“I don’t understand your writing feedback and correction.” Oh, the horror.

Imagine the horror: a few days ago, with three weeks left before the end of the course and the Cambridge First Certificate exam, I found myself sitting across from a student who told me that she did not understand my writing correction system.

“What do you mean?” I said. She had submitted her FCE writing task – a report – as a Google Doc and she was looking at the marked version on her phone as we waited for the other students to arrive.

“The colors. The green stuff. The red stuff. The orange stuff. What does that mean again?”

My blood ran cold.

No, I’ve never actually written or typed or even said that egregiously clichéd sentence before but that’s just what happened: My blood ran cold.

I explained what the colors meant. Then we went on talking about the goods and the bads of her report and did a bit of brush-up work on her use of comparative forms. But the whole time there’s a sort of ringing in my ears and a pit in my stomach and suddenly I am the guy in the movie who’s just got the message in the Sex Pistols font that there’s a bomb in the building and I’ve got to keep it together and keep everybody blissfully unaware until I can calmly slip out and defuse it before the whole thing blows up and kills us all.

After class I found myself repeating the student’s question. What does that mean again? What does it mean that she said she didn’t understand the marking system? That she’s never read any of the corrections and comments I’ve given? That she had, but had no idea what I was trying to say?

Like some character from Dostoevsky, ill-prepared for the weather, I skulked home, umbrella-less in the cold rain, feverishly gripped by a sort of existential fear that nothing I had done as a teacher that year had any meaning whatsoever.

But thankfully that part of my mind that was as far as could be from Russian existentialism, the part that had been trained and brained in my years in all-American sales, shouted one thing to me loud and clear: Action Cures Fear (and yes, there’s an inspirational poster for that).

So on Saturday morning I stormed into my other First Certificate class. They had wanted a review of the Writing Paper (which I’ll explain in the next post), but first I wanted to get one thing clear.

I improvised a sort of Likert-scale questionnaire with never/sometimes/often/always:

writing_correction_dynamiteelt

1. I read the corrections you make on my writing (in the writing file)

2. I understand the corrections you make

3. I ask if I don’t understand the corrections

4. I read other students’ writing on the writing file

5. I take action to avoid making the same mistakes again next time I write

Just to clarify, the “writing file” is a shared, scrolling Google Doc where all writing homework is posted, and “public” for the rest of the class to view. I often make cross-referential comments. So if there’s a common problem, e.g. excessive use of “a lot” in formal writing, I explain the problem on the first piece of writing, offer alternatives, and then tell any other students with the same problem: See what I wrote on Cristina’s about a lot. I do the same with positive things as well: Elisabetta used a lot of good formal alternatives. I’ve highlighted them in blue. Read hers for some other ideas.

They discussed the statements in small groups. And then I added a sixth item:

6. What could Kyle do to improve the corrections? (Give me some ideas!)

 

I collected their answers to the survey, and their suggestions for part 6.

Unlike a lot of the feedback I ask for, this time I wanted names. I sorted them into two groups: frequent writers and infrequent writers. Because there are a couple in the group who never do the writing homework, and their feedback obviously has less weight than the ones who actually use the system. (Why some students never do the writing homework is a useful line of inquiry, but I don’t think it applies to trying to find out if the feedback system is functioning – unless, of course, you posit that the feedback system itself is to blame for their entire lack of writing, but I’m not willing to go there right now.)

Out of 10 students:

8 students said they always read the feedback, with only 2 (very) infrequent writers saying they sometimes did.

7 students said they always understood the feedback, with 2 frequent writers saying they often did and 1 (very) infrequent writer saying they sometimes did.

3 frequent writers said they only sometimes asked if they didn’t understand the corrections, along with 3 infrequent writers.

2 frequent writers said they always read other students’ writing, vs. 1 sometimes and 1 often. The infrequent writers mostly reported they sometimes did.

2 frequent writers and 3 infrequent writers said they always take action to try to avoid making mistakes the next time, whereas 2 frequent writers and 2 infrequent writers said they often did.

What does that mean again?

While it was quickly thrown together and, like all surveys, limited in scope, in many ways the survey calmed me down a bit. Between it and the discussion that followed I understood that the system was comprehensible to those who use it most.

And, most importantly, the students have shown vast improvement in their writing. Lovely paragraphs. Clearly linked ideas both within the sentence and across the text. Great awareness and application of the conventions of the different genres.

From an FCE writing-product perspective, they – and particularly the frequent writers – are producing some great stuff that is light years from where they started.

And yet…

At the same time, the fact that two frequent writers said they often – but not always – understood my corrections and only sometimes asked me about it means there’s another problem to be addressed.

Writing and writing correction is done via Google Docs. But should I take time in class to go through the corrections with students face to face?

One group suggested as a response to question 6 that there should be social interaction on the writing file in the form of questions and comments. It’s a lovely idea that I’ve never managed to make work. Is it the platform (Google Docs, vs. something more social like Facebook Groups)? Is it just my expectations? (The one student who made this suggestion is the only one who regularly emails me about grammar questions.)

I usually do the corrections the night before class – but often students don’t have or take the time to read them before the next morning. Is it a time-management problem?

These and other questions to be pondered in a further post.

 

What’s your writing feedback/correction system like?

Leave a comment and a link if you’ve blogged about it elsewhere. I’d love to read what you’ve written.

 

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