Use of Teacher Feedback to Improve Academic Written Work: A Case Study of Cambodian EFL Students
Lady Lim, Sokly Chheng, Chhengly Long, Vannak Sok, and Bophan Khan
Generally speaking, it is impartial to admit that teaching writing has been ignored or considered as a less important subject in Cambodian ELT, because of its difficulty and boredom both for teachers and students. Consequently, teaching or learning to write in English successfully gets even more complicated and challenging.
In learning, students inevitably make mistakes in their writing, and those mistakes are often corrected by their teacher, who certainly see responding to their students’ written work as an important part of their job (Casanave, 2004). One way to improve students’ writing is giving feedback on unintentional mistakes. According to Hattie and Timperley (2007), feedback is conceptualized as information provided by an agent (e.g., teacher, peer, book, parent, self, experience) on aspects of one’s performance or understanding. They also claim that feedback is one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement in both positive and negative ways. To be positive, feedback needs to provide specific information related to the task or work of learning and what the teacher wants them to understand. Feedback should also be an outcome of student performance and an essential part of the learning process.
In writing context alone, there are several ways for providing feedback. Saito (1994) emphasizes seven types of written feedback:
- Teacher correction: The teacher corrects all the errors by crossing out perceived errors and providing correct answers.
- Commentary: The teacher provides feedback by making written comments on the margin (No error corrections are made).
- Error identification: The teacher underlines or circles mistakes occurs (No error corrections are made).
- Peer-correction: Students correct each other’s work
- Self-correction: Students correct their own works
- Teacher-student conferencing: The teacher and students discuss a piece of students’ work
- Correction codes: The teachers place symbols beside the mistakes.
Saito also found that most students tended to reread their writing only after getting feedback from their teacher. Another study revealing the importance of feedback was conducted by Othman and Mohamad (2009) with 52 students at MARA University of Technology, Malaysia. The students in this study had to write three drafts of essays whereby the teachers provided content-focused feedback on the first draft and form-focused feedback on the second draft. The finding showed that most students responded positively to the teachers’ feedback on their first and second drafts, which resulted in improved final drafts.
Feedback has to be provided in a form that fits the level of certain students. Effectiveness of feedback can only be achieved when there is cooperation between the teacher in giving feedback and the ESL writers in revising their essays, and there is a need for both parties to understand the feedback giving and receiving situation so that students can produce good quality writing (Othman & Mohamad, 2009).
Much research wants to know how the students make use of teacher feedback. Saito (1994) conducted a study on teachers’ preferences for feedback, students’ attitudes toward different types of feedback, and their strategies for handling the feedbacks. Saito found that the teacher participants utilized non-teacher feedback (peer correction and self-correction) frequently, and the student participants preferred teacher feedback (teacher correction, teacher correction with comment, commentary, teacher-students conferencing) to non-teacher feedback.
Not far different from Saito, Hedgcock and Lefkowitz (1996) interviewed 21 participants to see how they used teachers’ feedback in their L2 composition. The participants reported that they would revise their writing in response to the teachers’ marks and comments to eliminate ungrammaticality at the word and sentence levels even when they were aware that their teachers wanted them to add examples or elaborate on certain points in their writing.
In addition, Ferris (1995) found that to improve in accordance with the feedback, students should consult with other teachers, friends, grammar books, dictionaries and other sources. In this way, feedback encourages students to work more deeply to complete their writing.
Some researchers, interestingly, identify some negative aspects and issues of feedback. Feedback can discourage student effort and achievement and in some cases bad feedback can be worse than no feedback (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Additionally, Cohen and Robbins (1976) argued for the lack of effectiveness of feedback in deterring learner errors.
Given the controversy, the current study seeks to find out how writing teachers in a Cambodian ELT institution provided feedback to their EFL learners and explore how the learners made use of written teacher feedback to improve their academic written work.
