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Focus on Feedback: Examining Alternative Methods for Efficiency and Effectiveness

Focus on Feedback: Examining Alternative Methods for Efficiency and Effectiveness

Gabrielle Bonner and David King

... there is compelling evidence that learners expect feedback.  In a major investigation of the learning preferences of adult ESL learners, error correction by the teacher was one of the most highly valued and desired classroom activities (Willing: 1988, in Nunan: 1991).

Introduction

After reflecting on our teaching by means of a teaching journal, we decided to examine alternatives to the teacher led, whole class method of feedback.  This method is one in which the teacher elicits the answers from students.  We assume this method of feedback is commonplace amongst most language teachers.  We are concerned that this method of giving feedback is too teacher-centred and not necessarily the most efficient, interesting or useful for students.  We propose trying some alternative methods of giving feedback to students on their performance in a task and to examine the effectiveness and usefulness of these methods compared to the classic ‘teacher-centred’ method.

By providing students with student-centred feedback on their task performance, we believe we can promote learner autonomy and encourage students’ responsibility for their learning.  This may also increase student motivation to pay attention and be more engaged in the learning process.  We regularly notice that during teacher led whole class feedback, students stop paying attention and feedback often takes longer than necessary, as answers have to be repeated.  The interaction pattern is mainly T-Ss-T and the teacher takes on the role of source of information, or sole giver of knowledge.  This can foster a dependency on the teacher whom students can often become overly reliant on (see Gattegno in Nunan: 1991). We try, as often as possible, to encourage a student-centred classroom.  Having identified and put into practice this approach to teaching, we have now become aware of the importance of extending this student-centredness to the feedback methods we choose to use.

Literature Review

After researching feedback in relevant books and websites, we found that there is very little published material on this subject, a fact which was echoed in the few sources that we were able to find.  Several researchers have identified this area as somewhat neglected (see Gamble: 2001, and Nunan: 1991).  The most relevant article we found was Alternatives to Whole Class Feedback by Amanda Gamble (2007), published on onestopenglish.com.  This article suggests several alternatives to the classic whole class, teacher led feedback method. We also found relevant articles by Marta J. Sabbadini (2006) on teachingenglish.org.uk and Carol Rueckert (2007) on esl-lesson-plan.com which outline other alternatives to the traditional teacher-centred approach.  We have selected a range of alternative methods to test from these articles, along with the whole class method which will be used as a control.  We hope to examine these alternative methods of giving feedback in terms of time efficiency and student and teacher perceptions of effectiveness.  Some of the questions we hope to address are: How student-centred are the methods of giving feedback?  What is the most time efficient way of conducting feedback?  What is the method most valued by students?  How does the task type inform choice of feedback?  How might the class level affect feedback type?  We hope that by considering the results of our research in light of these questions, we can help ourselves and other teachers consider the importance and value of investing time, energy and thought into the feedback process.

Method

We will try five different types of feedback with two levels (Intermediate and Advanced).  Peer observation will be carried out and students will be given a questionnaire to fill in about their response to the methods of feedback that we test.  A whole class discussion will follow, led by the researchers, in which students will have the opportunity to discuss their reactions in more detail and the researchers will be able to ask follow-up questions and clarify any ambiguities in the students’ responses.

The following five methods of feedback will be used with both levels over two lessons with each level.  Two or three of the five methods will be used in each lesson with each level.

  1. Put the answers to the exercise on an OHT for students to self-check their answers.  Students may ask questions about particularly difficult questions afterwards.  We think this will be time efficient because it saves time checking answers that students have got correct and leaves time to clarify errors and reasons for them.
  2. The answers are given to one student who then ‘plays teacher’ by coming to the front of the room and leading feedback.  We think that eventually students may respond better to peer correction and that this encourages students to learn from each other.  Students’ learning is put in their own hands and may facilitate the realisation that they can find the answers from a source other than the teacher.
  3. Each student, pair or small group is given the correct answer to one or more questions.  Students take turns presenting their answer and answering questions about it if they can.  This gives control of the feedback to the students; they determine the pace and depth of the feedback.
  4. Whole class feedback is led by the teacher.  This will be used as a control, in order to compare and contrast this traditional method with the alternative ones we are going to try.
  5. Put the answers on the board in the incorrect order after the students have completed the task.  Students then take responsibility for working out whether or not their answers are correct. According to Sabbadini (2006), this empowers and engages the students.  They have done the exercise and then they have to solve a puzzle to see if they got the correct answers.  It also helps to identify areas of difficulty. 

