Collective feedback on written assignments

In this post I’d like to share one of my favourite ways of giving feedback on written assignments, which I’ve been practising for some time now and which has proved really useful and effective in my teaching context. I usually do this with intermediate classes but I believe it can work with lower levels too. This method is a classic one, nothing really revolutionary, plus no technology needs to be involved. However, I can’t think of any reason why it couldn’t become high-tech.

One of the questions that may pop up immediately is: How do you know that the method is effective? I can tell quite easily; students pay attention during the feedback presentation, and they constantly ask questions, make comments and ask for clarification. And although they are not able to avoid all the discussed errors in their next written assignment, I notice that they do eschew some. This, in my view, is hard evidence that the feedback hit the right note and that they have improved.

So what do I actually do? I teach classes of 10 up to 23 students.  When I correct and grade their written assignments, I always create a ‘collective feedback’ report in which I have collected the most frequent mistakes the students made. This means that a mistake is recorded only if it’s made by at least two students. I don’t pay attention to individual or rare errors because pointing to them when giving feedback to the whole class would not be too effective and it would also become time-consuming. Moreover, although I never mention the names of the students who made particular errors, if I picked a unique error, the author might easily recognise it and feel exposed and subsequently embarrassed. It’s just safer to refer to each error as something more people struggle with.

I should mention that one of the rare positives of teaching large classes is that the more numerous the class is, the more beneficial this type of feedback generally becomes, since in a class of 23 students, each student actually learns from 22 other people. This, quite obviously, wouldn’t be possible if you teach one to one.

An example of a collective feedback report, page 2
An example of a collective feedback report, page 1

Now, I should stress that it’s absolutely necessary to give this type of feedback before handing out the corrected assignments; otherwise it would be a complete waste of time. Each student would stare at his/her own essay without paying much attention to what I say about the other errors. So, the psychological effect of handing out the assignments after the feedback conclusions are out is clear – students listen carefully in an attempt to spot their own errors among the plethora of incorrect language items produced by their peers. This is desirable because even if Student A didn’t make the same mistake Student B made, this doesn’t mean that Student B’s error is not a potential area of difficulty for Student A. Also, during the feedback time, students are trying to figure out what mark they got by ticking off and counting the mistakes that are presumably theirs. This keeps them in suspense and when they finally get the assignments back, they are ready to accept the grade without feeling too disappointed. In other words, they get mentally prepared for the outcome, which may be less painful than if you just served an E straight away.

To sum up, I believe that this method is more cognitively challenging for your students than just giving out corrected essays with individual feedback reports on them. Also, it may be motivating for the weaker learners to see that they are not the only ones who make mistakes. There’s another advantage to this approach; this kind of feedback is a great tool for monitoring the class’s progress. You can always look back at the previous reports and see what some of the recurrent problems are. Having said that, it’s highly beneficial to store all the reports, either digitally or in a paper file, because then you can compare class A with class B, for example, and see what your next steps should be in case you want to help your students make progress or avoid failure.

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About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
This entry was posted in Feedback, Writing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Collective feedback on written assignments

  1. Hey Hana!!
    I was reading about collective feedback and saw your blog post as well. Very comprehensive report on how this works. Collective feedback on the good points and bad points. I do this with my students. I use some of their writing and show it on the overhead projector and we all comment. From what I read today, collective feedback also allows the learner to measure how s/he is doing in connection with the rest of the class. Great post Hana!!!

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  2. Hana Tichá says:

    Hi Joanna,

    What a great idea to use an OH projector! Would you believe we don't have any at the school where I teach? We must have got rid of them some time ago and now, with the advance of other cool tools, they are totally forgotten. But I remember that they were great and easy to use. And teachers used to work with them a lot when I was a student. Thanks for reading and commenting. 🙂

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  3. Tyson Seburn says:

    Good stuff. I do similar types of collected feedback with the class as a whole, mostly on sentences where I think all students could benefit by using ones I've chosen as exemplars. Full disclosure: I don't actually verify that more than one student has made a particular error or misunderstanding–it's more intuitive than that now. In class, I describe a general characteristic to look for in the sentence, or give them a clue as to a particular previous lesson that this exemplar error is related to, then have pairs try to work out how the sentence could be improved (sometimes it's not grammar, but academic style or citation even). After, we work as a group. I do admit though, that I do this sometimes after giving back the assignments. I wouldn't say this timing is a waste though because the class focus is on the activity and therefore they are involved and aware and considering if it applies to them.

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  4. Hana Tichá says:

    Thanks for your comment, Tyson.

    I'd like to react to your last sentence first. I think that giving feedback after handing out the assignments may be a waste of time under certain circumstances – at least in my teaching contest. The thing is that I mostly teach teenagers, so I really need to think carefully about factors such as attention span, motivation, etc. I mean, they tend to focus on the now and here and they can’t be bothered to look into the future, so to speak. Thus I need to adjust my approach. I would probably do it differently with adults. Also, they are primarily interested in what concerns them personally and directly, which is fine, but I’d like to make them compare and contrast. This is more effective than just showing them their own mistakes (because once they get their writing back, nothing else captures their attention any more). That’s why the timing.

    Thanks for revealing one of your techniques. It’s really useful for me to see what other teachers do.

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  5. Pingback: #200 | How I see it now

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