Different approaches to writing: Reflecting on feedback

I’ve finally reached the end of the writing course that I have been teaching for the last four and a half weeks, about which you can read more here and here.  It turned out that I was so busy with the course that I didn’t have much time for blogging, something which I’m trying to make up for now. The course was a bit of an experiment, and thus to go some way towards collecting some experimental evidence, I gave myself 5 areas that I wanted to reflect on during the course. This post attempts to summarize some of what I think I found out about feedback.

I’m going to start by simply listing the kinds of feedback that were given over a typical week of the course, and who gave them to whom, along with any extra notes. Small group refers to a group of three or four students in which students work throughout the week, and English Cafe refers to a 10 minute optional one on one writing clinic style meeting.

  • Feedback on small group analysis of writing and linguistic characteristics of sample piece: Teacher > Whole Class. Chalk and talk style.
  • Feedback on essay plans: Small group > Student. We started this as a very structured event, but it ended up in the form of a brief informal chat about ideas only. Teacher > Student. Usually given as part of a five minute meeting to review plan and early writing in class. Further feedback available in English Cafe.
  • Feedback on first drafts: Small group > Student. Feeding back on elements of writing that we studied based on rubric and peer assessment sheet. Teacher > Student. In English Cafe, verbal.
  • Feedback on errors: Teacher > Student. Delivered via a system of error codes, with opportunities for further help. Small Group > Student. Peer-correction via error codes but scrapped after one week due to student feedback and course restructuring. Teacher > Whole Class. Feedback on common errors in the form of short presentations (also available as screencasts).
  • Feedback on final drafts: Teacher > Student. Given as a set of scores for the final piece based on a rubric for that week.

And here are some observations about the results of this feedback from my reflective journal.

  • Students really seemed to absorb the five paragraph essay structure in the first week. This was an explicit and lengthy focus of the first textual analysis, plus extra focus in small groups and one on one feedback. In the second week, structure was mentioned as part of the analysis, but not focused on. Some students struggled to clearly state an opinion and keep topics to one paragraph in the second week.
  • Other writing techniques that we focused one such as parallel grammatical structures don’t seem to be taken up. However, I do notice other phrases from my pieces that I had not highlighted  popping up in students’ pieces.
  • I do a lot of feeding back on plans, and shifting ideas around, asking questions etc. It seems like students generally find this helpful. I then do a lot more shuffling around of ideas at the writing stage with students who come to see me in English Cafe. These students are often the same ones whose plans I’ve shuffled around.
  • Students are surprisingly willing to rewrite paragraphs and even entire essays. Much more willing than I would have been on a foreign language course. Either that, or they are incredibly good at putting a brave face on it. When they do rewrite these paragraphs they often incorporate the ideas that we discussed and it does usually make for much better essays.
  • Much of the feedback on writing that I gave was useful for that week, but rather useless for following weeks as it wasn’t relevant to a different genre.
  • The amount of time that we had for working with errors was extremely limited, and explicit focus on grammar errors in class or group situations took up less than 10% of class time. Nevertheless students’ accuracy seemed to improve significantly over the course.
  • Students really struggled with punctuation. I suspect this is something that was new for many of them. After I made a brief presentation about conjunctions and periods not going together (usually) errors of this kind disappeared almost entirely. One student, having emailed me her essay, ran into my office in the morning in order to correct an error of this kind that she knew she had missed. Another student specifically mentioned this as being especially useful in the end of course survey.
  • In the same survey, students rated my advice on first drafts and error codes as the most important parts of the writing process for helping them to write good pieces. In general small group peer feedback tended to be rated least important, but very little was rated as not useful.
  • Students seemed to be fairly clearly divided between those who wanted feedback, and would seek it out, and those who didn’t want it and in some cases would try to avoid it. One student suggested that I make English Cafe a mandatory part of the course. To add to this, the student with the best English on the course was less than keen to seek my feedback.

So what does all of this mean in terms of my refelctive questions which I posed at the start of the course. First up, “What is the best way to deliver feedback?” Results from the two feedback surveys that I gave during the course both highlighted the importance of individual feedback from the teacher, and this meshes with my view of trying to deal with what we might call “learner syllabuses” on an individual level rather than as a group, as each “syllabus” will be at a different stage and so teaching discrete grammar items, and to some extent writing skills too, will either be wasted on those who already have them, or lost on those who are not ready. The error codes system does exactly this and I would consider it one of the most successful elements of the course (survey responses suggest that students feel the same). Furthermore, given the range of topics and ideas in the essays most writing problems have to be dealt with on an individual level. This was the kind of approach I set out to try at the beginning of the course and overall it seems to have been successful.

It is therefore tempting to suggest that what is required is an even more individualized approach, with a minimum of small group or class work. However, as far as I can see there are two major problems here. Firstly, individual feedback does not suit everyone, especially when a lot of it requires the student to seek it out. I felt that the student who suggested that I make the optional feedback mandatory was lacking initiative, but looking at it another way it could be seen as a request for help. There are a multitude of personal and cultural reasons which could prevent students from actively seeking out feedback, and I would be as well to remember that I wouldn’t have been too motivated to get help while I was at university. The flipside is that making it mandatory is totally not my style and risks making students opposed to the process, which is not a good mindset in which to receive feedback. The answer I think is to identify those students who I think might benefit from feedback but not seek it out, and encourage/push them a bit more. This is something I can do better as a teacher in general – it’s always nice when students want help, but sometimes the job is to help those who don’t want it or are just too shy or lazy to seek it out.

