A teacher’s feedback beliefs and practices: Taking a deeper look

Sonja Tack, School of Languages, Sabanci University, Istanbul / Turkey

TackTaking the notion of learner-based research as a point of departure, I asked Sami Yazıcılaroğlu, a Freshman English student with whom I am currently carrying out case study research, to write out a list of questions he wanted to ask about my feedback beliefs and practices. I then used these questions to guide my written reflections, which were shared with the student.

SAMİ: Is it discouraging to see students not improving their work with the feedback, making the same mistakes over and over again?

SONJA:Well, the short answer to this is yes, very. I think it is fairly easy to get discouraged, unfortunately. We as teachers (foolishly) tend to think there is a sort of magical, one-to-one correspondence between feedback and improvement – perhaps we believe in our own powers too much – and we are under time pressure to “help” students “improve”. But since I have started researching feedback more systematically, I have realized how naïve my previous assumptions were. To give you an idea of the complexity of the topic, we have to consider these factors:

-Should I give the same amount and type of feedback to each student or should I personalize it?

-How will I write the comment in a way that the student can easily understand it?

-Should the tone be conversational or objective? Which tone will the student find most appropriate/helpful?

-What kinds of modal verbs should I use? (must, should, etc.) Should I use questions, statements or imperatives? How will the student understand each?

-Should I avoid trying to “take over” the student’s idea with my feedback?

-Will the student get discouraged by “too much” feedback? How much is too much? Will a student be de-motivated by “too little” feedback? How much is too little?

-How much time should I spend? How much time do I have? Will the student spend as much time rewriting the paper as I spend giving feedback? Will the student even read the comments?

-Am I recognizing the good points as well as the bad points? Am I giving an accurate impression of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the paper?

-What will happen if the student doesn’t understand the comments or just doesn’t know how to revise the paper? Can I assume that the student will ask me?

-Does the student even want/value feedback?

This is in fact just a quick brainstorm! As it is impossible to get inside the students’ heads, a lot of the above decisions are taken on the basis of observations, past experience and guesswork. It is often impossible to determine what the “right” feedback may be for an individual student until after it has been given (assuming that there is even any evidence of student reaction to the feedback). This means teachers don’t have many chances to “get it right”, which further minimizes the potential benefit to students.

I think we as teachers may also have to accept the fact that the things we “care” about in writing are not necessarily the things the students “care” about. I seem to care a lot more about formatting and how the essay looks on the page than my students do, for example, as I feel it reflects attention to detail and pride in presentation, whereas students have made comments to me in the past that they consider this sort of expectation to be overly fussy.

SAMİ: Considering the “more feedback means instructor didn’t like my work” attitude, do you ever get discouraged?

SONJA: Oh, I could give dozens of examples of this, I expect. I remember how students reacted in our section last semester when I returned the practice essay drafts and gave group feedback. I felt a lot of hostility, and students were arguing with me about various points. I’m not sure why they felt I was trying to attack them. I even wrote on my teaching blog about this. I had spent hours and hours individually marking 54 essays which, in most cases, students seemed not to have put much effort into (it was only “practice”, according to some of them), and I spent more hours preparing that presentation. After all that work, only 6 students rewrote their essays. So I had to ask myself why I had attached so much importance to it. Of those students who did rewrite (and you were one of them), I saw marked improvement, so of course I was pleased, but it seemed like a very low return on my investment. I doubt if I will ever do an exact repeat of that exercise.

SAMİ: How much time do you spend to give feedback for each paper, presentation, etc.? It must be very time consuming to point out every mistake in such detail as you do and yet keep the tone so encouraging!

SONJA: Well thanks for the comment, sometimes I don’t feel I am being so encouraging. I privately pride myself on being a rather speedy marker. I also used to have a second job as a Writing Examiner for Cambridge exams, so we had to mark quickly and accurately (for example, 200 essays in 7 hours). So up to now I have tended to just dive in and try to finish the essays in 2-3 days, perhaps 10 hours a day or so. But it is exhausting to do it that way and I do get discouraged having to comment on the same things again and again. This is why I tried some group feedback last semester, but that also didn’t seem to be very successful.

This semester, for the first time, I have built 4 weeks of marking time into the class timetable. I want to feel relaxed when I mark so I can give more and better quality comments, avoid negativity and try to think of the student as an individual while I mark. I have introduced this change as a result of much reading up on feedback research. There is really no need for me to try to kill myself; we give only one essay per semester, not like in the past when I gave 3 or 4.

