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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

December 10, 2009

Feedback on feedback

I've attended a few conference sessions on feedback (for EFL students' written assignments) recently and have found many comments, research and positions both interesting and useful.

In a nutshell, most EFL research seems to show that a lot of typical feedback given by teachers on student writing is ineffective and therefore largely a waste of the teacher's time (and if you have typically large HS or Uni. classes you know it takes a LOT of time).

Here's a summary of what I've come across recently, with some of my own observations included:

The type of feedback in which the teacher more or less corrects everything for the student doesn't work because the student hasn't engaged any challenging area of the language for themselves. Nothing much will be internalized. This type of correction should only be carried out when a pristine sample is needed soon for real-life purposes.

The type of feedback in which the teacher points out all grammar mistakes (even with the plan of having the students revise the draft, as in process writing) is ineffective. Not only can students feel overwhelmed, but internalizing a grammatical form is a delicate, lengthy, and often hierarchical, process. This is because learners absorb grammatical minutiae best when they are on the cusp of acquiring that form. It has to be reinforced around the time of internalization, often explicitly. In short, they'll learn it when they're ready to learn it, not when the teacher's red pen points it out. (This is why students can, and do, make the same mistakes over and over again, even within the same sentence).

If a student's essay is covered in grammatical correction notes they will unlikely to be able to focus on any one key form well enough to acquire or internalize it for future usage. In other words, any learning that occurs will be instrumental (meaning that fixing it will help them get through the present assignment) rather than instrinsic (meaning that it fits into their holistic understanding of English as a system). In short, correction categories should be limited and supported in the classroom outside of teacher notes on their papers.

Using a code to give corrections and feedback can run the same risk but at least forces the student to think about the type of mistake by themselves and thereby offers a slight improvement.

General 'suggestion-type' feedback, as opposed to discrete-point feedback, seems to be slightly more effective. Suggestions as to a preferred rhetorical approach, topic, organizational strategies, introductions/endings, and suitable content (relevance and even register) seem to have greater appeal to the student reviser.

Personally, I have always thought that holistic, organizational feedback should precede grammatical minutaie. Choices of content, style and purpose trump syntax. As many of you will know, you often can't really 'fix mistakes' until you've helped them organize a meaningful communicative goal or strategy. If the language and/or the communication point is convoluted and the communicative purpose unclear from the outset fixing syntactical details is not going to help. It may not even be possible to start. To me it's a bit like putting blemish ointment on someone suffering from 3rd degree burns.

Positive feedback seems to be more effective than a focus on the negatives (key point- one shouldn't identify feedback with 'correcting mistakes'). No surprise here. If you tell people what they are doing right the positive reinforcement creates a deeper memory synapse. When you tell small children that they are good boys/girls for getting the spoon into their mouths they are going to do it again willingly and thereby master it sooner.

Face to face feedback seems to be more effective than teacher notes (which students often can't read well anyway) precisely because it is more visceral and directly impacting. It also allows the student to respond in turn. Of course it is not always physically practical or possible.

Peer feedback seems to be more effective than teacher feedback. Further, providing models of successful peer work can be both motivating and allows students a clearer look at (high) standards. On the other hand, some peer feedback can be as goof as useless, being mere uncritical (and unhelpful) mutual congratulations. Peer feedback needs to be guided, monitored and formalized.

Asking students themselves what they feel they did well and what they think they could improve on before offering your ideas is more effective. Self-monitoring is a big part of developing learner autonomy so why not help get them on that road? Getting learners to reflect on their own work engages them more deeply and allows them to feel like they are in control of corrective changes- that they are not just crossing T's and dotting I's because of the pressure of an authority.

If you are looking for the research on this it's pretty easy to Google 'ELT feedback effective' or some such thing (there's too much stuff on the topic out there to post meaningful links here but I can point you to Ross, Robb, and Shortreed [1986] for starters) and you'll get dozens of interesting responses- many were in fact Japan-based studies. And it's very interesting how many deny or strongly question the efficacy of the more popular and common methods of writing feedback.