Setting and participants
Twenty-five students in their first year at Learning for Success Institute were chosen as the participants. The students majored is English and had to take an academic writing course at the time of the study. A questionnaire was administered among all the participants, and two students were selected for a semi-structured interview. One of them scored the highest, while the other scored the lowest in for their writing subject. This helped the researchers get different perspectives how they individually made use of teacher feedback in their real practice.
The questionnaire is divided into two sections. The first section seeks to know the information related to the participants including age, sex, major, and their writing habits and interests. The second section focuses on the types of written feedback they receive from their teacher. This requires the participants to rate what types of feedback are the most useful the five-point Likert scale. The interview elaborates on the questionnaire responses by asking two students to explain the types of feedback they think are most useful and how they use the feedback to help them write better.
The students wrote an essay on the first day of the first week, and the researchers provided feedback for the students to revise the essays and submit them on the last day of the first week. At the beginning of week 2, the students were asked to write another essay. After receiving feedback from the researchers, the students revised their second essays and submitted them on the last day of week 2. In week 3, the students were asked to complete a questionnaire. In week 4, two students were selected for an interview.
Upon completion of data collection, the students’ questionnaire responses were analyzed with descriptive statistical methods. Mean scores and standard deviation were calculated for the seven types of feedback to find out which types were thought to be the most useful for the students. For the interview, the researchers went through the transcribed interviews repeatedly to generate concepts, themes, and topic markers.
The following is an analysis of the participants’ questionnaire responses regarding their preferences for seven types of teacher feedback.
|No.||Motivational strategies||Mean||Standard Deviation|
|1||Teacher correction: The teacher corrects all the errors by
crossing out perceived errors and providing correct answers.
|2||Commentary: The teacher provides feedback by making written
comments on the margin (No error corrections are made).
|3||Error identification: The teacher underlines or circles the mistakes
(No error corrections are made).
|4||Peer-correction: Students correct each other’s work||3.03||0.89|
|5||Self-correction: Students correct their own works||2.26||1.08|
|6||Teacher-student conferencing: The teacher and students discuss a
piece of students’ work individually
|7||Correction codes: The teachers place symbols beside the mistakes||2.93||1.31|
Table 1: The perceptions of students at Learning for Success Institute with regard to the usefulness of teacher feedback
Table 1 identifies teacher-student conferencing, teacher correction, and commentary were the three most preferred written feedback.
The students’ first preference was on teacher-student conferencing. This type of teacher feedback received the mean of 3.86, with a standard deviation of 0.97. The finding is supported by the past studies. It goes well with Saito’s (1994) study, in which he found that the participants also preferred teacher-student conferencing. Othman & Mohamad (2009) also argued for oral feedback as students need both written and oral feedback.
The second in rank of usefulness is teacher correction. What is central to this type of feedback is that the teacher corrects all the errors by crossing out perceived errors and providing correct answers. This type of feedback received the mean score of 3.73 and a standard deviation of 0.78, the most homogenous among all the seven types of feedback. Saito (1994) also had the same finding.
Unlike the past, students in this generation start to place more value on peer correction. Peer correction includes how the students themselves take turns correcting each other’s work. This type of feedback ranks third as the most useful in the current study. It received a mean score of 3.03 and a standard deviation of 0.89. The other types had a similar rating but a far higher standard deviation, indicating more varied opinions among the participants. Some students may feel that it is not important to consult and receive feedback from their friends, thinking that their friends have the same level of language proficiency. However, the participants in the current study appeared to disagree with this notion. They may have been trained well to understand the essence of their friends’ comments and have had much practice commenting on each other’s writings.
Besides the quantitative data above, the researchers also employed a qualitative method of analysis in which two of the participants were chosen for an interview on the ways they used teacher feedback. One of the participants was also studying at another university at the time of the study, while the other was only studying at Learning for Success Institute. The analysis yields the findings in the following themes. The qualitative data here fit very well with the previous quantitative data. The two interviewees explained that similar types of feedback were the most useful in helping them identify their mistakes and suggest ways for them to revise their written works effectively.