 

We assume that the OHT method is the most efficient, but will probably be liked least by the students, as they may find it impersonal.  We suspect that students may at first be uncomfortable with being told the answer by another student, either in student plays teacher or in one answer to each student.  This is also mentioned in Gamble (2001).  We think the success of this method of feedback will depend on the rapport among students, and may require some learner training beforehand.  We also assume that this approach may work better with the advanced level students as they will have the necessary language skills to carry out the task effectively.  We assume that students will be most familiar with teacher-led feedback and that they will have a neutral attitude towards it.  We are sceptical about the reported advantages of the jumbled answers on the board and we assume it won’t bring any benefit to students.  We are, however, interested in testing what, for us, is a novel method of feedback.

The observer will examine the effectiveness of the methods of feedback according to the following criteria:

  1. Timing (the length of time the feedback takes in relation to the task).
  2. Patterns of interaction and participation (e.g. How student centred is it?)
  3. The reaction of the students to this method of feedback.

 

The students will fill in a questionnaire with the following questions:

  1. Was this method of feedback useful to you?  Why/why not?
  2. Would you be happy to do this again?  Why/why not?

 

There will be a short interview with the class after the lesson, in which the researchers will ask follow-up questions according to students’ answers to the questionnaire.

 Results for timing and patterns of interaction

 

Advanced Business English Class – Observation 1 – Table 1.1

 

Three methods of feedback were used: jumbled answers on the board, whole class teacher centred feedback as a control and student plays the teacher.  The timing and patterns of interaction were as follows:

DAY 1 Start / finish Duration   Start / finish Duration Pattern of Interaction
Exercise 1 9.22   Feedback 9.27    
Gap fill adverbs of contrast 9.27 5 Answers jumbled in wrong order on white board 9.32 5 Ss
             
Exercise 2 9.32   Feedback 9.37    
Guided discovery clarification of meaning of TL 9.37 5 control 9.39 2 T-Ss-T
             
Exercise 3 9.40   Feedback 9.45    
Rephrase sentences using TL 9.44 4 Student plays teacher 9.49 4 Ss-Ss

 

These are some of the comments students made:

  1. Jumbled answers – challenging, useful, easier to remember, can see the correct spelling.
  2. Whole class feedback – nothing special, normal, common, useful
  3. Student plays teacher – interesting, funny, useful, especially good if students know beforehand that the ‘teacher’ has the correct answers and has been given instructions and explanations by the ‘real’ teacher.

 

For more detailed information, please refer to the Appendix, tables 3.2, 3.3.

All students agreed that using a variety of methods is the most interesting and useful for them.  Further discussion with the students revealed that the control method of feedback is the one almost exclusively used.  Other methods are considered ‘novel’ for them.  These students have been studying English for years and have had many teachers, which further supports our theory that feedback isn’t often thought about and rarely evaluated for effectiveness. 

Advanced Business English Class – Observation 2 – Table 1.2

Two methods of feedback were used:  answers on an OHT and one or more correct answers given to each student/pair/group.

DAY 2 Start / finish Duration   Start / finish Duration Pattern of Interaction
Exercise 4 9.29   Feedback 9.37    
Listening for detail 9.37 8 Answers on OHT 9.39 2 Ss
             
Exercise 5 9.40   Feedback 9.44    
Clarification of meaning of vocabulary 9.44 4 Students given one or more correct answers 9.45 1 Ss-Ss

 

These are some of the comments students made:

  1. OHT – Students found this method of feedback quick and easy, could see the answers to check spelling, easy for them to make notes.
  2. One answer to each student – Facilitated peer communication, more personal, required more focus, aided TL retention.

