Zoom lagging and hot correction issues

I’ve written about the challenges of remote teaching several times here on my blog. Lately, I’ve also shared my thoughts on remote formal observation and I’ve expressed my reservations about some types of feedback. Today, I’d like to touch on all the above topics once again when discussing the problems connected to ‚remote feedback ‘.

I’m not even sure whether it’s an ELT term but by remote feedback, I simply mean correction of errors during online synchronous classes. In offline lessons, we normally distinguish between hot correction and cold correction. To put it simply, in the first scenario, oral correction comes shortly after the mistake was made. In the latter case, however, there is a period of time between skill execution and feedback.

In an offline lesson, we can obviously switch between these two modes as we please. This doesn’t mean, though, that we do so in a totally random manner; the choice is usually made on efficiency grounds. So, if we want to avoid interrupting the student, for example, we wait and delay the feedback until a later stage of the lesson. We have several options here: we can either postpone the feedback till after a student has finished speaking or we can anonymize the feedback by waiting till everybody is done, which would then become generic feedback. During pair and group work, students can provide their partners with peer feedback and the best type of feedback (IMHO) is self-correction, i.e. when a student realizes the error and corrects themselves instantly.

Well, that’s all very nice. The good old classics, one could say. The problem is that during remote teaching, things get a little complicated – everything is sort of delayed. It’s not overly surprising because that’s the very nature of the digital world. So, no matter how fast our own internet connection is, there’s no guarantee that all students have the same state of the art equipment. And even if they do, there’s always this tiny little lag that makes online communication so notorious. This can obviously be pretty annoying, especially when students are performing speaking tasks. Not only does Zoom lagging slow the exchanges between the students and hinder the overall spontaneity of an activity, but it also makes hot correction almost impossible.

Now, I guess that at some point, we were all innocent enough to think that we can correct a student’s mistake straight away in a Zoom lesson. But, alas, at that very moment, our lesson turned into a chaotic bar chatter with the speakers talking over one another barely getting what their conversational partner actually meant. When we sensed this happening, we quickly paused to deal with the chaos. But the student our comment was meant for immediately paused too because, well, due to the digital and cognitive lag, they heard our remark too late and were too bewildered to make sense out of it. This resulted in a somewhat strange dialogue, interlarded with periods of awkward silence. And if we by any chance decided to take advantage of those moments of temporary quiet in an attempt to reiterate our words, surprise, surprise … the student had the very same idea. More chatter. More chaos.

You know, if we were having an ordinary phone call, all the above chaos would be quite natural. After all, we’re used to the fact that phone calls get choppy. However, the fact that we were staring at each other through the computer monitors desperately trying to get back on track every time we had got off it made the exchange even more ridiculous. Don’t get me wrong, these moments can be funny and cute, under certain circumstances, plus it wasn’t that confusing all the time. Still, I think it’s better to avoid these situations completely.

And that’s what I decided to go for … Even if the mistake was blatantly unacceptable, I never corrected the student, especially when the lesson was observed by my superiors. Having said that, I was fully aware of the potential consequences of my actions, so it was often hard to resist the temptation to show the observer that I had actually noticed the mistake. In other words, part of me felt the urge to correct in order to demonstrate my professional competence. But I didn’t in the end, mainly for the sake of the integrity of the inherently fragile lesson. However, later on, during the feedback session, I did bring up the issue to justify my decision behind not correcting. So I explained the lagging problem and all that jazz. But in the end, I felt it was not necessary because the observer fully understood the mindset behind my choices.

All in all, this is another illustration of the wide gap between online and offline teaching. Although I admit they can be both equally efficient in some regard, in a remote lesson, there are too many restrictions – the hot correction case being just one of the problems. On the other hand, this little analysis of mine has shown me that delayed feedback may always be the better option, even in the offline teaching environment. In other words, the online environment has shed light on some of the issues related to immediate oral correction. What I’m implying here is that if we hope for our students to become highly competent English speakers and, most importantly, if we want to create a natural learning environment in the L2 classroom, we may want to stop clinging to accuracy because, firstly, this approach impedes genuine communication and secondly, it is plain rude to interrupt and correct people when they are trying to get a message across. 🙂

Individual feedback and birthday cards

We, teachers, are busy creatures and we dread the moment when essays to grade suddenly pile up. In my case, luckily, I’m only obliged to give students numerical grades (1-5), which obviously makes the process quicker and easier. However, like many of my colleagues, I also like to add a short verbal note that justifies my grade. This is a bit more time-consuming than just giving grades but although no two people have the same DNA, students do tend to make similar mistakes and struggle with the same language issues. So, what happens is that I grade the first essay, write a short comment and when I move on to the next piece of writing, I realize that I can actually copy and paste a line or two from the previous feedback. Logically, it gets easier and easier as I proceed.

I would say that there’s nothing wrong with the above approach. After all, people have written about comment banks, use them successfully and as it turns out, you can download them easily from the internet. Surprisingly, you can also purchase them. Who says you can’t buy happiness? 😉

So, there’s no doubt that comment banks and related apps are there to help teachers. I suppose they may be equally useful as other online tools, such as Google autocomplete, which, similarly to comment bank apps, performs a prediction of possible search queries and shows a drop-down list of related words and phrases and thus makes it faster for you to complete searches that you’re beginning to type. Or, take Grammarly, for example, which instantly gives you feedback on how your writing may sound to others, e. g. accusatory, friendly, formal, appreciative, etc.