Teacher and student conferencing
The first participant strongly suggested that teacher-student conferencing is the best type of feedback the teachers should employ because it can make ways for the teacher and students to discuss their mistakes closely and find suitable ways to improve their writing promptly. The second interviewee added that in such a form of feedback, it could be very easy for the teachers to correct students’ errors by saying directly what they want to say, and the students would not lose their face since their mistakes would be revealed to no one.
The use of feedback
The participants also expressed a strong preference for written feedback from their teachers. They would not be contented to get back their written work without feedback. Here, teacher feedback can help students to recognize their mistakes. Whether it is language-based or content-based, it alerts students to pay particular attention to the mistakes they produce, since the students themselves do not possess the language proficiency good enough to detect their own language errors. If no feedback is provided, the interviewees thought that they would repeat making the same mistakes over and over sometimes without realizing it. More than recognizing, teacher feedback, they added, would help eliminate students’ mistakes in their written work. Without such feedback, students remain neglectful of the errors, which can eventually become fossilized.
Teacher correction was another favorite feedback form for the interviewees’ writing practice. The students liked it when the teachers corrected all the mistakes they produced in their written work. They found it crucial in their learning experience to be able to identify all the mistakes they made. Only then could they use the teacher comments as the references for them to modify those mistakes.
This certainly happened often in Cambodia’s EFL learning contexts. It is observed that students are seemingly more dependent on their teachers. Many of them do not believe in any others besides their teachers for feedback and correction. Given this situation, teachers should be very careful when correcting students to ensure correction does not mislead the students and put efforts in guiding students to internalize methods which could be used to improve their written works first with teacher feedback and later on without teacher feedback.
The study was conducted out of an immediate need to fulfill a post-graduate course requirement. The study was constrained by several factors, the first of which was the questionnaire used in the study was compiled by the researchers themselves. It was not a replicated or modified instrument from any previous studies. With an absence of piloting the questionnaire, certain items lack clarity in wordings and directness to generate data which would enable the researchers to answer the research questions. The second limitation is the research timeframe. Because the study was conducted when most students were on their summer vacation, it was challenging for the researchers to arrange time to meet with the participants. A good number of students in the class were away when the questionnaire was administered, limiting the number of questionnaire respondents to just twenty-five. The study would have yielded more reliable data if more students had been involved in the study.
Conclusions and implications
This research study helps shed some light on how EFL students at Leaning for Success Institute, Phnom Penh, made use of teacher feedback to improve their written work. The study findings could be used as guidance for EFL teachers to raise awareness of what they should or should not practice in providing feedback to their students’ writings. Feedback is one of the driving forces that push the students toward success in their academic life. Wrong feedback may discourage students and waste students’ efforts in their learning.
In light of the study limitations, care should be taken to make sure the result of future research studies yield even more reliable and valid data. What the researchers should take into account as a priority is time. A longer study timeframe would enable researchers to investigate students’ reception of teacher feedback from a longitudinal perspective so that conclusions could be drawn with higher confidence with regard to learners’ teacher feedback preferences and the ways feedback works in improving their academic writings.
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Ferris, D. R. (1995). Student reaction to teacher response in multiple-draft composition classrooms. TESOL Quarterly, 29(1), 33-53.
Ferris, D. R. (2011). Treatment of error in second language student writing (2nd edition). Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press.
Hattie, J. & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research. 77(1), 81-112.
Hedgcock, J. & Lefkowitz, N. (1996). Some input on input: Two analyses of student response to expert feedback in L2 writing. The Modern Language Journal, 80(3), 287-108.
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Saito, H. (1994). Teachers’ practices and students’ preferences for feedback on second language writing: A case study of adult ESL learners. TESL Canada Journal, 11(2), 46-70.
(* Lady Lim received a B Ed (TEFL) in 2006 and an MA in TESOL in 2015 from the Institute of Foreign Languages, Royal University of Phnom Penh. He is currently teaching at the English Language Support Unit (ELSU) at the Royal University of Phnom Penh under the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sports. His research interests center on motivation, reading, and writing in English as a Foreign Language.)