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:
  • 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

  •  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

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:
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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