 

For more detailed information, please refer to the Appendix, tables 3.2, 3.3.

Intermediate Intensive Class- Observation 1 – Table 2.1

Three methods of feedback were used:  one or more correct answers to each student/pair/group, control and answers on an OHT.

 

DAY 1 Start / finish Duration   Start/finish Duration Pattern of Interaction
Exercise 1 11.05   Feedback 11.09    
Listening for gist 11.09 4 Each group had one or more correct answers 11.18 9 Ss-Ss
             
Exercise 2 11.26   Feedback 11.31    
Correct written errors 11.31 5 Control 11.35 4 T-Ss-T
             
Exercise 3 11.35   Feedback 11.45    
Find and correct written errors 11.45 10 OHT 11.54 9 Ss

These are some of the comments students made:

1. One or more correct answers to each student/pair/small group – Cooperated with different people, new and interesting, liked the competitive factor, useful.

            2. Control – Standard, boring, nothing special

            3. OHT – Useful to see the correct answers and check spelling, everyone could see the answers at the       same time and could discuss them easily, it encouraged speaking and interaction.

For more detailed information, please refer to the Appendix, tables 3.1, 3.3.

Intermediate Intensive Class- Observation 2 – Table 2.2

 

The two methods of feedback used were:  student plays teacher and jumbled answers on the white board.

DAY 2 Start/finish Duration   Start/finish Duration Pattern of Interaction
Exercise 4 10.51   Feedback 10.57    
Word order for questions 10.57 6 Student plays teacher 11.01 4 Ss-Ss
             
Exercise 5 11.01   Feedback 11.08    
Two word questions 11.08 7 Jumbled answers on white board 11.12 4 Ss

 

These are some of the comments students made:

  1. Student plays teacher – Students found this method interesting, but not as useful as some of the other methods because students did not feel they possessed the knowledge to explain answers.  They thought it was useful for the student playing the teacher but less useful for the other students.
  2. Jumbled answers on white board – Students thought this was a good idea to practise their writing and finding their own errors, but teacher input would still be necessary.  Some students did not see any advantage over just checking the answers with the key at the back of the book.

 

For more detailed information, please refer to the Appendix, tables 3.1, 3.3.

Discussion

 

In this section we will explore further students’ perceptions of the different methods of feedback as well as our own observations of the pattern of interaction and the degree of student centredness of each method.  All students agreed that a variety of different feedback methods is most useful and interesting for them (see graphs 1.1 and 1.2), although some were better received and rated as more effective than others.  Again, for more detailed information, please refer to the Appendix, tables 3.1, 3.2, 3.3.

OHT

 

This method seemed efficient, and contrary to our assumptions, was well received by students (see graphs 1.2 and 1.3).  The advanced level class, in particular, found this to be fast and effective.  They valued the visual component, commenting that it aided the spelling and they found added value in this as opposed to just hearing the answer (see graph 1.4).  The students felt that this form of feedback lends itself better to writing based activities or where larger chunks of language need to be looked at as it makes this process clearer.  As can be seen in Table 1.2, this method was time effective in relation to the task.  It also had a very low degree of teacher-centredness.  The intermediate level students also found this method of feedback effective and useful (see graph 1.1).  They echoed the sentiments of the advanced class in terms of efficacy, how enjoyable it was, and novelty value (see previously mentioned graphs).  This method was used with an error correction activity which involved identification and correction of numerous errors in a large piece of text (27 errors of grammar, punctuation or spelling in 5 paragraphs).  Being able to visually identify the corrections was particularly appreciated.  We would encourage this method of feedback for objective exercises in which students can benefit from seeing changes in spelling, pronunciation and word order. 

