Becoming literate is an important part of achieving educational success. At a surface level, this means learning the ins and outs of reading (parsing information) and writing (transmitting information). However, acquiring academic literacy goes beyond this surface level of recognizing and producing signs. It requires the skillful deployment of different knowledges in understanding others’ messages, planning one’s message, crafting that message, and revising that message. These various acts of literacy require students to deploy critical thinking, rhetorical knowledge, linguistic knowledge, and metacognitive strategies to be successful. It can be a very cognitively demanding task. Doing this in a second language makes it all the more challenging.
Writing plays a crucial role in education, particularly in higher education, where many assessments happen in writing. Science students will often write lab reports; engineering students will write instruction sets; literature students will write critical analyses; and, business students will often write case studies. All of these types of writing will often serve some assessment purposes. Therefore, being proficient in the literacy practices of higher education can mean the difference between success or failure. Anecdotally, there is evidence of students who feel that they have poor language skills picking degrees in the hard sciences thinking they will do less writing. However, the work of Dorothy Winsor shows that these students are often in for a surprise, especially when they hit the job market—they’re going to do a lot of writing.
Now, many of my students seem initially seem to think that writing is something that you sit down, you do, then you’re done. However, this is simply not the case. So, I do my best to get them to buy into the notion of “first ideas are never best ideas.” This saying is especially true when it comes to writing. And, if we accept that the first thing that we spill on to the page at 11:59 pm the night before class isn’t going to be our best work. This means that we must revise. And, in revision, we see how writing isn’t just something you do; it’s something alive and social. In the act of revision, we either evoke the other and how they might read our text; or, we actually give it over to someone else to read and to offer feedback. Thanks to more robust technologic solutions, and the spread of online writing services and pedagogical interventions, students may find that this feedback is coming from online sources.
However, this presents particular challenges. In her article, “Attitudes Towards Online Feedback on Writing” Carola Strobl examined how students interact with online feedback and how, if at all, they make use of that feedback. Strobl outlined some feedback methods, from just providing a model answer to the students submitting their online writing, which has the benefit of providing immediate feedback, to giving students marked up texts outlining their various strengths and weaknesses, which is time displaced but provides the most amount of direct feedback.
What was interesting in Strobl’s study of 38 L2 German students was that these students seemed to have a strong preference for the more immediate feedback of the model. This preference exists because they could see the feedback as soon as they had submitted their answers online. But, the students did not like how hard they had to work to make sense of the comments. That is, they didn’t feel that the model answer met their instructional needs because it was up to them to look at the model answer and then to reflect on their own answer. The reason for this was because they felt that the teacher knew more than they did. Their own linguistic skills were not sufficient enough to take that degree of control, or agency, over their own learning. While the far preferred the direct feedback from the teacher with marked up essays, the lag time often meant that the impact of the feedback was diminished, in part because they were no longer working on that type of writing by the time they go feedback from the teacher.
Most salient were that most students reported just clicking through to the end of the submission, not caring to see the feedback. If we think about how people use websites, this makes sense. When you have a long form to fill out, your mind isn’t on what you can learn, it’s on how quickly you can finish the task and get back to browsing Facebook, looking at pictures of puppies on Imgur, or catching up on your favorite TV shows on 天天美剧.
In these findings, I see much room for improvement in online feedback. But, I also see much promise. I believe that we, as teachers, must work to make ourselves obsolete. That means moving students from needing that specific feedback from us, to being able to better self-regulate. Perhaps a more efficient method here for online feedback of writing would involve training students in what to do with your comments once they have it. How to make sense of it and how to wean themselves off it. This may mean that in work early in the semester, you opt for the time displaced, explicit feedback—marking errors and offering suggestions. Then, at about the mid-point, you can change to marking errors and point students towards online resources that they can read and reflect on to better understand how to improve their own writing. Then, towards the end, you can move towards the non-time displaced method of just providing a model answer to students and having them reflect on that and their own work. What’s important in this approach is creating value around reflection and self-assessment. In my classes, as I work with undergraduate and graduate students, I tend to tie to their future professional lives. I tell them in my time as a manager, all of my employees have had to engage in critical reflection and self-assessment. They’ve also had to take over agency of their advanced training. It was my job as manager to create opportunity. Not to just give them their professional development in a pre-packaged chunk for them to swallow.
Strobl, C. (2015). Attitudes towards online feedback on writing: Why students mistrust the learning potential of models. ReCALL, 27(3), 340-357.
Winsor, D.A. (1996). Writing like an engineer: A rhetorical education. New York: Routledge.