But apart from saving the teacher’s time, comment banks can also help to accurately describe the problems a particular student should fix or they can lift the student’s spirits effectively by listing their strengths.

So far so good. Well, here’s the issue I have with comment banks – free or paid: they are pre-generated and although they are to a great degree tailor-made to meet each student’s needs, they still lack in uniqueness. And to be completely fair … so does my copy-and-paste strategy mentioned above.

Now, I may be splitting hairs here but let me explain what’s really bugging me: I guess I simply fear the moment when two students come together, look at each other’s feedback and find out that I used identical words to assess their work. I’m particularly talking about students who take schoolwork seriously and put in a lot of effort. What if they think that it was me who didn’t make enough effort?

It’s the same with birthdays cards – you can buy some lovely cards from a stationer but I always hesitate before picking one; what if the birthday person gets two identical cards? Or what if they already got this one last year? It’s always safer to make a card with your own hands, out of ordinary file paper, and give it a personal touch, isn’t it? It may be more time consuming and quite a challenge to come up with something unique but it may well be much easier – especially if you know the person really well. Then the words write themselves, so to speak.

Now, the sceptical reader may object … and what about grades? How unique are they? Not at all, I admit. Nothing can be more unfair than this type of summative assessment. If five people in my class may get grade 1, this doesn’t mean their essays are equally good. Also, I doubt that those five students will ever scrutinize what is behind that grade. They will probably accept it and happily move on. Will they learn much? I’m not sure. Complacency may be the enemy of progress.

Luckily, if one feels too guilty about grades, comment banks or any pre-generated type of feedback, there are other ways of evaluating students’ written work in time-constrained situations. I sometimes like to provide a class with generic feedback, which I wrote about some time ago here on my blog. This also brings me to the topic of peer review/assessment, which has been repeatedly discussed on two of my favourite blogs (Vedrana’s and Paul’s) and I strongly recommend reading them (if you haven’t already).

Well, I’ll sign off here and leave the reader with some food for thought. Or maybe there’s nothing to think about. Either way, thank you for stopping by and reading.

Do you practise what you preach?

Have you ever thought about the discrepancy between what you tell your students to believe and what you believe yourself? I mean, don’t you ever preach water and drink wine? I think I do, quite often, without even realizing so.

busy hands 2

For example, I often tell my students not to be afraid of making mistakes. However, I am terrified of making them myself. Regardless of the fact that my Teacher Self keeps telling me that making mistakes is an inevitable part of learning/doing practically anything, I’m not overly excited when I misspell a word when writing on the board or miscalculate a student’s test score.

Also, I constantly reassure my students that there’s no need to panic about giving a presentation in front of the whole class because nothing really disastrous can happen. The truth is, though, that I’ve rarely stayed calm in such a situation myself. I remember how terrible I felt when I had to give a 5-minute talk in front of a group of my fellow students at uni. I should add that it was supposed to be in German, in which I wasn’t exactly fluent, and it was only three years ago. Needless to say, my legs felt like jelly, my hands were shaking and I had butterflies in my stomach. What was worse, I had forgotten everything I had so laboriously memorized. Now that I think about it, my biggest problem was that at that time, I saw myself as an experienced English teacher, used to standing confidently in front of a bunch of teens. But all of a sudden, I felt like a schoolgirl again, which, under certain circumstances might have been exciting, except that it wasn’t.

I tell my students that it is learning that matters most – not the scores. I tell them that it’s primarily the process, not the result, which is the most valuable aspect of education. Still, I use grades to make my students learn. Obviously, there are many students who are internally motivated, and these love learning no matter the formal assessment, but there are some who just want to succeed. And it goes without saying that in their context, success equals decent grades.

I truly believe that it’s my job to help my students get used to accepting all sorts of feedback. Feedback is there to help them learn, after all. But I can clearly recall my exasperation when my German tutor gave me some rather unflattering feedback after the above-mentioned presentation. She was a little harsh, or, maybe, a tad too straightforward to my taste, but she was absolutely right. And I learned a lot from that particular lesson – mainly about myself and feedback.

Back then I felt it in my bones right from the start that my presentation wasn’t going to be a blockbuster, but it was not in my power to change the state of affairs prior the actual experience, simply because I didn’t have the knowledge needed for that change. All I could do was to learn from the failure and keep the newly-acquired knowledge for the future. This is what we often forget to take into consideration when giving feedback to our students; we sometimes reproach and reprimand, even though we use soft phrases like ‘You should have’, ‘Why didn’t you’, or ‘Next time you could’. But it’s not fair; our students rarely mess things up on purpose.

What’s the point in all the preaching then? I know too well that my students must experience failure and anxiety because it helps them grow. Likewise, I know that my little son is unlikely to stop worrying about monsters in the dark just because I reassure him they don’t exist. All I can do is to be there for him and with him. By the way, I’m sometimes afraid of the dark too.

And what about you? Do you drink water or wine? In what situations?

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.