Students’ strategies for coping with EFL teachers’ written feedback- an explorative study with Vietnamese students

By Dr. Wei Wei, LSU
This is the extended version of Dr Wei Wei’s presentation to RMIT Vietnam English Programs staff on Thursday 28th June 2012 at the Saigon campus.

1. Objectives

This study aims to investigate how students interpret lecturers’ feedback on their first drafts and make appropriate changes in their second drafts.  To be more specific, this study investigated the L2 learners’

  1. mental process of interpreting the feedback from the lecturer
  2. strategies for coping with the highlighted mistakes

2. Research Design

Six students from AEP level 6 were selected to participate in this study for at least 2 reasons: first of all, the students in AEP level 6 are perceived as ‘advanced learners’, which means they should be able to communicate with the researchers in English. Secondly, the teaching curriculum in level 6 requires the students to complete a ‘Critical Response’ for the first time; therefore, the students in level 6 may not have any experience in analysing their teachers’ feedback to this specific type of writing task. Eventually, three good writers and three less successful writers were nominated by the level 6 teachers based on their academic performances in the writing exams in level 5. These six students were asked to write one ‘critical response’ essay twice with a three-day break in between.

All of the participants were required to complete a survey (baseline study) before they started to write their first drafts, aiming to record their perceptions/experiences in 1) practicing their writing skill, 2) attitude towards different types of feedback and 3) their perceived strengths and weaknesses. After completing the two drafts, all of them were invited to the interviews. The interviews intended to 1) explore how they interpreted the teacher’s feedback on their first drafts, 2) investigate how they coped with the highlighted mistakes on the first draft and made corrections on their second drafts, and 3) clarify their answers in the survey.

3. Findings from the baseline study

It seems that all 6 participants had very similar learning experiences in practicing the writing skill and held very similar attitudes towards different types of written feedback. To summarise, all the students reported that they preferred activities which can expand their grammar and vocabulary knowledge, such as reading grammar books, taking notes of unfamiliar words and reviewing all the mistakes they had made before.

Their attitudes towards the feedback look a little bit complicated. There were two types of mistakes: one is those mistakes which can be clearly labelled as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ such as spelling and grammar mistakes; the other type refers to those mistakes which cannot be categorised as ‘right or wrong’, such as the structure and the consistency between topic sentence and evidence/examples. For the first type, all the participants agreed that the most useful feedback was to ‘highlight the grammar mistakes without correcting them’ as they could recognize these mistakes and make the corrections by themselves. Most participants reported that their high school teachers highlighted and corrected every grammar and vocabulary mistake in their writing. However, most of them claimed that they did not believe this kind of feedback was effective, as they believed that identifying and correcting the highlighted mistakes by themselves could result in a longer retention time of the grammar rules.  Moreover, it is always the second type which causes troubles for the students when they read the feedback on their first drafts, as they were less familiar with the rules to correct/improve them and their lecturers’ comments/feedback failed to meet their expectations by providing good examples/solutions. To be more specific, all the participants indicated that they perceived ‘highlighting the mistakes’ or ‘simply putting a question mark without further clarification of what type of mistake/error it is’ as the least useful feedback, because they found it difficult to recognize them and make corrections afterwards.

For their perceived strengths and weaknesses in their writing skill, all of the interviewees reported that they had learned their strengths and weaknesses from their lecturers’ previous feedback/comments on their writing. However, the three good writers perceived grammar as one of their strengths and the ‘logic and ideas’ as one of their weaknesses because their lecturers rarely highlighted grammar mistakes but consistently commented on the inconsistency between the topic sentence and the evidence/examples in their writing. In contrast, the three less successful writers perceived grammar and vocabulary as two of their weaknesses.

4. Different experiences in writing the 2nd daft

The differences between the good writers (A1, A2, A3) and the less successful writers (D1, D2, D3) regarding their mental process of writing the second draft can be summarised as follows,

  1. The good writers tried to analyse the lecturer’s feedback while the less successful writers did not. ‘Analysis’ included a range of activities:

1)    categorized and identified the mistakes (grammar/syntax mistakes: easy to be fixed, structural mistakes: difficult to be recognized and fixed);

2)    asked lecturer to clarify/explain the highlighted mistakes;

3)    checked reference books  to understand the grammar rules;

  1. The good writers did not appear to expect the lecturer to highlight every single mistake, while the less successful writers appeared to heavily rely on lecturer’s feedback and treat the ‘second writing’ as a chance to correct every highlighted mistake. For those mistakes which were not highlighted by the lecturer, these less successful writers did not do anything in their second drafts.
  2. The good writers acted upon the feedback: checked the grammar book, for similar mistakes in the first draft (they do not believe the lecturer highlighted every single mistake), corrected the mistakes, revised before submitting the second draft (to check if similar mistakes appeared in other places, which had not been highlighted by the lecturer).
  3. Although the less successful writers reported a positive attitude towards the ‘highlighted without correction’ type of feedback, their capabilities of interpreting the highlighted mistakes seemed to be problematic. The next section reports the less successful writers’ strategies to cope with the highlighted mistakes.

