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Optimizing Feedback Delivery with Text-Expanders

Special Issue: Instructional Technology in the Online Classroom

By Heather Moore / December 2018

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It took approximately two weeks of teaching online to understand why experienced online instructors consider the use of text expanders a professional best practice. As a novice to online instruction teaching a single class, I reasoned that I could manage without the extra tools full-time instructors need. However, it quickly became apparent that the way I was operating was inefficient in terms of both time and quality. Even as a new online instructor, I needed to invest in a way to more effectively provide my students with high quality formative feedback.

Initially, I was concerned that text-expanders would make my feedback less personal and would make grading more complex. While I did find that there was a learning curve, I quickly realized what more experienced instructors had known all along: text-expanders are a great way to do my job more efficiently without sacrificing feedback quality. To share what I've learned, this article will explore why text-expanders are a relevant technology for online teaching. I first provide brief background information on the importance of feedback and how text-expanders relate to feedback. I then provide tips and tricks to help get the most out of this useful tool, and briefly reflect on the impact that text-expanders may have on teaching experience.

Background Information

Feedback is a crucial part of the learning process. Long recognized as a key factor in effective teaching, instructor feedback is a dynamic element of student-led learning, responding to student needs as learning progresses [1]. Prompt and effective feedback facilitates student engagement, clarifies issues students are struggling with, and helps students process complicated concepts [2, 3]. In the online classroom, feedback plays an even more crucial role than it does in traditional face-to-face classes. For online classrooms, feedback is an essential strategy for establishing instructor presence as it provides another avenue for frequent instructor-student interaction and helps foster the instructor-student connection [2, 4].

Given the essential nature of feedback, it's no surprise that questions of feedback quality remain a central concern. At best, poor feedback is a missed opportunity to teach; at worst, as Wong [3] noted, poor feedback may actually decrease student performance. The concern with feedback quality is compounded by the repetitive nature of giving feedback, because quality tends to degrade as instructors provide similar feedback over and over [5]. In online teaching, this is compounded by short grading deadlines and high grading volumes [2, 5].

To preserve feedback quality in the face of repetitious feedback delivery, high student numbers, and short turn-around time, instructors may turn to text-expanders [6]. Text-expanders are software programs that automatically convert predefined keystrokes, or shortcuts, into larger phrases or paragraphs, and are a powerful productivity tool [7]. Users create a library of commands, keying each shortcut command to a corresponding library entry. This has two primary advantages in online classrooms. First, it decreases the amount of time spent delivering common feedback. This allows instructors to spend more time on other aspects of teaching. Second, it standardizes feedback by leveraging a feedback library (also known as a feedback bank). This prevents quality degradation due to instructor fatigue, ensuring that each student receives optimal feedback [5].

Selecting a Text-Expander

There are numerous text-expanders, and price points vary. Some tools are free; from there, prices and features vary. (See Table 1 for a brief overview of popular text-expanders; while the list is not exhaustive, it's a good overview.) Personally, free sounded excellent, but I also recognized that making it work would take more than a monetary investment as I would be investing many hours in set-up. As such, I wanted the security of support from having paid for the program. I also wanted something that had the capacity to grow as my needs and skills grew.

I selected Macro Express, partially because it is recommended in Leslie Bowman's book on efficient grading [6]. I wanted more text-expansion capability, but I also wanted a user-friendly way to capture macros. The primary drawback to Macro Express is that while the preview screen does list your programmed shortcuts, it does not preview the replacement text. In contrast, text-expanders such as Breevy and TypeItIn do. This feature is helpful, so if you only want text-expander capabilities, Macro Express may not be the best choice.

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Set Up: Tips and Tricks

Most text-expanders provide tutorials to get started that are easy to follow, so rather than writing another tutorial, this section will focus on tips and tricks to maximize efficiency. Many of these tips apply to any text-expander.

Build a Feedback Library

For instructors who already use a feedback bank, this step may not be necessary. However, if you're not using one, the first step to using a text-expander is building a feedback bank. A feedback bank (also described as a feedback library) is at its simplest, a list of feedback that an instructor gives regularly [2].

To build my library, I sorted through previously graded assignments. I then copy-pasted feedback I wanted to retain into an excel document. Excel was useful to presort different types of feedback, as individual pages could be used as themes. One page in the document was dedicated to feedback on APA format while another page was dedicated to feedback on content like SMART goal aspects, for example. A word processing document could be used instead, but presorting feedback type was a helpful foundation for later input into Macro Express.

Use a System

If you presorted your feedback in an excel document, this should be easy: use a system to create your shortcut commands and feedback. Particularly when you are just starting out, it is easy to have more shortcuts than you have memorized. To make it easier to remember the correct command, I organized the shortcuts by theme. Each themed shortcut started with the same characters; all spelling and grammar feedback shortcuts started with "sg" while all APA format feedback had "apa" at the start. This applies to text-expanders with preview functions too; by keeping your feedback organized, you maximize efficiency.

