In a classroom, trainers are continually checking learners’ understanding; providing feedback based on what they understood (and misunderstood!); and encouraging them, trying to keep them engaged and motivated. Online learners still need all of that checking, feedback and encouragement, but the trainer isn’t there to give it in person. The e-learning has to do it all. It’s common practice to add short quizzes throughout a piece of self-directed e-learning to act as knowledge checks, but the feedback that the learner is given after submitting his or her answers is often not as effective as it could be.

To create effective feedback in an e-learning context, remember what the trainer would have done in the classroom, and try to emulate it. It’s important to think about the two main purposes that feedback serves: It’s there to make sure the learner understands the information and remembers it, but it’s also there to encourage the learner and keep him or her engaged in the learning. Let’s look at how you can design e-learning feedback to address each of these purposes.

Feedback as Part of the Educational Strategy

I’m sure we’ve all taken online/computer-based courses where the response to our answering a question was either “correct” or “incorrect.”

"correct" "incorrect" buttons

These types of responses don’t really help the learners. If they are incorrect, they don’t know why. Even if the correct answer was shown with or after the “Incorrect” feedback, they still don’t necessarily understand how they went wrong. And it’s not safe to assume that just because they got something right, they actually understood it. It could just have been a lucky guess. If they guessed and saw a feedback response saying only “Correct,” chances are, they just clicked “Continue” and didn’t think too much more about it, meaning that they didn’t necessarily learn.

Rather than those simple responses, the learners would have benefitted from some useful feedback. It’s better to provide more educational, instructional feedback than a simple “correct”/”incorrect.” Here’s an example: “Incorrect. It’s common to think that A, because X, Y and Z, but the correct answer is B, because U, V and W.” This type of feedback helps learners understand why they were wrong and helps identify gaps in their knowledge.

To provide good instructional feedback, it’s important to consider what the feedback will be before you generate the questions. Good questions will have plausible incorrect answers – answers that could come from common misconceptions or misunderstandings. These questions allow you to create different instructional responses for each incorrect answer.

For example:
Which of the following is important when preparing chicken for cooking safely?

  1. Wash your chicken before cooking.
    Incorrect: It is a common misconception to think that chicken should be washed, but this actually risks spreading bacteria from the raw meat further around your kitchen.
  2. Cook your chicken when it is frozen.
    Incorrect: It can be difficult to cook frozen products thoroughly and evenly – often, the outside will be overcooked and the inside undercooked, risking food poisoning. It is better to defrost your meat before cooking it.
  3. Store your raw chicken on the top shelf of the refrigerator until you need it.
    Incorrect: Raw meat should be stored on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator to prevent any meat juices from leaking and falling onto and contaminating other food products.
  4. Use separate utensils for the chicken.
    Correct: Keep everything that has touched the raw meat away from other items and areas of the kitchen in order to reduce cross-contamination.

This type of question takes more thought and time to design, but if you can improve your feedback by tailoring your responses to the learner’s choices, you will help the learners address their misconceptions directly.

Better still, you could try using intrinsic feedback. Intrinsic feedback shows the learners the consequence(s) of their answers. For example, you might ask the learners to decide which of three responses they would use to deal with a customer complaint. The correct choice would result in presenting the learners with a happy customer, but if they made an incorrect choice, they would see an unhappy customer or perhaps learn that the customer made a complaint to the head office. This sort of feedback is effective, because it helps the learner focus on what is important: a tangible outcome and consequence, not just whether their response is correct or incorrect.

If your learners are already advanced in a skill or subject, simply showing them the consequence may be enough. They can work their way back to find out what they did wrong, and that process itself aids learning. Give them the opportunity to have another go; if they are incorrect the second time, you can provide instructional feedback.

If your learners are at a more beginner level, though, they may benefit from some instructional feedback appearing immediately alongside the intrinsic feedback (e.g., “The customer made a complaint to the head office because she didn’t feel you listened to her concern. It would have been helpful to acknowledge her problem before trying to solve it”).

Putting questions into a real-world scenario and showing the consequences of the learners’ actions provides context and makes the learning more meaningful. There is a greater chance the learners will both remember what they’ve learned and be able to apply it.

Feedback as Encouragement

Another advantage of using intrinsic feedback is that it generates more risk for the learners. They are much more likely to care about a real-world consequence to a decision than whether or not a box says “Correct.” As humans, we like risk, as long as it isn’t too risky. It’s exciting; that’s why many people find rollercoasters fun. By upping the stakes of a question-answering exercise, you can make it more engaging for learners. And if learners answer correctly, they get to see a real benefit, further encouraging them.

If you are just using instructional feedback, you can still adjust it to encourage and motivate the learners. If you were in a classroom, you’d probably be using your tone of voice. In e-learning, you can convey tone based on the words you use. Compare these examples:

“Correct. That was the right answer and, “Great job! You got it right!

“Incorrect. That was not the right answer and, “Sorry, that’s not quite right.”

By humanizing the feedback, you help learners feel included in the training. Showing empathy and appreciation will make the learners feel good about themselves – and the training – and encourage them to persevere.

Final Thoughts

It’s important to consider what the feedback is there to do: to educate and motivate. Informative, tailored, instructional feedback is good; intrinsic feedback is often better. There’s no one-size-fits-all way of writing effective feedback, but these techniques will help you improve your feedback when you create your next piece of e-learning. Making sure your learners know why their answers were right or wrong, and giving them the opportunity to see real, in-context consequences of their choices, will help to both inform and encourage them, making your e-learning more effective.

Two great resources on e-learning feedback design are “Scenario-based e-Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines for Online Workforce Learning” by Ruth Clark and “Michael Allen’s Guide to e-Learning: Building Interactive, Fun, and Effective Learning Programs for Any Company” by Michael Allen.