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Effective feedback provision on new EAP courses: Promoting increased learner autonomy

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Are you an EAP teacher who is interested in practical ideas on how to assist your Higher Education learners to become more autonomous? There are several aspects that you need to consider in order to maximize learner opportunities for autonomy when a new course starts.

Familiarization with criteria used for feedback provision and feedback provision are two of them and will be discussed in this post.

Adults tend to assume that their tutor will be the exclusive source of feedback on their work.  However, if you don’t want your learners to be over-dependent on tutors, you aim at their autonomy and the promotion of deeper learning, Gibbs and Simpson (2004) recommend encouraging peer and self-feedback provision practices. Introducing these practices at the start of a new course is essential, as learners will need some time to realise that peer and self-feedback can positively contribute to their learning experiences. Providing learners with multiple practice opportunities of feedback provision throughout the course is likely to result in maximum effectivenesss of this approach. As an EAP tutor, I've adopted this approach and I’d like to share some ideas on this with you here.

This post consists of:

A. A suggested procedure for learner familiarisation with criteria used for feedback provision.

B. An analysis of tutor, peer and self feedback provision

Suggestions offered in the post have been applied on written work (e.g. academic research essays) or oral presentations.

A. Learner familiarization with criteria used for feedback provision

Suggested procedure:

1. Discuss with learners that feedback provision isn't based on a tutor's subjective opinion, but is based on specific task criteria. The tutor examines the extent to which student work has met criteria and suggests ways this can be done more successfully (feedforward).

2. Provide a clear detailed document of the task description, assessment criteria and relevance/ link with their current studies.

3. Set a deadline for learners to study the document on their own and note queries or comments.

4. Organise and carry out a comprehensive discussion on the document content before learners start preparing their work.

Important note: Learners need to understand task requirements and the assessment criteria very well if we wish to assist them in interpreting tutor feedback first and encourage them to be engaged in peer and self- feedback provision at a later stage.

Extra tips on using student work samples: If possible, samples of work produced by previous learners can be shared with new learners for them to see what they are expected to produce. Instead of choosing perfect models, use pieces of work of varying quality that learners can view critically and use for the application of the task assessment criteria for practice. Using those ‘imperfect’ samples will help them develop a better understanding of task requirements and start preparing their own work.

Steps 1-4 offer learners the opportunity to construct their own knowledge on the task, start planning what they need to do and build their confidence that they can meet task requirements. You should revisit the steps on multiple occasions during the course in order to check learner progress in terms of autonomy development and the amount of support that they may require from you. Learners need to know that tutor support is available, but they also need to have the time and the 'space' to work on their own in order to incease their autonomy.

B. An analysis of tutor, peer and self feedback provision

Tutor feedback/assessment

In my tutor feedback I provide general positive comments and specific comments on learner work directly linked with assessment criteria and offer constructive suggestions for improvement (feed forward).

My comments are often written in question form to encourage reflection and knowledge construction. When learners try to answer the questions, they can compare what they have tried to do and what they have actually done and start considering how to edit their work to improve it before resubmitting it. They can focus on the process of producing an essay or a presentation and not on the finished product and feel empowered and in control of their own editing work, which is an important aspect of learning and can foster autonomy. In addition, the dialogue taking place between you and learners can also clarify feedback meaning (Gibbs 2013) and/ or conceptual misunderstandings (Nicol 2010) and be the starting point of individual tutorial discussions and tutor-assisted or supported action planning.

In addition, I usually ask learners to select which aspects of their work they’d like to receive more feedback on. This can positively impact on them since it promotes their active involvement in the process and it reduces the stress learners often feel when they are asked to take action on numerous tutor comments in order to improve their work. For example, if a learner wishes to read comments about the structure of their essay or use of appropriate academic language, I focus my detailed feedback/ specific comments on these aspects and write only a couple of general comments about other areas. Learners can only deal with a certain amount of feedback on a specific piece of work and it seems rather pointless to overload them with information and unrealistic to expect them to act on every single tutor comment. They’d better focus on one or two aspects of their work each time and work on them.

Peer feedback/ assessment

Researchers have discussed the significance of peer-feedback extensively. Gibbs and Simpson (2004), Nicol (2010) and Race (2001) support that providing feedback is more cognitively demanding than receiving it. This simply means that when learners are asked to provide feedback to their peers, they learn faster. Moreover, Race (2001) argues that learners tend to compare their own achievements with each other’s and reflect on others’ work. This may seem rather obvious to teachers, though learners sometimes fail to realize it.  By encouraging peer feedback provision, we simply provide our learners with more support and a more effective structure to a process they already engage in, according to Race (2001).

