Tuesday 13 May 2014

New Ideas on Feedback from IATEFL 2014

As mentioned in an earlier post, I was fortunate enough to attend IATEFL 2014 recently. I tried to go to sessions related to academic writing as this is my main teaching focus at the moment. This included sessions on feedback on writing, in particular, the ‘forum on feedback’ with 3 presentations on feedback for written work.

First up was Clare Fielder, who talked about Learner-Directed Feedback, which she advocates as a useful tool for developing EAP writing and academic skills. She identified the traditional method of feedback being red pen on a paper copy of work. For Learner-Directed Feedback, students choose the method of delivery of feedback, for example using an audio recording, via email, handwritten comments and so on:

In addition, students ask specific questions about their work:

Materials produced by Clare Fielder, for IATEFL 2014; adapted from Fauster & Campbell, presented at IATEFL 2012.
This puts the learners in control of the feedback and takes the pressure off the teacher to decide what feedback to give, which benefits both sides. This is an interesting approach and it has made me realise that I am quite a traditionalist when it comes to marking. Faced with a pile of essays, my preferred practice is to sit somewhere quiet and comfortable (The Hallamshire House is my favourite spot) and methodically work through the essays with red, green and blue pens. Applying a learner-directed approach complicates matters to some extent as I would need to ask each student about their preferred mode of feedback and what they wanted me to focus on. However, the likelihood that some feedback will be red pen, some recorded audio and some emailed means that the whole marking process will be more varied for the teacher as well as empowering for the student, which suggests it is a good approach to try.

Fielder conducted a classroom based research project to investigate this method of feedback and got very positive results. Her students liked this way of getting ‘feedback on demand’ and were interested to try alternative modes to the extent that the traditional red pen method did not generate much interest. The class she investigated this with were advanced learners in Germany, but I would be interested to see the opinions from other groups. Thinking about my own students, I expect that learner-directed feedback would be viewed equally as positively, but I suspect the red pen method would keep its popularity, because when I have individual writing tutorials and ask the students what they want me to focus on, they often ask for the correction of grammar mistakes.

The second spot in the forum was taken by Jane Mandalios who talked about peer oral feedback on student writing. This in itself is nothing new but the approach Mandalios takes is very lengthy and involved. 4 students worked in 2 pairs, using 2 copies of essays. Students A and B read the essays of students C and D and vice versa. They discussed the 2 essays together and then gave feedback in their groups of 4. That way, every student received feedback from 2 other students. This process actually took about an hour, so it needs to be properly planned and delivered.

Mandolis showed us a video of this in practice which revealed students being communicative, animated and highly engaged in the activity. She reported that the benefits were that students enjoyed the pair work and team work, that they liked reading other students’ work, and that they valued non-judgemental feedback. One disadvantage, however, was that they didn’t like giving negative feedback.
In the past when I have used peer feedback, I have noticed that stronger students can give effective feedback but that weaker ones sometimes struggle. An advantage of this 4 student approach is that it is never the responsibility of one student for another student’s feedback; rather it is co-constructed, which should improve the quality of the feedback and reduce the burden on individual students.

Following nicely on from this, Blerta Mustafa talked about ‘Peer Feedback: from friend to foe’. She started by outlining the problems of peer feedback, for examples that students tend to focus on the micro level without seeing texts as a whole and that there was a lack of trust in peer feedback: students were sceptical, they disliked it at first or thought it was pointless. In my own experience I have seen that students are often reluctant to be critical as they don’t want to cause offence, which can result in lots of vague positive comments that are no use to anyone.

Mustafa argued that students need to be trained in how to give peer feedback. In her own research she found that initially, students had negative perceptions of it and could not deliver useful feedback. However, in time, her students came to like the process more, they were able to give more effective feedback to their peers, and they became more accepting of criticism from others. It seems then that peer feedback should be viewed not only as an activity to do in class, but also a skill to learn and that this needs considered planning over a course.


  1. There was also a very interesting session at the Sheffield Learning and Teaching conference 2014 on training UG students to understand assignment criteria and give peer feedback. This was in engineering but has implications for other students and teachers who work with them, especially about the difficulties of all this. http://conferencesheffield.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/9b-training-students-to-develop.html

  2. Nothing on phonetics? That's because academic phonetics is not useful for English. Instead there is truespel phonetics, which makes it easy to write as well as read in phonetics based on English. See http://justpaste.it/course2. Truespel is free as my gift for noncommercial use.

  3. Thanks for summarising m talk & helping to spread the 'Feedback on Demand' idea :-)
    Regarding peer feedback, I have also found using specific questionnaires to guide the students in what to look at can be effective. I've adapted some from Oshima, A. & Hogue, A., Writing Academic English (Pearson/Longman, 2006) (around page 325) which work well!

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