I'm interested in hearing your thoughts on all this in the comments section.

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Hi Mike. Another excellent article. I couldn't agree more. Allowing students to take ownership of their writing and therby want to improve from their own desire is so important. I also believe that positive reinforcement is essential. By laying out a few simple structural rules, for example with paragraphing, and then having students include one or two (only) new transitions, for example, in a paragraph will greatly aid in motivating students to feel that they can actually do it. The red circles that indicate correct work in the Japanese system are powerful symbols and if we design assignments that don't allow for failure, confidence soars.

Thanks Mark. I've felt that my own feedback has been lacking somehow, hence the recent interest in the topic.

I should have added that non-evaluative, non-suggestive commentary on the student's writing, that is, asking further questions, making remarks as if you were chatting etc. also seems to have a positive effect. This reinforces the idea that the reader (in this case the teacher) is reading for communicative purposes. If the students feels that the teacher is reading because he/she wants to hear what the student is communicating the student is likely to be more careful about the mode and organization of expression.

I loved the line about treating third degree burns with ointment. SO true. I think alot of teachers tend to focus on correcting the grammar mistakes because it's fairly easy to do. We know a mistake when we see one, but all too often we don't tell them how to correct the mistake, we simply identify it.

I've recently taken an approach which focuses more on the "macro" mistakes which I find in students' writing, ie organizational problems, lack of a clear point or message, etc. I think we need to tackle these kinds of problems first and then move on to the finer points of grammar and what not.

As always, interesting stuff Mike.

I find this article very timely as I am currently attempting to put to paper what I think of feedback. I was curious if you have any actual citations for feedback on presentations or diary writing, as oppose to academic writing. I ask as I am trying to write about feedback that I give to my students' video journals (VJs). As VJs do not really fit speaking or writing, but a mixture of both, I was curious if you (or anyone else reading this message) had any directions that I could pursue. If nothing springs to mind, no worries ...

Thanks again for an interesting read.

Sorry Colin. I haven't focused on what people are saying about feedback in those particular areas (diaries and presentations) although I do teach the latter and manage student journals too.

I think that some of the points I made in the post are relevant to both diaries and presentations, although with presentations I'd add that videotaping students and asking them to note what worked or didn't, really helps. With diaries, just adding comments on content to the student entries seemed most appropriate and motivating to me- to let them know that I'm reading them primarily for communicative purposes.

Anyone else?

BTW- I just found an article on the net at:
that sums up grammar-based error correction feedback reasonably well. You can see the references too for further (and more academic) exploration.

This makes so much sense--focusing feedback on organizational issues, not grammar minutiae.
As for the grammar minutiae, I devote a few minutes of each class to it. I've found that pulling out an anonymous mistake or two from student writing, boarding it, asking pairs of students to discuss what's wrong, boarding their suggestions (some will have the right answer but I don't let on right away and keep collecting feedback on the board), and finally discussing the rights and wrongs of the suggestions (a wrong answer is often as fruitful as a right one)... seems to have a positive effect, perhaps because everyone is engaging deeply with the problems.

Thanks Mike for sharing these things. I agree that a teacher's evaluation of learners is important and I have high respect to a teacher who consistently reads and edits written outputs even in holidays! But, I think we are looking at these things solely from a teacher's point of view. I engage my students to have a literary portfolio (lp). With lp, I entrust responsibility and creativity to students and makes learning a fun activity. I also involved the parents and people around the community to share their stories thru student's interview. Mistakes are, of course, bound to happen but the teacher is not the only one to correct these things. With lp, there is permanency. So i never use red pen at all even in drafts. Pencil is wonderful and i even advise my students to erase my corrections in them. The final draft is rewritten and sense of pride is given back to students. Students, just like us teachers, need all the encouragement to make learning fun. Students have great pride in their own work. Lps' importance to teachers is to give students a chance for them to take part in their own learning.   
Grammar lessons are important too in lp, but they would be more enduring because they were all embedded in activity-based learning.          

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