How to make the best of online individual feedback through Skype

By John Harbord

The coronavirus has forced us all, without much preparation, to switch to online teaching. But what about online individual feedback? Synchronous conversation is often more effective than asynchronous written feedback, so maybe you want to talk to students, but haven’t much experience of doing this online. What are the pitfalls and options? Here, I will talk about using Skype, although Zoom is also an effective platform for one-to-one meetings.

1. Set up the meeting in advance: make sure you and the student have each other’s contact details and that you have connected in advance, otherwise time will be lost, or you may not be able to connect in time. If you are ready before the allotted time, message your student so they know, and ask students to message you when they are online and available, so as to minimise waiting. If you have typed comments on a draft, send this to the student at least 15 minutes before the meeting so they can read it over quickly before you talk.

2. Establish the ground rules: video contact is helpful – seeing a person smile or frown can help in assessing comprehension. If the connection is poor, however, using it may impair audio quality. Either way, it is wise for both or neither to use video. When one person can be seen but not see the other, they may feel uncomfortable. This question may also arise if you share your screen, at which point you can see them but they cannot see you. If a student does not turn video on, ask whether they want to, but if they don’t, turn your video off.

3. Give the student time: especially when a connection is poor, it is much easier to talk across each other online than face-to-face. If the student is talking, let them talk, at least for a bit; the “self-directed” principle of PBL suggests that the initiative and direction of the conversation should come as much as possible from the student. Asking questions about what they had intended in a text, or hoped to do, is always good practice. If you feel you do need to intervene when they are talking, you might raise a finger as a signal, or if video is off, say “I see”; if that doesn’t work try “One moment”, or use their name. If this still doesn’t work, check if you have lost audio contact. With a silent student, you can indicate they should speak by saying “Does that make sense?” or other questions.

4. Keep to the principles of good feedback: as you would in a face-to-face meeting, remember the aim is not only to help the student improve their paper but, more importantly, become a better writer. Be selective: decide what areas you have time to focus on, and prioritise. Make your meeting into a mini-lesson. Be encouraging and supportive, and always be clear: pitch your explanation to the student’s level, if they have comprehension difficulties, and check they have understood. This is especially important on Skype, as the online environment is more stressful for most students too.

Students have the option on Skype to record a conversation. Unless you have a special reason not to, encourage them to do this, as not all are effective note-takers, and listening to a conversation a second time we often notice things that we missed first time around. Not needing to take notes may help the student to concentrate more on the conversation, so they are more active in responding and asking questions.

5. Don’t overload yourself: for a variety of reasons, most people find video meetings more tiring than face to face. Don’t schedule meetings back to back – try to give yourself at least five minutes’ break, preferably ten, between two students. This will compensate for late starts as well as “needy” students who always have just one more question; but it will also give you time to recover, draw breath, focus, find your next set of materials, and so on. All of these things tend to be a bit more time-consuming than in face-to-face meetings, where you can just grab the paper and sit down.

Finally, do online meetings have any advantages over face to face? Apart from the recording option, which they can of course do with their mobile face to face, not many. Well, if a student smokes heavily, or is less assiduous in their personal hygiene that you might wish, not being face to face might be an advantage. And of course, you can conduct a meeting in your pyjamas with a pullover on top, or the trousers your two-year-old just smeared chocolate over. But there is one big pro: at least you won’t get ill.

About the author

John Harbord is Academic Writing Advisor at FASoS. John regularly meets students to discuss their writing, both off- and online.