Student Feedback on Tasks and Activities

Here is a fairly typical classroom exchange:

Teacher:        and what’s the answer to number 3?
Whole class:        He bought a sandwich.
Teacher:        and number 4?
Whole class:        He drank orange juice.

This teacher-whole class exchange is a common way of obtaining feedback on tasks, activities and exercises which, is familiar to all teachers, possibly without questioning the rationale or effectiveness of the technique, and seeing the only viable alternative as ‘teacher question – student answer’ around the class in a lockstep pattern.

Teacher-centred feedback is particularly common among less experienced teachers and tends to happen because the teacher is reluctant to lose control of the class, needs reassurance that his or her teaching has been successful, or has not extended the principle of learner-centredness to this aspect of classroom practice. Possibly teachers are emulating the way that classes were conduced when they were students themselves.

The rationale of whole-class feedback is questionable and is symptomatic of the teacher-centred classroom in that the technique serves to satisfy the teacher’s desire to check that the students have the correct answer. If the correct response emerges from at least some of the students, then the teacher assumes that understanding has taken place.

Drawbacks of whole class feedback
The disadvantages of this kind of feedback are clear:

•    The teacher is in control and decides when to move onto the next question.
•    The teacher is probably doing most of the talking.
•    Just because the teacher has heard someone say the answer it doesn’t mean that all the students know what the correct answer is.
•    This method doesn’t help weaker students – they often get lost during the feedback, particularly if they have a lot of incorrect answers.
•    Anxiety is caused for students who don’t know the correct answer.
•    Correctness is established, but understanding is not checked.
•    Most importantly, the teacher is not informed of the problems the students had with the activity or if they need further practice. The students have found out that ‘He drank orange juice’ is correct, but not why it is correct, or why ‘He drunk orange juice’ is wrong. Effective learning has not taken place for either the students or the teacher.

The notion of feedback
Feedback from students is a somewhat neglected area, rarely being mentioned in teachers’ manuals and training courses. Feedback to and from students may take a number of forms.

•    Giving students an idea of how they’ve done after a speaking activity – looking not only at their errors but also the positive aspects of their performance.
•    Asking students what they think about an activity they have done or to reflect on recent classes.
•    Checking the answers to activities and exercises the students have done.

It is the third of these where teachers appear to be unaware of viable alternatives. Here are some simple but effective ideas.

1.     Give the students an answer key or put the answer key on the wall or the board
2.     Give each student the answer to one or more questions – they read out for the class to check
3.     One student has the answer key and ‘plays’ the teacher
4.     Pairs of students have half the answers each.
5.     Get students to write the answers on the board or on an overhead transparency
6.     Get one student to read out his/her answers – the rest of the class see if they have the same
7.     Coursebooks sometimes encourage students to listen to the answers
8.     Give the students a reading text with all the answers in
9.     Students nominate each other to give the answer
10.     Do it as a competition – students work in teams to check their answers and then get points

The choice of technique may depend on a variety of factors including the availability of time, the level of the students, and the type of activity or exercise.

A rationale for alternatives
a)    Learner autonomy and responsibility is encouraged if the teacher is not always the provider of correct answers. Putting the answer key on the wall or the board gets the students out of their seats. This can be turned into a race between teams, rather like a running dictation.
b)    Although the teacher provides the answers, the students are in control of the feedback.
c)    The student with the answer key has to be able to answer questions asked by the class to make it more effective.
d)    If students are working in pairs, with half the answers each, a communication gap is created, providing the opportunity for meaningful pair-work, simulating a normal classroom activity.
e)    This is a good way of giving students who finish early something to do.
f)    This works well if students have different answers to questions because they can discuss the answer to come to an agreed conclusion.
g)    A good way to introduce intensive listening into your classroom with a real purpose.
h)    An alternative way to encourage reading.  It practises scanning skills with a real purpose.
i)    A student-centred version of whole class feedback.  It works better if students choose the questions to answer at random as it keeps them on their toes and encourages them to listen to each other.
j)    Makes the feedback more interesting and fun and could help to change the pace of the lesson.

In all the above cases, the teacher remains involved by monitoring while students are on task and making a note of common problems to concentrate on later. Teacher-time is saved as only problematic answers need to be dealt with. One of the drawbacks of whole-class feedback is that there is little chance for students to discuss their answers and to learn from their mistakes. The majority of the above alternatives allow for and encourage discussion of answers, also providing the teacher with valuable input as to what needs to be clarified, revised or re-taught.

Before feedback
Before using any of these techniques, it is important to get students into the habit of checking their answers together with a partner.  This gives students confidence, a chance to communicate in English to discuss their answers and is a common feature of the communicative classroom  The teacher may have to intervene, as students are prone to slipping into their mother-tongue, particularly where arguments arise or where metalanguage is needed, but many problems can be pre-empted by providing the necessary ‘task-language’.

“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…….”

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.
Pair-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.

Learning Training
Pair-checking and student-centred feedback sometimes comes as a shock to students who have become accustomed to whole-class feedback, teacher question – student answer, or giving their work to the teacher to mark. The introduction of alternative techniques is a gradual process involving explaining strategies to the students and training them to use the techniques to best effect.  Issues to be considered include:

Students need to understand the purpose behind using different feedback techniquesExplain that they will learn and understand more if they are in control of the feedback as it will be more meaningful and they will be involved in communication for a     real purpose.
Some students might not feel comfortable being told an answer by another studentEncourage a positive classroom atmosphere and use activities at the beginning of a new class whilst building the group dynamics
Some students might feel uncomfortable about taking this kind of responsibilityStudents need to be shown that they can learn from each other and that the teacher is not the ‘fountain of all knowledge’. Demonstrate that they should and can take responsibility for their own learning.
Students don’t know how to check answers for themselvesWhen introducing the techniques, show the students exactly what to do.  They can also be encouraged to self-check homework by referring to an answer key.

The earlier these techniques are introduced, the sooner the students will see them as part of everyday classroom procedure.

The aim here has been to suggest some alternative ways of obtaining feedback to activities and exercises.  If teachers use student-centred activities in their classrooms, it sees logical and important 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. Using a variety of techniques will result in feedback having a real, meaningful and communicative purpose and will ensure that students learn from the process.

 first published in New Ways International (paper journal) No. 2, August 2008.
 reprinted as ‘What’s the Answer to Number Three?’, English Teaching Matters (paper journal) 9:4, Winter 2009

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