Hot Keys Versus Short Keys

Macro Express has two primary ways to program shortcuts: Hot Keys and Short Keys. Hot Keys use few keystrokes; a sample command that can be selected is Ctrl + H. Given the similarity to Windows functions such as Ctrl + V to paste, this shortcut strategy can be very intuitive. In contrast, Short Keys use a combination of typed characters, ranging from 1-10 characters. One sample Short Key I use is "apaquote" which inserts feedback about direct quotations requiring page numbers. Short Keys require a trigger to activate; I use "##" because there are no circumstances where I would otherwise use that combination of characters, so I cannot accidentally trigger a command. To intentionally trigger the command, type your trigger followed immediately by the command with no spaces, such as "##apaerror".

Macro Express requires a trigger for Short Keys. However, a similar safeguard can be used in any text-expander by adding extra characters to the front of the shortcut name. If all of your text-expander shortcuts start with "##" you can't accidentally insert feedback.

While Hot Keys is more efficient in terms of keystrokes, I use Short Keys because it allows me to leverage the naming system discussed in the previous section. This is a matter of personal preference; for some people, memorizing what feedback goes with Ctrl + H rather than Ctrl + 7 is more effective than theming names.

Use Clipboard Functionality

In many text-expanders, there are two ways for the program to insert your feedback: typing and clipboard pasting. Whenever possible, clipboard functionality should be used. Typing is the default setting in Macro Express and adds text character by character, as if it is being typed on screen, while clipboard inserts the entire feedback comment as if it is being copy-pasted. Typing can be problematic when using a browser-based interface. In Moodle, for example, even typing too quickly at human speed can sometimes cause keystroke drops, so you lose half of what was just typed. The same glitch happens if Macro Express inserts your feedback through typing. In contrast, using the clipboard avoids this issue.

Think Beyond Assignment Feedback

While text-expanders can be used to deliver completely pre-written feedback, text-expanders can improve also improve custom feedback. Not all feedback can be pre-written; some feedback on student work needs to be customized. But there are repetitive elements in custom feedback too, so your feedback library should not be limited to only complete pieces of feedback. Phrases you use often, such as "great thesis" or "remember to include," should be in your library too. And feedback isn't limited to completed assignments, either. I regularly give my students feedback on questions in the discussion forum or via email, so I have common answers in my feedback library, too. Text-expanders can be used very creatively, so don't limit yourself.

Impact of Text-Expanders

The impact of text-expander use on my grading and feedback was immediately apparent. The most obvious effect was that my grading time was considerably reduced. For grading, I usually set aside the morning after the assignment is due. The first time I used Macro Express, I found myself finished grading with over an hour of free time left-and that included the time I spent going back to my library to remind myself what the shortcut I wanted was called. The more I used the program, the more proficient I became; now that I have most of my shortcuts memorized, my grading time is cut nearly in half without sacrificing any of the feedback quality or quantity that my students deserve. For text-expanders with preview functions like TypeItIn and PhraseExpander, proficiency may be achieved even faster.

However, beyond time, I believe my feedback is now also more robust overall. Every student gets the same quality feedback regardless of whether I am grading my first paper or my fifteenth. By pre-writing feedback without the time pressure to immediately return an assignment to a student, I was able to improve feedback quality by including details and resources that do not always occur to me in the moment. Before text-expander use, I was worried my feedback would get less personal, but I have not found this to be the case. There are only so many ways to explain how to create an in-text citation; by standardizing my explanation, I spend less energy reiterating myself. This gives me more time and mental energy to help students with content, where feedback really needs to be personal.


Like many tools in today's ever-evolving world of technology, text-expanders are probably not for everyone. However, given the repetitive nature of feedback delivery and the deadline-induced time pressure most online instructors operate under, feedback quality degradation is a real concern. Text-expanders are a possible solution, allowing instructors to leverage standardized feedback to reduce time spent commenting on common student errors. Students continue to get high-quality feedback, and instructors have more time to spend on more personalized issues, resulting in a win/win situation. For a relatively small investment, text-expanders are worth trying. After all, why keep reinventing the wheel—or re-writing the same piece of feedback?


[1] Baran, E., et al. Tracing successful online teaching in higher education: Voices of exemplary online teachers. Teachers College Record 115, 3 (2013), 1-41.

[2] Boud, D. Feedback: Ensuring that it leads to enhanced learning. Clinical Teacher 12, (2015), 3-7.

[3] Bowman, L. Grading made fast and easy for online faculty (Online teaching and learning book 1) 2014.

[4] Garcia-Yeste, M. Electronic feedback: Pedagogical considerations for the implementation of software. EuroCALL Review. 21, 2 (2013) 39-48.

[5] Lackey, A. E., et al. Productivity, part 1: Getting things done, using e-mail, scanners, reference managers, note-taking applications, and text expanders. Journal of the American College of Radilogy 11, 5 (2014), 481-489.

[6] Leibold, N. and Schwarz, L. M. The art of giving online feedback. Journal of Effective Teaching 15, 1 (2015), 34-46.

[7] Wong, S. 2010. Motivating students to learn through good and helpful coursework feedback. In Proceedings of Engineering Education Conference (2010).

About the Author

Heather Moore is a doctoral student at A.T. Still University, and an adjunct instructor at University of the People. Her research interests include leadership development, succession planning, and adult learning, with one prior publication on succession planning medical practices. She is an avid enthusiast for lifelong learning, online education, and leadership development. She can be reached at @hmooreMBA on Twitter.

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