One or more answers to each student, pair, or group

 

Our observations show this to be an almost completely student centred activity.  The level of interaction between students was higher in this form of feedback and this was something the advanced level students also noticed themselves.  We feel it would have questionable value though for very subjective tasks.  The intermediate students enjoyed this form of feedback, saying that they spoke more and had a higher degree of cooperation with other students (see graph 1.4).  We noticed that they listened more attentively but it should be noted that this task took a long time in relation to the exercise.  Time permitting, this could prove to be a valuable form of feedback as it seems to allow opportunities for extended practice of speaking and listening skills.

 

Student plays teacher

Although this method didn’t offer any significant advantages in terms of time efficiency, as compared to some of the other methods, (see Tables 1.1, 2.2), the students felt that it added variety and novelty value (see graph 1.2). We noticed that attention levels were higher and it offered enhanced speaking practice for the student playing teacher.  It also provided the other students with practice with question formation, asking for clarification, asking for more information etc (see graph 1.4).  The students had no problem accepting the answers from other students and as can be expected, this was an extremely student centred form of feedback with minimal intervention from the teacher.  As per our assumption, this method of feedback worked better with the advanced level, as students are more confident and possess more highly developed language skills.  The intermediate students found that it did have novelty value and they, too, listened more attentively.  There were more pronounced issues with accepting answers from fellow students, something which Gamble (2007) has also identified.  Furthermore, there was a higher degree of teacher intervention due to students’ skills gap.  Regardless, this was more student-centred than the control feedback.  Students identified a need for more practice in providing this type of feedback, and although initially unsure, seemed enthusiastic about the prospect of this.  It was interesting to note that some students expressed a preference for a more teacher-led error correction.  We would recommend this method of feedback for higher levels, and we suggest being prepared to invest in some learner training to prepare students for this activity. 

Control

 

This form of feedback had varying degrees of efficiency, in relation to task times.  As can be seen in Table 1.1, it was the quickest method of providing feedback.  However, this method was the most poorly received (see graph 1.5).  Most students saw this method as “…standard…”, “…tired…”, “…overused…”, and “…boring…” (See graph 1.6).  Also, it was far less efficient than the OHT or jumbled answers (see Table 1.2).  Some less confident students found value in hearing the answers from the teacher; “…it’s reassuring, it’s comfortable, it’s familiar…”, was one comment.  We had assumed that students would have a relatively neutral attitude towards this method.  However, the reaction of the students to this method of feedback was more negative than all of the others and we observed it to be the most highly teacher centred.  Even at the lower level, the intermediate students found this to be less than useful, somewhat boring, standard, uninteresting and nothing special.  Regardless of the level, and regardless of learners’ exposure to different teachers, all students reacted most negatively to this form of feedback. 

Jumbled answers on the board

 

In our opinion, the only circumstance in which this form of feedback would work would be if there were no room for any ambiguity at all, and where it would become immediately self-evident which jumbled answer goes with which question.  Even then, we fail to see how this, in any way, enhances or benefits the learner. We did observe a higher degree of student interaction and communication and there was minimal teacher input at both levels. It worked better with the higher level where students have enough language skills and confidence to identify, analyse and understand errors.  At the intermediate level some of the students saw no added benefit, comparing it to using the answer key at the back of the book, and they lacked the confidence and/or skills to correctly identify and analyse their own mistakes.  Some said they would appreciate added teacher input.

Graph 1.1

How useful did students find this method of feedback?

  

Graph 1.2

How interesting did students find this method of feedback?

 

Graph 1.3

Would students like to do this method of feedback again?

 

Graph 1.4

Did students feel this method of feedback aided the development of other skills?

 

Graph 1.5

Did students comment on the lack of benefit?

 

Graph 1.6

Did students find this method of feedback boring?

 

Conclusions

 

One of the most important conclusions we have drawn is that task type and level of students should inform the choice of feedback method.  For tasks in which the answers are clear cut, black or white, right or wrong, the use of an OHT offers significant advantages.  Students can readily identify their own errors, it offers a higher degree of student autonomy, students can check spelling, and it directs time for clarification and error correction where it’s most needed. 

