Friday, April 17, 2009

Too Much Red Ink? Providing Feedback on Students’ Written Work

By Ela Newman
Instructor in Developmental Writing and in ESL
University of Texas at Brownsville

Fairly recently, William Ancker conducted a research survey of students’ and teachers’ attitudes to error correction. The survey was administered in 15 countries and the results reveal that 24% of teachers, but 78% of students, feel that all written errors (or mistakes) should be corrected.

I’d say his findings confirm many teachers’ assumptions about their students’ views on error correction. When it comes to written work, students tend to expect that most, if not all, of their mistakes will be pointed out. They want to know what they need to work on, and they expect us, the teachers, to give them detailed comments on their work.

Many teachers I’ve known have argued that a page strewn with corrections or comments may not only impact students’ motivation negatively, but may also cause students to be confused about the structure and content of their writing.

Meeting expectations without hindering learning

Is there a way to satisfy students’ expectations without hindering their learning? In my experience, two strategies can help achieve a balance here: establishing a healthy attitude towards mistakes (that is, one which views mistakes as learning opportunities), and using an effective method of pointing out mistakes.

This is the method I use:

1. I give my students a copy of a chart listing grammar problems which are common at their level. To familiarize them with the tool, I provide them with a short paragraph containing various errors, assign them to identify and correct those, and ask them to expand the chart by adding examples of grammar problems found in the paragraph.

The columns of the chart are labeled in the following way:


2. While correcting students’ written work, I underline problematic structures in the text and write symbols representing them in the margins. This is a fairly typical approach today. However, I also circle certain symbols. The purpose here is to indicate grammatical details that have been emphasized or specifically taught in previous lessons–those which students should be able to correct easily. In other words, I circle what I hope are mistakes (one-time slips), not actually errors (problems caused by students’ not knowing particular grammar structures yet).

Uncircled symbols suggest gaps or other issues. Students can learn the names of most of these by looking to the error chart, and then, if they wish, consult a grammar reference book to learn more about the issues. Students can also choose simply to wait for future lessons which address those grammatical issues.

3. As I discuss grammar points in class, I ask students to add new information to columns of the error chart, such as chapter and page numbers indicating the places in the textbook where certain points are covered.

Win-Win: Students get the feedback they want and the tools to self-correct

This method has worked well for me and my students on a few levels.

  • First, it allows me to give students the thorough feedback they generally expect.
  • Second, it alerts students to the mistakes they should be able to correct themselves. (Self-correction, it seems to me, is crucial to progress.)
  • Third, it affords students opportunities to investigate problem areas on their own. This encourages them to be independent in their studies and to go beyond what we do in the classroom.

I suppose we all feel awkward when we make a mistake and someone points it out, but if correction is done in a friendly, supportive and constructive way, I think we usually value it and appreciate the chance to remedy the problem, however small, and to increase our facility in writing. Sometimes progress lies on the other side of a blush (!).

Have you ever asked your students about their views on error correction? If so, what were their responses?

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