However, for peer feedback to be effective learner ‘training’ is necessary. They need to become aware of the purpose of peer feedback and be offered specific examples of comments. In the past when I’d asked learners to assess a short presentation given by one of their peers without giving them any details about how to do it, their comments were too general. (e.g. ‘Presentation was good’, ‘You need to improve your grammar’). Some learners were also reluctant to comment on their peers work because they told me that they believed it was my job to do so. After this, I discussed with them the purpose and the benefits of giving and receiving peer-feedback. We also looked at specific examples of comments that matched certain assessment criteria (e.g. amount of information on the visuals, structure of presentation, etc). The result of this process was that they became more willing to provide peer feedback and they gradually developed  the ability to to offer specific comments and constructive suggestions. In fact, they felt confident and motivated to do it because they'd seen in practice the benefits for verybody involved in the process. 

Peer feedback is likely to be a new practice for learners and for this reason they should be introduced to this gradually from the first days of the course. Below I provide details of a simple task I often use with my learners to introduce peer feedback of oral work. 

Task description: 

Read the questions below and present your answers in a mini presentation:

What do you study/ are you going to study? Why have you chosen this field?

Have you ever prepared and given a presentation in English? If yes, have you enjoyed the experience? Why/ Why not?

If no, do you think it's easy to do it? Why/ Why not?

During your presentation, your classmates will keep notes to answer the questions.

Presentation Feedback Questions:

Did the presenter speak too fast or too slowly? Did they look relaxed or nervous? Was he/ she looking at you (or the camera) or their notes? (Delivery aspect)

Did the presenter talk about the questions only or did they include information about other topics, too? (Content)

Did the presenter use simple words to express their ideas in a clear way? Did they use the same words a lot of times? Did you notice any grammar or sentence structure mistakes? (Language)

If you use a task of this kind with your learners in your first classes, you effectivly introduce specific assessment criteria for presentations and start raising their awareness of what a good or a bad presentation could look like. In this way, you can direct them towards giving specific feedback comments to their peers and understanding them when they receive them. 

In order to increase learner independence, you also need to create opportunities for self-feedback. This should also take place at the start of the course and be an integral part of the curriculum.

Self feedback and assessment

In order for learners to understand the value of self-feedback, they need to be ‘trained’, too. Nicol (2010) and Gibbs and Simpson (2004) explain that like peer feedback, self-feedback is something that learners always do, since they monitor, evaluate and generate internal feedback every time they produce their work. Despite this, if we wish this internal feedback to be more structured and strengthened, training should be provided. Learners can be encouraged to self assess their written or oral work before submission and to do so they should use specific criteria (i.e. those described as task requirements). Assessment criteria provided or task requirements can have various forms. A very simple basic checklist consisting of items learners can be one in which learners tick off items they have been successfully completed.

A final comment on the significance of multiple feedback practice opportunities

If your aim is to raise learner awareness of feedback types and develop their evaluative and self-evaluative skills, it’s recommended you start doing this from the first course sessions in order to demonstrate the value of feedback and those skills. Offering learners peer and self feedback opportunities during the course as a built-in component, on a regular basis, will enhance their understanding about the multiple faces of feedback and show them how their active involvement with feedback, given and received, can affect  their learning. As a consequence, their confidence will increase and they’ll be able to start developing their autonomy and becoming less tutor-dependent. And this journey towards independence will positively affect their motivation and task engagement and improve the classroom atmosphere for the rest of the course.

By Maroussa Pavli

REFERENCES

Gibbs, G. (2013). Implications of ‘Dimensions of Quality’ in a Market Environment. Higher Education Academy. https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/implications-dimensions-quality-market-environment

Gibbs G. and C. Simpson (2004) “Conditions Under Which Assessment Supports Students’ Learning.” Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, Issue 1.

Online at: http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.201.2281&rep=rep1&type=pdf

Nicol (2010) REAP Project (Re-engineering Assessment Practices) http://www.reap.ac.uk/Home.aspx

Race, P. (2001). A Briefing on Self, Peer and Group Assessment. LTSN Generic Centre: Learning and Teaching Network Support.