Daniel Relihan, MA, Department of Psychological Science

Photo Credit: http://www.cvu-uvc.ca/courses.php?page=international&language=English

Online college and university courses have become increasingly common over the past decade. One reason for this increase is because online courses are cost effective for universities. For instance, they allow universities to charge tuition without the cost of brick-and-mortar space. Consequently, there can be a greater number of courses with a larger number of students per course.

The combination of an online environment with a greater amount of students poses a challenge for professors, instructors, and teaching assistants (TAs). Formative assessments tend to consist of weekly discussion posts that require writing about course content in response to a prompt. However, the amount of grading quickly adds up when there are hundreds of students enrolled. This makes it difficult to provide quality feedback to students on their writing and articulation of course material. How might instructors and TAs balance the time it takes to grade such a large volume of work while maintaining the ability to provide quality feedback?

Here are 5 tips to consider when providing feedback in a large online course. Some of these tips come from my own experience as a TA for several large online courses at a four-year university. Others come from published literature and academic websites:

1. Use a clear rubric

Laying out a clear rubric for what an assignment requires and providing examples of what a perfect score on the assignment looks like will help students address potential issues before they occur. Using a clearly defined rubric will also help you as a grader provide feedback by allowing you to point at what exactly caused a loss of points, without having to write it out in feedback for every student.

2. Get a sense of the landscape

Before diving into grading a weekly assignment, randomly pick a few students’ submissions and skim through them. This will give you a sense of how students generally responded to the weekly prompt, as well as what common mistakes to expect when grading that week’s assignment.

3. Have a comment bank

Once you have a sense of the grading landscape and an idea of what common mistakes to expect, create a bank of comments that address these mistakes. If you create 1 comment for each common mistake, you can compile the comments together in any combination to provide quick feedback adapted to each student. After using the common mistakes comments you can add any necessary feedback that is more personalized to each student.

4. Less is more

Excessive commenting on any combination of issues may lead to decreased engagement with the feedback and the student’s own ideas. Students typically have trouble focusing on, or forget, feedback when there are more than four points to address. However, feedback that is too short risks losing its usefulness to the student in addressing issues for future assessments. Try to keep feedback as short but useful as possible.

5. Don’t just critique, suggest

It is easy to fall into the trap of simply telling students what they did wrong and why they lost points.  However, without guidance on how to do better, they may end up repeating the same mistakes. It is important to give suggestions on how they might do things differently to meet the criteria of the assignment. To save time, suggestions for fixing common mistakes can be sent out to the entire class in a single message.

By incorporating these tips, you will hopefully be able to balance the time-consuming task of grading a large volume of weekly assignments with the ability to provide quality feedback in helping students achieve the course objectives.


Bitcher, J., Young, S., & Cameron, D (2005). The effect of different types of corrective feedback on ESL student writing. Journal of Second Language Writing, 14(3), 191-205.

Friedrich, P. (2006). Asserting the needs of linguistically dirverse first-year students: Bringing together and telling apart international ESL, resident ESL and monolingual basic writers. WPA: Writing Program Administration, 30(1-2), 15-35.

Gaytan, J., & McEwen, B. C. (2007). Effective online instructional and assessment strategies. American Journal of Distance Education, 21(3), 117-132. 

Junqueria, L., & Payant, C. (2015). “I just want to do it right, but it’s so hard”: A novice teacher’s written feedback beliefs and practices. Journal of Second Language Writing, 27(1), 19-36. 

Lederman, D. (2018, November 7). Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved February 27, 2019.

Muncie, J. (2000). Using written teacher feedback in EFL composition classes. English Language Teaching Journal, 54(1), 47-53.

Mcdaniel, R. (2013, March 21). Ask Professor Pedagogy: Assessment Suggestions for Large Lecture Classes.

Sweeney, M. R. (1999). Relating revision skills to teacher commentary. Teaching English in the two-year college, 27(2), 213-218.

Matthew Mahavongtrakul edited this post on April 22nd, 2019.