For the higher-level students there were specific and noticeable advantages to having a student play teacher, which we have discussed in the results section.  We feel this works best for students who have developed a friendly and supportive rapport with each other.  If this method is to be used with lower levels, we suggest some practice and learner training in order to address issues around confidence and necessary skills. 

One of the most interesting outcomes from this research was how poorly received by students the control method of feedback was.  Furthermore, the students and the observer could not identify any significant advantages over other methods.  While discussing students’ reaction to this method of feedback, we were surprised to discover how intensely students dislike peer checking prior to whole class feedback.  We acknowledge that the research is based upon a very small sample. However, the opinions were shared by all students across both levels.  Even when we explained what the purported benefits of this were and that this is standard practice amongst teachers, they reiterated their dislike of the activity, and said they thought it offered nothing of value for their learning.  We feel that this warrants further study (it was not part of the remit of this project) and may even lead to a re-examination of the value of peer checking.  Another unexpected issue which was raised as a result of this research was that this was the first time that students had had their opinions on classroom procedures canvassed.  Asking students general questions pertaining to overall satisfaction may in fact be insufficient. If we are truly interested in catering to student needs, then perhaps more detailed analysis should be carried out by teachers and schools [Pullout]. 

As a result of this research project we have made changes to the way we teach.  We have eliminated peer checking before whole class feedback, we use a greater variety of feedback methods, we find ourselves thinking about the suitability of the feedback method in relation to the task and we have sought specific student feedback on classroom procedures; all of which serve to increase the degree of student-centredness in our classes.  Even if the results of this research are of limited empirical value, the benefits we have derived from conducting this research have been of great merit.

 

References

 

Gamble, A. 2007. Methodology: Alternatives to Whole Class Feedback. www.onestopenglish.com

Nunan, D. 1991. Language Teaching Methodology. Prentice-Hall.

Rueckert, C. 2007. Tips and Tricks: Alternative Forms of Feedback. www.esl-lesson-plan.com

Sabbadini, M. 2006. Checking Answers. www.teachingenglish.org.uk

Appendix

 Table 3.1

Intermediate class results

Method of Feedback Useful Increased communication Needed teacher input or explanation Improved student co-operation Interesting Fun Would like to do again Makes answers more memorable Aided the development of other skills (spelling, pronunciation) Quick, Easy & Clear Commented on lack of benefit Boring
OHT 100% 0% 0% 0% 62.5% 0% 100% 0% 62.5% 0% 0% 0%
Control 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 25% 75%
Each student provided w/ a correct answer 50% 37.5% 0% 25% 75% 0% 100%   50% 0% 12.5% 0%
Jumbled answers on board 28.5% 0% 42.8% 0% 0% 0% 42.8% 0% 42.8% 14.25% 28.5% 0%
Student plays teacher 42.8% 0% 85.7% 0% 42.8% 42.8% 85.7% 0% 85.7% 0% 0% 0%

 Table 3.2

Advanced class results

Method of Feedback Useful Increased communication Needed teacher input or explanation Improved student co-operation Interesting Fun Would like to do again Makes answers more memorable Aided the development of other skills (spelling, pronunciation) Quick, Easy & Clear Commented on lack of benefit Boring
OHT 100% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 100% 20% 60% 60% 0% 0%
Control 33% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 66% 66%
Each student provided w/ a correct answer 0% 20% 0% 0% 20% 0% 100% 20% 40% 40% 0% 0%
Jumbled answers on board 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 0% 66% 0% 0% 66% 0% 0%
Student plays teacher 33% 0% 0% 0% 66% 66% 66% 0% 0% 0% 33% 0%

 

Table 3.3

Combined results for selected areas of interest

Method of Feedback Useful Interesting Would like to do again Aided the development of other skills (spelling, pronunciation) Commented on lack of benefit Boring
OHT 100% 39% 100% 7.6% 0% 23%
Control 9% 0% 0% 0% 27% 72%
Each student provided w/ a correct answer 30% 53% 100% 46% 7.6% 0%
Jumbled answers on board 20% 0% 50% 30% 10% 0%
Student plays teacher 40% 50% 80% 60% 10% 0%

 

 

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