Monday, April 30, 2012

Project on peer feedback

The Loyola English Language Teaching (ELT) Centre, which was established in 2008 at Andhra Loyola College to promote professionalism in ELT, has done a significant project entitled, ‘Towards an Alternative Form of Corrective Feedback on ESL Learners’ Writings’. On the year-long (August 2011 – March 2012) project, the Centre field-tested its hypothesis about the efficacy of peer correction of, and feedback on, undergraduate students’ compositions in English and demonstrated peer feedback as a viable alternative to teacher correction/feedback. As the Director of the ELT Centre, I headed the project. 

Background to the project
Writing occupies an important place in any English (as a second/foreign language) course at school or college level: students are required to do a great deal of writing. But, unless students’ compositions are corrected and they are given feedback on their writing, the set writing activities may not be of much value in improving their writing skills. Besides, students may not take the set tasks seriously because they know that their compositions are not going to be read.

It is here that most schools and colleges in this country are faced with a problem. While both setting writing tasks for students and correcting students’ compositions are considered necessary by both teachers of English and educational systems, correction (or even feedback without correction) appears to be a formidable task for teachers of English.

The Centre sent a team of English Literature students to survey the prevailing practices in the correction of students’ compositions in different schools. The team reported three types of practices which, they claimed, were typical. Some teachers did not set any writing task at all. Some did set writing tasks, but their correction was unsystematic:  once the writing was over, they asked some of the students at random to read out their writings and offered oral feedback. A few teachers not only set writing tasks but also took the compositions home / to the staffroom, but they did not seem to correct them; they simply put a tick mark in the margin and signed and returned the “corrected” compositions in the next class. Teacher correction thus appeared to be by and large a perfunctory exercise, especially at college level where it was almost non-existent. There was, therefore, need to find an alternative approach to the correction of student’s compositions – an approach that was relatively both effective and viable.

Peer correction promised to offer such an alternative.  The ELT Centre drew inspiration from the proven effectiveness of peer work in teaching and mentoring in progressive educational environments, and believed that what was true of teaching and mentoring was likely to be true of correction/feedback also. The Centre, which had successfully conducted a small-scale experiment in peer correction/feedback on a pilot basis in 2010-2011, decided to do a large-scale one to validate the findings of the earlier experiment.

Project methodology
The experiment was conducted with all the 699 students of Stream B of the second-year General English course at Andhra Loyola College (ALC). These 699 students were divided into 79 groups of eight or nine students each.  Seventy-nine senior students of Andhra Loyola College from the English Literature and Stream A sections with good writing abilities in English volunteered to work as student-teachers on the project. Each of the student teachers was allotted one group of eight or nine students. I trained the student-teachers in correction procedures and feedback techniques both in a workshop for all the groups and in different informal meetings with each group. 

During the academic year (2011-2012), the ELT Centre set a series of writing tasks for the 79 student groups, and they were administered by the class teachers in the regular classroom itself. Once the writing tasks were completed, the class teachers handed over the compositions to the 79 student-teachers. The student teachers took two days to correct the compositions using the procedures and techniques the Project Director had taught them. Then they met their respective groups of students in a tutorial session (referred to as a “feedback session” on the project) in which they explained the corrections to the students and gave them feedback on their compositions.  The students redrafted the compositions in the light of the feedback, and the redrafted compositions were also corrected by the student-teachers.

The Results
  • Five aspects of the students’ writings [namely, content, organization, language (both vocabulary and grammar), spelling and punctuation] were rigorously assessed on a 10-point scale. The assessment showed that, by and large, there was improvement and that the improvement was incremental.
  • A senior lecturer from the Department of English, ALC, re-marked a few student-teacher-corrected compositions of each group. The differences were insignificant. This negligible difference, which is likely even if the compositions are marked by two experienced teachers, showed that the peer marking was almost as effective as teacher marking.
  • A questionnaire was administered to the students in the experiment to ascertain their perceptions of the improvement, if any, they had made in their writing abilities on account of the peer correction and oral feedback. The self-perception of the improvements (to a great/some extent) was: 90.6% in content, 70.5 in organization, 81% in language, and 87.5% in spelling and punctuation. While the others reported improvement only to a limited extent, 3 – 12% reported no improvement at all in organization and grammar.
  • In a questionnaire survey, the student-teachers reported an extremely positive view of the experiment: a vast majority of them (88%) said that the work did not involve any problems at all; 80% of them said that they had had negligible amount of difficulty in finding time for the correction and the oral feedback; 73% claimed that the experiment demanded considerable preparation, thanks to which their own writing abilities and leadership skills (e.g. how to undertake a responsibility and how to manage it) had improved.
  • A discussion with the class teachers revealed (a) that they were satisfied with both the improvements their students had made and the efficacy of peer correction and feedback; and (b) that they certainly favoured an alternative to teacher feedback and that they were convinced that peer feedback represented a viable alternative.
The study even seems to suggest that peer feedback has at least three advantages over teacher feedback:
  • In a peer correction situation, the face-to-face feedback session takes place in a friendly atmosphere which can enhance the scope for discussion as well as clarification and the consequent learning value. This is hardly likely in a teacher correction situation.
  • In a feedback session with student-teachers, attention can be paid to each individual student, considering that each student-teacher has a small number of students (not more than 9 in the ELT Centre’s study). This is not possible in a teacher-conducted class of 40-60.
  • In a teacher correction situation, the student does not write with freedom because he is conscious of the fact that he will be read and corrected by the teacher. But, in a peer correction situation, the student knows that his reader will be a peer which allows him to write with a sense of independence and even identity. This helps him speak in his own voice in his writing. In other words, peer correction provides student writers with something writers need primarily, namely, an audience.
The project was undertaken in order to find a viable solution to a problem both teachers of English and students are facing: while teachers of English are finding it difficult to do justice to their correction of students’ compositions, learners are not able to make progress in their writing skills with a sense of direction owing to either absence of feedback or inadequate feedback.  The Loyola ELT Centre proposes an evidence-based solution, namely, peer feedback. The Centre hopes that colleges and schools will find the Loyola model, which has been field-tested and found acceptable to the parties concerned, worth experimenting with.

Schools and colleges which are interested in peer feedback may contact the ELT Centre. The Centre, which does consultancy work in ELT, will be glad to conduct workshops on peer correction/feedback for teachers of English.

1 comment:

  1. I did not know that I was becoming a part of this when people came into our classroom one day, asking for A-stream students and explaining what the matter was... But I must confess that I did not take it with the seriousness that it deserves...