This section will begin with answering RQ1 on the patterns of feedback practices used by teachers. These practices are presented in three broad categories: written feedback, the feedback-related activities that preceded the written task (pre-task feedback practices) and those that followed the written task (post-task feedback practices). The second half of this section focuses on the findings to RQ2 on student participants’ engagement in these three categories of feedback practices as evidenced through what they said during the focus group discussions and did as seen in the artefacts. The names reported here are pseudonyms. This section concludes with a table to summarise the key findings of students’ affective, behavioural and cognitive engagement with the types of feedback practices.
Typology of feedback practices
There were many similarities in the kinds of teacher feedback seen across the five schools. There was evidence of personal level feedback directed at motivating students, for example “Well done!” or “Good effort”. Another common practice was corrective feedback through highlighting grammatical errors with a circle or underscore (e.g. a lot). Often times, these would be accompanied with a symbol to indicate the error (e.g. sp for spelling errors) or an indication of how the error could be corrected (e.g. “You do not need to include two punctuation marks. One will do.”). Some teachers would focus only on giving feedback on selected areas while others highlighted every mistake made. At the end of the essay, teachers typically included a statement summarising or highlighting the strengths and areas of weaknesses (e.g. “Accurate language as a whole”).
Pre-task feedback practices
In order to help students understand the demands of the upcoming writing task, teachers would show them the rubrics used for grading it. Alternatively, such understanding would be facilitated through a class discussion of success criteria (see example in Fig. 1).
In addition, students may be required to self-assess their own performance against the checklist of success criteria (as can be seen on the right column of Fig. 1). The completed checklist was to be submitted along with the new writing assignment.
Students may also be invited to reflect on their own work using a “Feedback Cover Sheet” (see Fig. 2). In contrast to the success criteria checklist, this is an open-ended response where students report what they are satisfied with in their work and what feedback they would specifically like their teachers to give regarding the work that accompanied this cover sheet. Teachers would then respond to the students’ feedback query on the same sheet after they had marked the accompanying essay.
Post-task feedback practices
Upon returning the students’ graded work, some teachers designed activities to help students to make sense of the feedback. One common approach was a class discussion highlighting the common errors made by most students. Teachers took the opportunity to explain the symbols used in their written feedback (e.g. “SP” indicated spelling errors). Sometimes, teachers designed an accompanying worksheet (see Fig. 3) to help students focus and record the correct forms. During such lessons, good and negative examples of student work were also shown. Student participants mentioned that they would clarify doubts during these class discussions or individually with the teacher after class. Teachers also singled out weaker students for individual consults after lessons. There was evidence that such post-task feedback practices were more routinized with some teachers than others.
Students’ engagement with feedback
Students reported various emotions on receiving written feedback, ranging from nonchalance (“you ponder it for like a few minutes…(then) it’s not important…any more”) to feeling “a bit excited and a bit scared”. Where they agreed was that they all looked at the marks first. One student explained, “When I look at the marks, I sort of had like a certain expectation as to what the feedback will be”. Gerard commented that the worse the marks are, the more important the feedback becomes. Wendy’s comments explain why, “You get like a 10 out of 30, then you are just wondering why you go wrong, where you went wrong. So in order to understand why you are awarded that mark, you have to look at the feedback as well.”
While teachers intended personal level statements like “Good effort” to motivate students, it appeared that not all learners found them helpful. One student participant, Rita, said, “’Good effort’ … doesn't really benefit me. It doesn't pull up my self-esteem. It doesn't make me feel good about my writing. No. It also isn't helping me to improve anything”. Her classmate, Alice, concurred, “When I read the ‘decent attempt, keep it up’ …I didn't feel motivated…I felt great about my work, but it didn't push me to further continue it.”
One exception to this appears to be when the teacher used rubber stamps with motivating messages, for example “Keep on trying” or “Good effort”. Even then, it seemed to be a novelty as indicated by Messi who commented they were “Very cute” and how classmates would ask around, “Eh, what kind of stamp did you get?”.
Generally, other students preferred that teachers complemented the “keep it up” with specific details on areas to be improved. Alice gave an example of such follow-up comments: “Like, you can start the sentence by, I think you can ‘dot dot dot’, so that it is more targeted and so that I can know what to focus on.” Such specific instruction appeared to be what was helpful to influence their affective and behavioural engagement:
So, if I don’t do well enough according to my expectations, honestly I will feel really like, dejected and really sad because I did not live up to a certain expectation. But if like, at the bottom, it states what you are good at, or it says maybe you can try this or just some small encouragement, like ‘Good try’ or ‘Good job’, that kind of thing, then I think I’ll feel more… encouraged to do better. (Ella)
Students also reported being encouraged when teachers indicated where specifically they had done well:
If I am feeling really dejected, because she really has a lot of comments, then I’ll look at the end to see if she has any good points to say about my essay, for example, ‘Oh you’ve elaborated well.’ Then, I’ll actually feel quite proud and work on improving that part. (Ariel)
Their teachers’ affirmation of their improvement in subsequent tasks also raised their sense of self-efficacy. One student reported feeling pleased at his teacher’s comment (“Most of the errors were corrected”). Another student felt a great sense of satisfaction on reading his teacher’s affirmation on his revised version: “I was like, actually I still remember when I got the paper back. Finally, like all the problems over here are solved”.
