The nature and role of feedback to students during writing tutorials: from the tutors’ perspective

In the UWC Writing Centre, we as tutors need to be aware of the way we give our feedback to students so that their work can be revised with greater ease and understanding. The nature of the feedback that is given to students can either help them to understand why they have to do any form of revision, or it may further confuse the students. This blog post intends to highlight how and why we think that feedback is very useful for students’ improvement on the academic writing process, and some guidelines for giving constructive feedback.

Chaudron (1988:150) views feedback as ‘treatment of error’ that may simply refer to ‘any teacher’s behaviour following an error that minimally attempts to inform the learner of the fact of error’. Lightbown and Spada (1999:171) also refer to feedback as:
Any indication to the learners that their use of the target language is incorrect. This includes various responses that the learners receive. When a language learner says, ‘He go to school everyday’, corrective feedback can be explicit, for example, ‘no, you should say goes, not go’ or implicit ‘yes he goes to school every day’, and may or may not include metalinguistic information, for example, ‘Don’t forget to make the verb agree with the subject’.
In like manner, Lyster and Ranta (1997) define feedback as a ‘student’s generated repair’ that is successful. They suggest four ways that such a repair can be accomplished;
  1. Clarification Request: indicates that the student’s writing is misunderstood by a teacher or that the writing is ill-formed in some way. In this regard, it can refer to either problems in accuracy or comprehensibility, or both.
  2. Repetition: redundancy to isolate student’s work, with changes in tone or inflection to highlight the error.
  3. Metalinguistic Feedback: may contain comments, information or questions related to the well-formedness of the student’s writing without explicitly providing the correct form. Points to the nature of the error but attempts to elicit the information from the student.
  4. Elicitation: strategic pauses to allow students to fill in the blanks, questions to elicit correct forms or asking students to rewrite a draft.
In line with this, Chaudron (1988) argues that error corrections in writing must be based on the following questions:
  •         Should learner’s errors be corrected?
  •         When should they be corrected?
  •         Which ones should be corrected?
  •         How should errors be corrected?
  •         Who should do the correcting, student or teacher?
To attempt an answer for the above, we speculated on where student writers tend to struggle with their writing. Fanselow (1977) suggests that students struggle with lack of confidence in themselves, lack of direction where the ideas are going to, the reading of related literature takes students astray (off track) and distractions. John: ‘As a writing coach, this has been very helpful to me as they help me as a tutor to identify where the student might be struggling’. Gordon: ‘Being able to identify their struggle is a first step to giving a good feedback. There are times when you prepare comments for students but during the face-to-face, you would notice that they had a different problem entirely’. Thus, we as tutors have found some of this theory useful in thinking about what students might be struggling with and how we might try to help them through our feedback.
 
There are two general types of feedback, summative and formative. Formative feedback entails commenting throughout the text on specific errors or missteps that encourages and informs a writer of any gaps in their writing. In view of this, we are of the opinion that feedback in a Writing Centre, focused as it is on writing as a process, needs to be encouraging and formative. Tutors and writers need to see writing a continuous process which can always be improved upon. In contrast, summative feedback is a little too general and it is usually given at the end of an assignment. It does have a place, but perhaps not in the Writing Centre, and certainly not on its own.
 
Based on the above argument, we believe that feedback is very useful for teachers and tutors because it helps the writers to improve on their writing (Lyster 2001). It might also help to move the text to the next step in the writing process. Feedback also helps to show the writer the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of the text – not only what to correct and how, but also why they need to correct it. As a result, feedback gives the writer opportunities to make informed choices about their revisions and it provokes critical thinking by asking writers and tutors to motivate for what works and what does not.
 
As a way of conclusion, we suggest a few DOs and DON’Ts (or SHOULDs and SHOULDN’Ts) of feedback:
DOs/SHOULDs
  • Talk about the positives before the negatives – with the idea that we do not want the students to feel stupid, they should know that there is something that they are doing well.
  • Select the most pertinent points – because if all the mistakes are brought out at once, the student could be discouraged to continue or may become completely confused.
  • Be explicit enough – to make sure the student understands exactly what is being talked about, avoid the use of specialised words (or jargon).
  • Read over a whole paper/assignment before commenting – this can help a tutor to select the pertinent points for discussion and see the paper as a whole
  • Give choices to the writer  – avoid imposing what you would write or say on the student – so that they feel like part of their work
  • Play the role of a critical peer – make suggestions and comments rather than telling them what they must do so that they can understand that the writing process treats everyone the same way
DON’Ts/SHOULDN’Ts

  •  Do not use jargon or specialised terms uncritically – these words could be scaring because students might not understand what they mean e.g. coherence, task analysis etc.
  • Do not be vague in your feedback – you need to clear enough to make the students understand why they have to do a revision.
  • Do not be negative – that is, do not give them the impression that time is against them; let them rather understand that there can never be a perfect piece of writing but that they can always work on it and improve
  • Do not feedback paragraph by paragraph – this can be at times make some of your comments redundant, or prevent you and the student from seeing the work as a whole
  •  Do not force writer to own ideas they may not be comfortable with – provide them with choices and let them understand why they need to effect a change
  •  Do not be subjective or biased – focus on the assignment and the student, not on your own plans for the writing or thoughts on the topic

Written by John Foncha and Gordon Igbokwe, based on their presentation at a staff seminar

References
Chaudron, C. (1988). Second language classrooms: Research on teaching and learning.
Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Fanselow, J. F. (1977). The treatment of error in oral work. Foreign Language Annals 10:
583-593.
Lightbown, P. M., and Spada, N. (1999). How languages are learned. Oxford, UK: Oxford
University Press.
Lyster, R. (2001). Negotiation of form, recasts and explicit correction in relation to error types and learner repair in immersion classrooms. Language Learning 51:265-301.
Lyster, R. and Ranta, L. (1997) Corrective feedback and learner uptake: Negotiation of form in  communicative classrooms. Corrective feedback in SLA.