Also for the first time, I am giving electronic feedback. This both speeds up and slows down the process. On the one hand, because I can type faster than I can write, it should cut the time down, but in practice I find I am giving far more feedback than I would have done by hand. I guess on average I am spending 30 minutes per research draft. This equates to more or less 22 hours of total marking time. If all 74 students had handed in their drafts, you can just imagine…

SAMİ: Do you feel like your feedback serves its purpose in this university? To what extent do you think it is related to cultural view of criticism?

SONJA: Yes, it is very useful to focus on context, both at an institutional and a cultural level. Well, it’s a very challenging question to answer. I guess I’m not really sure. One thing I can say is that feedback doesn’t operate in a vacuum, so the feedback I give is inevitably interpreted by the students in light of their other feedback experiences, whether in other classes at this university or their previous experiences of feedback in high schools. You mentioned to me before that high school feedback can be personally threatening, absolute and even destructive. I’m not sure what level of feedback students actually get from their other Freshman classes. If they get none, or just minimal remarks, then surely mine must seem like an avalanche to them, which would explain the sometimes negative reactions I get, as if I’m just inventing reasons to punish them.

There is also a noticeable type of student who believes that everything s/he writes is “perfect” (I use their word), and such students get very impatient with feedback, self-evaluations and so on. I can’t decide what the root cause of this is. They just cannot seem to value, or even see, the process aspect of learning. For them, school is about producing something, in as little time as possible. I’m sure this has been encouraged by Turkish state education, but there must be more to it than that. It is absolutely incomprehensible to me. I saw the same attitude with respect to our class blog last semester. As it was an ongoing thing which required regular effort and gradual improvement, there were some students who despised it and refused to even try it. One student even said instead of a class blog, “one exam could solve everything.” The fact that a student would request an exam instead of an opportunity to discuss topics in a relaxed environment just floored me. But I suppose it means that he could just study everything the night before, take the exam and – FINISHED! But education is never, ever finished.

Overall, I get mixed signals about what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate criticism in Turkish society, to be honest. On the one hand, I have witnessed people criticizing each other publicly in ways I find overly harsh. But on the whole, I actually think there is a tendency to avoid criticism, and there is certainly a differing concept of what constitutes ‘constructive’ criticism. There seems to be a feeling that this would be detrimental to group dynamics. Of course I am generalizing here, but I do think this is a significant cultural difference and I would like to explore it further. There is no point in denying that there is, to a greater or lesser extent, a clash in expectations between myself and the students, which is directly related to our respective cultural backgrounds. The most we can hope for is that we can remain open to possibilities for dialogue on these points.

SAMİ: How often do you see a student improve his/her work dramatically with the feedback? How rewarding is it?

SONJA: You know, it actually does happen occasionally. It happened in your case, for instance.  I have also had some success with a handful of students in previous universities. What I can say is that they were just at the right level of cognitive readiness to receive and process the feedback, and they had enough proficiency in English to be able to understand it as it was intended. So I don’t think my feedback per se helped them much; rather, it was more about what they brought to the interaction.

But this is rare. More often I see students making no or gradual progress. That is actually understandable. It takes a long, long time to improve writing skills. Just giving an assignment or two per semester and a few comments is not likely to impact much on that. Students need to have a high level of awareness and be in the habit of noticing in order to really make a dent in their writing style. This again is related to their level of cognitive ability, which most often is influenced by their past learning experiences as well as their level of intrinsic motivation. If they already see an “English” class as a burden, they will most likely not take an active part in the interpretation and application of their feedback.

It is of course extremely rewarding to see a student take my feedback comments and run with them. My jaw has dropped on more than one occasion on reading the final draft of a student’s paper and seeing the massive increase in the level of sophistication of analysis, tone and style. It is those moments that make the whole grind of giving feedback (and seeing it largely ignored) worth it. Whenever I do get very discouraged and think of just giving minimal or no feedback, a little voice inside my head reminds me of those students, and it gets me going again.

SAMİ: I personally think that many Turkish students need to improve their interpretation of feedback and criticism. Do you think a workshop would be helpful in that sense? Would you consider giving one?

SONJA: Wow, this is a really interesting question…and potentially a very good idea. First of all, do you think students would be interested in this? How could I pitch it to attract their attention? And last but not least, would you consider giving one with me?

THANK YOU so much for these incisive questions, they really helped me to order my thoughts!