The interviews and artefacts were analysed for evidence of student uptake of feedback and the conditions that would facilitate such actions. One common theme is that students act on the feedback if instructed and even then, it is when they can understand how to correct it. Artefacts such as Fig. 4 show students editing some areas while appearing to ignore others.
They variously commented, “Sometimes, I understand her annotations but sometimes, I don’t” and “It’s …important for the teachers to realise that students aren’t in their heads. So they don't know what the teacher might mean in certain ways.” The artefacts bore out that at best, students would attend to the editing that the teacher suggested, but often without understanding. Figure 5 shows a student who did not understand that the word “sometime” was to be corrected to “sometimes”.
Even when the learner understands and edits correctly, there is a risk of limited transfer as seen in the example in Fig. 6, when in the following task, the child continues to make the same mistake of using two punctuation marks to end a sentence.
Students also commented that “it takes time … to actually absorb the feedback” and seek clarification from peers or their teachers. This is particularly when there were many written comments throughout the returned work. In such cases, students tended to focus on the summary statements “than look at everything from each paragraph” (Connor). Some others read the summary before reading the entire essay.
From the interview data, it was clear that certain post-feedback practices encouraged student action. For example, some teachers were more explicit in expecting students to engage behaviourally in their feedback by designing follow-up tasks such as a rewrite or a similar writing piece. In the absence of such instructions, students tended to take a look at the feedback and filed away the returned piece of work. But if they had to do follow-up work, they felt there was “no point of writing the whole essay again” because they “do not actually read the whole thing again”. They preferred to “write their wrong sentence structure and then write beside of it…the correct version of it” or to be given a choice on which part they wanted to revise. The latter gave students a sense of autonomy and self-efficacy:
It’s like, you take the original and you improve it, but sometimes I’ll just do a rework, because sometimes I feel like the original was so bad that I could not see any way on how to improve it. (Jerry)
As mentioned in the earlier section, certain post-feedback practices helped students better process their teachers’ written feedback. One common routine mentioned across schools was teacher-led class discussion after the graded writing task was returned:
Because after every written assignment, the teacher will prepare slides for us, and she will go through the general feedback on what the class has done well and what the class hasn’t done well. And I think the general feedback is useful because it does apply for every student. But the specified feedback she gives us, I think it’s the most helpful because it is specialized for us. (Emily)
Such verbal explanations were also preferred by students who commented that “because sometimes (with) writing, you don’t understand”.
Being live interactions, students could raise questions for further clarification. This explains why some students reported that one-to-one consultations with teachers were the most helpful among feedback practices:
I might not understand then maybe she don’t have time for me, to answer that question (in class), right? So if it’s verbal then she can just straightaway tell me. Then she also can write it down. Then I will notice. Then I will know what (it means) because she explain to me on the spot. (Dan)
Class discussions were sometimes accompanied by worksheets that helped students focus on correcting common mistakes made by the class. These activities helped students who made these mistakes understand better how to correct them.
In addition to post-feedback activities, some pre-feedback activities were helpful in preparing students to make sense of feedback they would be receiving. For example, some students found that a success criteria checklist issued before they started writing helped them know what teachers were looking out for and hence “get … good marks” (Sophie). However, it was less clear if students used it intentionally to self-assess work before handing it up. Sam confessed he ticked on the checklist “for the sake of doing it”. Others, having forgotten that they had to do it earlier, scrambled to tick the boxes just before handing up the self-assess checklist along with the homework.
As for the pre-feedback practice of requiring students to write a feedback cover sheet (in which students need to report on areas done well and ask for specific feedback from teachers), there was mixed reaction. One student found it bothersome since to him, it duplicated the reflection required in the success criteria checklist. Others found it helpful:
Yes, it can help you…you can tell yourself two things you did well, like maintain it in the next essay and then, you can add another two things that you did well again. So, you can keep adding to it and … (Finally) it becomes like a perfect essay. (Tom)
In fact, the teacher’s targeted feedback made such a lasting impact that one student remembered it for a subsequent task which was a test.
I want my teacher to tell me how I to improve on my first and last paragraph and she did emphasise on my first. She said my first was okay and I had to improve on my last one. So, she did actually told me what I want. (Ginny)
It appears that if the teachers made the reflection part of the lesson routine, these pre-task feedback activities would be more efficacious.
I think analyzing our work before handing it up is really helpful, because it helps us to reflect on our work and it allows us to see what we did well and what we are missing. I don’t think she made us do it for the later ones, but for this first piece, she made us do it and I find it really helpful. (Ariel)
In summary, the study found patterns in how students’ affective, behavioural and cognitive engagement on the three broad categories of feedback practices. The key findings are summarised in Table 1.