 
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The Real and the Ideal: do we have a ‘normative’ sense of writing tutorials?

In this post we want to reflect on the kinds of things we value in our approaches to student writing tutorials, and how these ‘normative’ kinds of judgements might shape the way we talk to students, and the way students tend to respond.

Often, there is, at least initially, a kind of ‘clash’ between our goals for the writing tutorial and the goals of the students. In some ways, this can most basically be described as a clash between a ‘process-oriented’ approach and a ‘product-oriented approach’ to academic writing. We will try to unpack this while trying to avoid essentialising these issues. 
  
To start with the product-oriented approach to writing that many students adopt (and that many lecturers adopt too): this approach is what it sounds like, really. Many students come to the Writing Centre tasked with producing a piece of academic writing, in a certain form and following certain guidelines or rules, many of which they do not fully understand at undergraduate level, and which are often tacit. Most students at undergraduate level that we tutor are very focused on that product, on getting it written as quickly and painlessly as possible and on getting the best possible mark they can. They seldom (at least at the start of coming to the Centre) see themselves as beginning a process-oriented approach to writing, where their own personal and academic growth is a focus, and where the product is one of a series of products that link together to create a sense of forward motion, personal growth, knowledge building and confidence-building. This process-oriented approach may be valued in the university in some corners and places, like Writing Centres, academic-development-type courses and with certain lecturers and tutors. But on the whole, the approach to writing, learning and assessment in higher education globally is dominated by a focus on the product, and often the person producing it is overlooked or under-considered. We in the Writing Centre take issue with this, because this is not the approach that we value. But we need to be aware of the kinds of concerns a focus on the product creates for students about academic writing, so that we can understand our own approaches to academic writing and our methods of guiding, advising and encouraging students more reflectively and critically.

When we discussed the idea behind this blog post – a musing about whether there is something ‘normative’ about our approach to academic writing, and whether and how we might be imposing this onto writing tutorials perhaps unconsciously and what effects this might have – we started with the idea of a ‘traditional’ and a ‘non-traditional’ approach to tutoring in the university. In the sense that we are using these terms in our thinking, a ‘traditional’ tutorial places the authority in the tutor to direct the tutorial and set the agenda, and it also makes the tutor the holder of knowledge and knowing about what is under discussion. In the ‘non-’ or ‘less traditional’ approach, the power dynamics are challenged, because the tutor shares the agenda-setting and authority over directing the discussion with the student, and both the tutor and student have knowledge that is included and drawn on in the discussion – the students’ knowledge about the assignment topic is actively sought because writing tutors do not have subject-specific knowledge for every assignment that they need to assist students with. We find, though, that the dominant approach according to students is the more traditional approach, and that when students are invited to work with the peer writing tutors differently they tend to initially find this disconcerting or challenging. Many of them would like us to give them yes and no answers and tell them what to write and how to write it so that they can complete their product. Many students do eventually enjoy the different way of working when they get used to it, but it is initially tricky to get many students to open up and start talking and take on some of that authority and confidence in their ideas and their writing. This leads us to wonder what we are valuing in our approach over the alternative, and why we insist on drawing students into discussion and conversation, rather than simply capitulating and telling them what they want to know. Are we making value judgements here about what counts as the ‘right’ way to assist students with their writing? Are we saying, tacitly, that a writing tutorial ought to go a certain way or have certain outcomes? And, if we are, how are these judgements impacting on how we manage our time with students?

In short, we think the answer is probably ‘yes’. Yes, we are making certain value judgements about what academic writing is and is not (and these are not just ours because they are informed by theory and practice in our field). We are saying that writing is a process, and that there are certain things that need to be valued in that process, like giving the student full ownership over their own writing, and giving guidance and advice that develops the student-writer’s capacity and confidence, rather than just developing single assignments. We are valuing a focus on the ‘deeper’ elements of writing, like the way the ideas are organised and the way the writer is creating coherence for the reader, as well as the use of evidence to support their claims and warrants, over a focus on the ‘polishing’ in terms of fixing typos and correcting spelling and grammatical errors (unless polishing is what is needed). We are, to an extent, making a normative kind of judgement – we ought to go about things in a certain way because of what we value, and not necessarily because we are trying to make the writing easier to read or nicer to look at. There are normative criteria that shape academic writing, and what we value taps into those as well, like how to structure an essay and how to argue academically and why we do so in certain ways, and why we don’t use exclamation marks or rhetorical questions, for example.

We do not always communicate these value judgements overtly; often this is tacit, in the way we gently guide the conversation through questions and prompts to the issues we think the student would benefit most from working on with us. We often know what we need to talk about based on the task before the students as well as our own experience as writers and tutors, so we don’t often stop and think about what might be underpinning what we are doing in those conversations.  This blog post was an attempt to do a bit of that reflection and thinking. We’d love to hear your thoughts on this issue too? What do your value in your writing centres, and how does this shape your encounters with students, and with other academics?