The second major point is that almost all of the whole class feedback that I gave seemed to be taken up effectively. The key here was that this kind of feedback was based on errors that emerged from the essays, which suggested that the bulk of students were ready for it. Clearly this could be delivered individually, but the workload in teaching a course like this is already high, and so delivering it to the whole class is much more efficient.

My second question was, “How can I make sure that feedback is taken on board?” In general, feedback that I gave to individuals and the whole class about their writing made it into their final essays. This was pleasing as I worked very hard on structuring the course in order to allow for the maximum amount of feedback and revision. Instead of teaching the writing process, we just did the writing process (and I had good feedback as to its usefulness). The error codes also attempted to get students to think for themselves about errors, rather than simply get corrections. As I said, all of this seemed to be reasonably successful, but as I didn’t have a control group, there’s nothing to draw a comparison with. Still, I feel like this approach is something that I would do again.

Finally, I wanted to tackle the role of conscious learning in this process. I was quite surprised at how little we were able to do as a class; I had sort of imagined that common errors would form the basis of quite a lot of grammar teaching. In the end I think I “taught” only one or two grammar points to the whole class. I also thought that errors might point the way to wider rules of language, which was the case a few times, but a lot of the times the errors were specific lexical ones related to word class or verb patterns, slips which students had momentarily forgotten the rule for, or sentences so awkward that they could not easily be fixed by the application of one or two grammatical or lexical tweaks. So really, traditional, structural teaching of grammar was almost absent from my class. Nevertheless, I seemed to be using a lot less error codes at the end of the course than I did at the beginning, so something must have been happening.

I’d like to suggest that this may have been more a case of attitude than of conscious learning. Although the activities where we worked with errors took up a minimal amount of class time, they were designed to raise awareness of errors. I have already talked about the error codes, but a further part of the teaching cycle was to have students analyze and present an error to a small group, focusing on why they made the error, how they could fix it, what they could learn from it, and how they could prevent it in future. It seems that, for this group of learners at least, general awareness raising may be the most important part of error correction, rather than any specific grammatical or lexical gains. However, it’s notable that the focus was on specific items of grammar and lexis, rather than a general “focus on accuracy”, but this seems to have led to much wider gains in the area of accuracy. Again though, there’s no control here for comparison.

In conclusion, I think that some form of individual feedback is necessary and I strongly believe, despite the lack of evidence, that it has to be given in a situation where it can be used immediately to maximize the chances of being taken up. It’s also necessary to remember that students may be resistant or uninterested in this kind of feedback, and it is up to the teacher to ensure that this feedback reaches these students, as they may be the ones who need it most. The real eye-opener from this post, however, is the role of error correction and language work in setting general attitudes, and the possible overall accuracy gains that can be achieved with even a small amount of specific items. What this might mean for future courses is students taking even more responsibility for finding their own errors and sharing them, but for now I’m way over my word limit and very hungry, so I’m calling it here.

Cheers,

Alex

 

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5 responses to “Different approaches to writing: Reflecting on feedback

  1. Thanks for sharing. I particularly liked your comments about mandatory v. optional individual feedback.
    I wonder why your students didn’t like peer correction with error codes. Do they distrust their classmates’ English grammatical skills or is it about saving face? I also taught a winter writing class for university students, but peer correction with error codes received positive reviews in course evaluations. It’s possible that peer correction was less threatening in my context because the students were at a similar level and knew each other quite well. It’s also possible that they liked peer correction because I didn’t offer individual teacher error correction as an option and because peer correction looks more appealing after experiencing the limitations of electronic correction.

  2. Thanks for commenting! I must admit I didn’t delve further into the reasons why they preferred teacher corrections. I’m saying preferred here because in fact they didn’t necessarily dislike them; they just rated my feedback as more useful. I would agree with your suggestions that not having on your course made the students better disposed to peer feedback.

    If I had to guess at the reasons, I’d say that it was more distrust. I looked at some of the coded items and they weren’t very good, despite my request to students to ask me if they were at all not sure. Also, the error codes were very wide-ranging, so perhaps students were a bit overwhelmed by it all. My question to you is what did you have students peer correcting, and how many error codes did you use? (I had them looking at whole essays for grammar, word choice and syntax using 20 codes, which seems far too much to do looking back).

    Cheers,

    Alex

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  4. Hi Alex,

    So if I understand correctly, the planning stages where mainly small group – > student feedback, and your feedback was optional (English cafe). Is that right? I think if I were in that position, I’d be afraid that the students wouldn’t trust each other enough to begin with the peer feedback process. I might have missed this in your post, but did students provide feedback mainly on language use or did it include content and ideas as well?

    A lot to reflect about with this post. Might come back and read again at some other point :)

    • Hi Laura,

      Thanks very much for reading again.

      That’s more or less right I think. Each week students would create a plan on the Monday night. They would then present it to their peer group during Tuesday’s class for feedback. They then had the option of coming to see me in English Cafe, but I also made sure to check their plans and early writing in class on the Wednesday. Feedback at this stage was almost entirely content based, and peer stuff was guided by questions that I created.

      The rationale behind putting peer feedback first was largely practical. I had a limited amount of time in class on the Tuesday as I wanted to spend time on analyzing some of the linguistic features of my example pieces and didn’t have space for individual feedback.

      The biggest problem wasn’t so much the lack of trust. This was an intensive course and by the second week when we actually began to write the classes were fairly well bonded, and were happy to try to feed back to each other. The bigger problem was not following the structures that I gave for giving feedback such as guessing the content of the piece from the introduction. I think working through them step by step at first might be more effective.

      Hope that was helpful.

      AG

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