a systemic editorial issue that needs to be addressed, while repeated complaints about the course’s length might mean that students are understanding its core principles much faster than you might expect.

Using past feedback to improve your future courses is an iterative process that should never stop. By seeking, analyzing, and applying such feedback in a structured way, using the steps discussed above, you will develop a reliable process of continuous improvement that your future students will be sure to appreciate.

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