In this article, Northcott, Gillies and Coutlon explore their students’ perceptions of how effective online formative feedback was for improving their postgraduate academic writing, and aim to highlight best practices for online writing feedback.
Northcott, J., P. Gillies & D. Caulton (2016), ‘What Postgraduates Appreciate in Online Tutor Feedback on Academic Writing’, Journal of Academic Writing, Vol. 6/1 , pp. 145-161.
The focus of the study was on helping international master’s-level students at a UK university, for whom English is not their first/main language. The study’s central aim was investigating these students’ satisfaction with the formative feedback provided online by language tutors on short-term, non-credit-bearing ESAP writing courses. These courses, run in collaboration with subject departments, are a new provision at the university, in response to previous surveys showing dissatisfaction among students with feedback provided on written coursework for master’s-level courses. Participation is encouraged, but voluntary. The courses consist of five self-study units (with tasks and answer keys), as well as weekly essay assignments marked by a tutor.
The essays are submitted electronically, and feedback is provided using either Grademark (part of Turnitin) or ‘track changes’ in Microsoft Word . The feedback covers both language correction and feedback on aspects of academic writing. These assignments are effectively draft versions of sections of coursework assignments students are required to write for the master’s programmes.
The EAP tutors involved marked a total of 458 assignments, written by students in the first month of the master’s degrees in either Medicine or Politics. Only 53 students completed all five units of the writing course; though 94 Medicine and 81 Politics students completed the first unit’s assignment.
Alongside the writing samples, data was also collected by surveying students at three points during the writing course, plus an end-of-course evaluation form. Focussing on students who had completed the whole writing course, students’ survey responses were matched with their writing samples which had received feedback, as well as the final coursework assignment they submitted for credit in their master’s programme, for detailed analysis.
Analysing the feedback given by tutors, the researchers found both direct and indirect corrective feedback on language, as well as on subject-specific or genre-specific writing conventions and the academic skills related to writing. Tutors’ comments mostly refered to specific text passages, rather than being unfocused or general feedback.
Student engagement with feedback was evidenced by analysing writing samples and final coursework: only one case was found where ‘there was clear evidence that a student had not acted on the feedback provided’ (p. 155). However, the researchers admit that, as participation in the course is voluntary, the students who complete it are likely to be those who are in general appreciative of feedback, thus this finding may not be generalisable to other contexts.
In the surveys, most students’ reported feeling that the feedback had helped them to improve their writing. They acknowledged how useful the corrections provided were, and how the feedback could be applied in future. Moreover, comments demonstrated an appreciation of the motivational character of the feedback provided.
Summing up these findings, the researchers report:
It appeared to be the combination of principled corrective feedback with a focus on developing confidence by providing positive, personalised feedback on academic conventions and practices as well as language which obtained the most positive response from the students we investigated. (p. 154)
The students’ comments generally show that they responded well to this electronic mode of feedback delivery, and also felt a connection to their tutor, despite not meeting in person to discuss their work. As the researchers put it, students came to see ‘written feedback as a response to the person writing the text, not simply a response to a writing task’ (p. 156).
The findings from this study highlight that simply using electronic modes of feedback delivery does not alone increase student satisfaction and engagement with feedback on their written work. Instead, the content and manner of the feedback given is key.
From the article, then, we can take away some tips for what kind of feedback to give, and how, to make electronic feedback most effective, at least for postgraduate students.
- Start with a friendly greeting and refer to the student by name.
- Establish an online persona as a sympathetic critical friend, ready to engage in dialogue.
- Don’t only focus on corrective feedback, but aim to guide the student to be able to edit and correct their work autonomously, e.g. provide links to further helpful resources.
- Be specific about the text passage the feedback refers to.
- Tailor the feedback to the student’s needs, in terms of subject area, etc.
- Give praise to develop the student’s confidence.
- Take account of the student’s L1 and background.
- Eencourage the student to respond to the feedback; especially if anything is unclear or they find it difficult to apply.