The table below summarizes of the reported mental processes in writing the second draft:

A1, A2, A3: Good writers D1, D2, D3: Less successful writers
I read the lecturer’s feedback, corrected them in the first draft. I read the first draft again to check if I made similar mistakes which have not been highlighted by the lecturer. I wrote (copy and paste) the second draft. I copied and pasted the first draft to a new Microsoft Word Document. I corrected the mistakes highlighted by the lecturer. (The student presumed that the lecturer would highlight every mistakes/errors in the first draft.)
I read the lecturer’s feedback, corrected them in the first draft. I asked lecturer to clarify/explain the feedback which I did not understand. The grammar/syntax mistakes were easy to understand, but for the errors regarding the inconsistency between topic sentence and structure, the lecturer’s usually did not provide a clear direction on how to improve them.I read the first draft again to check if I made similar mistakes which have not been highlighted by the lecturer, wrote (copy and paste) the second draft. Very similar.(The student presumed that the lecturer would highlight every mistakes/errors in the first draft.)
I read the lecturer’s feedback, trying to understand the highlighted mistakes. If it is grammar/syntax mistakes and I did not know how to correct it, I read the grammar books. I always felt less secure when my mistakes are the structure or the consistency between examples and my topic sentence. Very similar.(The student presumed that the lecturer would highlight every mistakes/errors in the first draft.)

5. Strategies to fix the highlighted mistakes

The three less successful writers reported a wide range of strategies to cope with the highlighted mistakes in the second writing after they read their lecturers’ feedback on their first drafts. Unlike the good writers’ strategies of analysing the highlighted mistakes and correcting the mistakes or improving the weak aspects directly, the less successful writers developed the strategies to guess the unclear feedback and avoid making the same mistakes again in the second drafts. To summarize, there are two types of strategies: 1) the strategies for interpreting and understanding the feedback and 2) the strategies for correcting the mistakes

Interpreting the feedback

1)    ‘I believed that the lecturer would highlight every mistake in my writing without correcting them, therefore my job in the second writing was to correct them’

2)    ‘I asked my sister to explain the feedback provided by the lecturer when I did not understand … I did not ask my lecturer’

3)    ‘I made my own guess on what does the feedback mean and correct it … I guess the lecturer will point out in my second draft if it is wrong again’

Correcting the mistakes

4)    ‘In the second draft, I deleted the sentences from my first draft which were highlighted by my lecturer, as I did not understand how to improve/correct them’

5)    ‘My lecturer commented that I need more examples/evidence; I felt my examples were sufficient. Therefore, I put one more sentence to explain my topic sentence and deleted the previous one … I did not know how to make my examples more sufficient’

6)    ‘My lecturer commented that the topic sentence was not unclear without explaining how to improve it. But I saw her circle one word in the topic sentence, so I guess the problem is in that verb. So in the second draft, I replaced it with another word. I did not know how to make it better. I need my lecture to provide me with an example to follow. ‘

6. Further implications

This section reports the pedagogical implications of the findings from this study

  1. The lecturers need to inform the learners that they would not highlight every single mistake. It is the learner’s responsibility to interpret and understand the feedback and revise their writing again before the second submission. The lecturers need to instruct the learners that, unlike the grammar and spelling mistakes, there is no absolutely correct or wrong answer in terms of the structure, logic and organization.
  2. The lecturers need different types of feedback to make the learners ‘noticing’ of different types of mistakes. For grammar and spelling mistakes, highlighting the mistakes without correcting may be sufficient; whereas for the inappropriateness regarding structure and logic, the lecturers may need to be more specific. In other words, feedback may need to shed some light as to how to make them better. The less successful writers seem to be unwilling or less capable of recognizing these mistakes and proposing solutions to make them better.
  3. The lecturers need to instruct the learners as to what makes the structure much clearer and how arguments can be more convincing in writing classes. It seems that giving general feedback or taking a ‘write-rewrite’ approach cannot solve the problems for less successful learners.

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One response to “Students’ strategies for coping with EFL teachers’ written feedback- an explorative study with Vietnamese students”

  1. MarkHersh says :

    Hi Dr. Wei,
    I found your article illuminating. However, I had one question regarding student response to feedback. You said the students felt it was important to identify the errors that were highlighted so they could correct those errors themselves. But then later in the same paragraph it was mentioned that if the lecturers only highlighted the errors, or left a question mark, the students could not find the errors themselves. This left me wondering what was meant in the earlier part of that paragraph, as the two lines seemed to me to contradict each other. Does it mean that that the students are only able to identify the errors if the teacher is adding a symbol to an error that was highlighted like ‘s/v’ for subject/verb error?

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