Building Engagement with Distance Learning

DL #16 Increasing Opportunities to Respond and Provide Feedback to Students with Significant Cognitive Disabilities in Inclusive Online Environments

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Creating a supportive setting for learning through a screen is not an easy task. Students receiving instruction in person benefit from nonverbal, as well as verbal, feedback from teachers through eye contact, body language, and tone. When attending school from a distance through online learning platforms, many of these subtle cues are lost. This means that teachers need to be particularly mindful of how they deliver positive and constructive feedback to guide students’ learning and behavior. 

Online learning platforms do not allow immediate feedback if they are asynchronous (online independent assignments, not live with the teacher). Even when synchronous (live with a teacher on a web-conferencing platform), timely and individual feedback can be challenging. Specifically, students with significant cognitive disabilities require repeated practice performing a skill correctly to gain and maintain skills. This Distance Learning Series article will show teachers ways to support the learning of their students’ through the use of positive and corrective feedback in both environments.

Why is feedback important?

Students need effective feedback to learn from their successes and errors in order to make progress towards their goals. Concurrently, teachers can use observations of students’ performance to reflect on their own instructional practices and inform the next steps for instruction. Teachers can identify success and error patterns to help shape the specific feedback for the task. 

The use of positive and constructive feedback is considered a High-leverage Practice (HLP) for students with disabilities (McLeskey et al., 2017), for instruction for students with disabilities. HLPs are sound instructional practices that ensure all students have increased opportunities to succeed.

HLP 22: Provide positive and constructive feedback to guide students’ learning and behavior. All students require feedback to make progress. The purpose of feedback is to guide student learning and behavior and increase student motivation, engagement, and independence, leading to improved student learning and behavior. Effective feedback must be strategically delivered and goal-directed; feedback is most effective when the learner has a goal and the feedback informs the learner regarding areas needing improvement and ways to improve performance. Feedback may be verbal, nonverbal, or written, and should be timely, contingent, genuine, meaningful, age appropriate, and at rates commensurate with task and phase of learning (i.e., acquisition, fluency, maintenance). Teachers should provide ongoing feedback until learners reach their established learning goals.

Two considerations for effective feedback

Clarity: Feedback must be in a format so that the student can understand what the feedback means (for example, using the student’s mode of communication, having agreed upon gestures). Check for student understanding of the feedback you provide (Brookhart, 2017).

Specificity: It is far more effective to provide comments such as, “I like the way you remembered to line up the math blocks as you counted” or “Wow, you got your device open, turned on, and ready to learn quickly today!” than to use a generic “good job”. 

Effective feedback for asynchronous and synchronous environments

Effective feedback for asynchronous environments

A teacher pointing to a sight word on a flashcard.

A teacher uses what is submitted for an assignment and can send video and audio file with verbal or visual feedback.

Student work that shows a student who is trying to write complete sentences. Teacher feedback is on the left. It says: Great job! I like your correct letter formation. Next time try to keep more spaces between words. The teacher shows an example of more space between words by highlighting spaces in yellow between words.

A teacher adds corrections to a student’s work product. This type of feedback format could also be created into editable pdfs so the teacher types the feedback into each box. This would allow a text-to-speech software reader to read the feedback to the student.

A reading progress graph colored in crayon for the correct number of CVC (Consonant-vowel-consonant) words read in one minute.

Send back progress monitoring in a visual format, such as a graph. Photo courtesy of the Primary Gal

Summarizing Rubric





Main Idea

Clearly explained the main idea of the text.

Explained the main idea of the text with a few additional words.

Explained some of the main idea of the text with additional words or too few words.

Did not explain the main idea of the text.

Supporting Details

Included all of the important facts to support the main idea and no unimportant information.

Included most of the important facts to support the main idea and included one unimportant fact.

Included some important facts and some unimportant facts to support the main idea.

Included no important facts that support the main idea.

Rubric with a gradient score that tells essential components for each level score

Effective feedback for synchronous environments

  • Quick and quiet individual feedback during student performance 
    • For example: As students are working on camera, the teacher may be able to go into a quick breakout room with a student to watch them perform a skill and provide live feedback.
  • Private student conferencing  
    • For example: Teachers could ask certain students to set up a time to meet individually, separate from the whole class. Teachers could make this a regular practice by holding “office hours” where students can sign up for a 30-minute time bracket to meet with their teacher for feedback that is individualized and private.
  • Review and reteach common misunderstandings at the beginning of the next lesson
    • For example: Just as teachers would do for in-person class sessions, teachers can hold a quick review session at the beginning of the next lesson when they identify common errors among multiple students. Keeping this type of feedback general can help students not feel singled out, but acts as a reteaching session for some students and a maintenance session for others. Additionally, teachers could use the time right after students log in for a web-conference class to make reference to specific examples by calling out quality student work. Teachers could begin this conversation by stating they were reviewing assignments and liked how student 1, student 2, and student 3 showed their work.
  • A check for understanding as an “exit ticket” for students to sign off  
    • For example: Teachers could prepare an “exit ticket” style question for students. This could be a simple call and response that each student gets to recall a critical fact/something new presented in the lesson to the whole class or the students could take turns talking about the steps in a math problem. Once a student has contributed and shows understanding, then he/she could sign off the web conference. This could be done in multiple ways: having the student type in a chatbox, asking students to hold up a whiteboard or picture symbol, or having the student say the answer with or without assistive technology.

Want to Learn More?

High Leverage Practices Website



  • Brookhart, S. M. (2017). How to give effective feedback to your students. ASCD.

  • McLesky, J., Barringer, M.-D., Billingsley, B., Brownell, M., Jackson, D., Kennedy, M., … Ziegler, D. (2017). High-leverage practices in special education. Retrieved from Council for Exceptional Children & CEEDAR Center website:

Disclaimer: The information in this Brief is not an endorsement of any identified products. Products identified in this Brief are shared solely as examples to help communicate information about ways to reach the desired goals for students.

Distance Learning Series: DL #16, July, 2020

All rights reserved. Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:

  • Reyes, E., & Wakeman, S. (2020). Increasing opportunities to respond and provide feedback to students with significant cognitive disabilities in inclusive online environments (DL #16). TIES Center.

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The National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) leads the TIES Center partnership. Collaborating partners are: Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North-Carolina–Charlotte, and the University of North Carolina–Greensboro.

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