Steve Darn - ELT
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GME: Conducting Feedback on Exercises and Tasks

(with Nick Baguley)

The term feedback can apply to a number of classroom situations and procedures, but here it refers to a range of techniques employed by the teacher to facilitate responses from the students to an exercise or task.

Inevitably, teachers feel that the whole class needs and deserves to know the correct answer or response to a question, and students expect to be told whether their answers are right or wrong, but there are alternatives to traditional whole-class feedback conducted by the teacher or teacher-nomination in a lockstep pattern. Traditional feedback is teacher-led, involves little communication between learners and tends to be contrary to current good classroom practice.

•    The teacher is in control and responsible for important group decisions such as when to move onto the next question.
•    Considerable teacher talking time may occur, particularly if the teacher reads out the questions in full (often unnecessary as students already have these in front of them) or ‘echoes’ students’ answers for no apparent reason.
•    Whole-class feedback is unlikely to reveal whether all or most of the students know what the correct answer is.
•    Less-able students often get lost during the feedback, particularly if they are trying to use strategies for understanding their errors or attempting self-correction.
•    Anxiety may be caused for students who are unsure of the correct response.
•    The correct answer may be established, but understanding is not checked.

Why feedback?
Teacher-led feedback, usually involving only one student at a time, can be predictable, monotonous and time-consuming. It may also be unnecessary for more able learners and potentially demotivating or embarrassing for the less-able. However, some form of feedback is required for a variety of reasons:

•    Feedback on an activity satisfies students’ expectations and needs, both as a measure of success or failure and as reassurance that they have at least completed the task properly.
•    As tasks, in particular the practice exercise type, are in effect a form of test, feedback which indicates a degree of success can be motivating. Often an element of competitiveness enters into feedback which encourages learners to participate. The negative aspects of competition, together with the risk of demotivating some learners, can be reduced by the judicious use of nomination and sensitive management of feedback by the teacher.
•    Feedback acts as an effective signpost, signalling the end of a task or stage of a lesson.
•    A variety of analytical skills can be fostered through the way that feedback is conducted. Learners not only need to know if their answers are correct, but also why they are correct or why they are making errors. Useful correction or reteaching may take place during feedback on exercises, while reading skills may be enhanced by identifying clues in a text or checking a listening task by referring to the tapescript. Students may also provide useful information by indicating which questions they found most difficult and why.
•    Learners’ performance in tasks performs an important diagnostic function. Errors may indicate the need for clarification, reteaching or repair work, while successful completion of a task may indicate that learning has taken place and that the teacher is free to move on. However, repair is rarely accomplished by setting a similar task, while accurate conclusions can only be drawn from tasks that are manageable but achievable rather than too easy or too difficult.

Pre-empting lengthy feedback
The need for time-consuming whole-class feedback can be minimised by effective teaching and classroom management, not only during the activity but also in earlier stages of the lesson.

•    Clearly, feedback is more speedily conducted when the majority of student responses are correct. In language practice exercises, the likelihood of this is often a product of clear, contextualised presentation, a systematic focus, either inductive or deductive, on form and function, and the use of concept-checking questions to ensure understanding of meaning.
•    Feedback is an ongoing process, and a good deal of gentle correction may take place while the teacher is monitoring, thus ensuring a minimum of feedback at the end of the task. The teacher may also notice specific difficulties and choose to conduct feedback only on problematic questions.
•    Anticipating problems, grading tasks so that they are manageable and designating time for feedback rather than leaving it open-ended are all prerequisites for efficient feedback.

Teacher-led feedback alternatives
There is an element of security in both teacher and learners knowing that an exercise has been completed satisfactorily. Where exercises are completed individually and the focus is predominantly on accuracy, the teacher may opt to take control of the feedback process. Even so, control can be partially relinquished, and there are alternatives to the teacher either reading out answers or nominating students in turn.

•    Teacher question – student answer is conducted randomly to keep individual students on their toes.
•    The teacher refers the students to a grammar reference while checking their answers.
•    Answers are provided on the back of the question paper.
•    Answers are provided on an OHT, IWB or PowerPoint slide.
•    Students are given a reading text containing all the answers.
•    Students are put into teams and compete for points given correct answers.

Student-led feedback alternatives
•    Peer checking. Encouraging students to give each other feedback after activities and introducing the appropriate task language, not only provides opportunities for discussion, but also the opportunity to use language for a real purpose. Students practise conversational strategies of negotiating, agreeing and disagreeing and turn-taking as well as thinking skills such as rationalising and problem-solving. Peer-checking also provides the teacher with a reason to recombine pairs and particularly to encourage stronger students to help the less able ones. Some students will always finish exercises more quickly than others and it is often useful to tell them how many of their answers are correct, but not which, so that they have a purpose for reflecting on their work.

•    Learners can be encouraged to take on the role of the teacher, by asking one student to conduct feedback, giving the answers to an exercise to a group representative, or giving each student in a pair half the answers.
•    Student nomination. Students, rather than the teacher, nominate others to provide answers. This can be particularly effective during the first week of a course when learners are still in the process of getting to know each other.
•    Students are given a numbered strip of an OHT and write their answer to the corresponding question. The teacher then collects the strips of OHT and puts them onto the OHP. Students check their answers and discuss any difficulties in open class.
•    One student or group leader has the answers and adopts the role of the teacher.
•    In mixed ability classes, it may be possible to give the less able students responsibility for conducting feedback. In more homogeneous classes, questions in extended consolidation exercises may be divided between students to encourage peer checking and even peer teaching.

The introduction of peer-checking and student-centred feedback is a gradual process, particularly with students who are accustomed to whole-class feedback, teacher question-student answer, or giving their work to the teacher to mark. Students may feel uncomfortable or insecure being told an answer by another students or taking the responsibility for feedback. The process involves explaining strategies, establishing routines and training learners to use the techniques to best effect. The first step may be to get students into the habit of checking each others’ answers, in which case some input of ‘task language’ is needed:

“I think....”
“What do you think about...?”
“What have you got for number three?”
 “I think so too” / “Me too”
“I don’t agree, I think it’s……because…….”

Task language gives learners the opportunity to communicate about the task, and avoids the issue of students immediately slipping into their mother-tongue, though this may still occur where disagreements arise or where metalanguage is required. It may be be particularly useful to focus on task language as ‘language input’ during the first lesson with a new class, as the complexity of such utterances can be graded to suit the level of the group.

Whether getting feedback to an exercise or giving feedback to learners on an activity or writing task, teachers should always remember that feedback should be accompanied by praise and encouragement in order to build trust and confidence. If teachers use student-centred activities in their classrooms, it seems logical to support these with student-centred feedback on those activities. In many ways, feedback on tasks is similar to checking test papers in that the results are of little value unless something is learned or gained from them. Traditional feedback still has its place under certain circumstances, but a variety of feedback techniques relieves the monotony of the procedure, particularly if those techniques encourage learner involvement, responsibility and co-operation. The teacher is then left to field questions, clear up problems and respond to the diagnostic function, while feedback serves a real, meaningful and communicative purpose.

first published 26 November 2009