commentary Tyson Seburn  

It’s not only about errors

I admit it. I’m a slacker with regards to actively participating in Shelly Terrell’ #30goals.  It’s certainly not because I think they aren’t worth my time or not applicable to my teaching, but for one reason or another, they’ve been put on the sidelines this February, along with active blogging and commenting on others’ blogs.  I go through cycles of motivation.  When my time outside of the classroom isn’t taken up with prep or marking, I can get very caught up in the posts my PLN make and spend inordinate amounts of time reading, contemplating and commenting on them.  Then the daily classes, text readings and strategy for the students in our program takes up so much of my brain power, that my motivation for anything else gets sucked up in the process.  During these times, my feedback to students also becomes less detailed and even less positive—a kind of bare bones approach to written feedback you could say.

Giving writing feedback
Do any of these statements sound familiar?  When you receive written work from your students, you end up concentrating only on mechanical, structural or stylistic errors.  You have a legend of marking codes that tell your students the kind of error they’ve made in a vague way so that they can go back and try it again.  But how do our students feel when they receive back their written work with only these vague indicators of error?  Certainly for those that have a strong sense of their abilities the few red scratches could be motivators to improve for next time, but for those students who already believe they aren’t very strong, I’m realising it could potentially be quite crushing.  This is why I’ve taken a new, more engaged approach and it leads me to Shelly’s Goal #10: Plant a seed of belief.

Here is an example of what I mean.  I had students read some international students’ experiences about the differences between writing in their countries and writing in Western universities (Module 10 of Transferable Academic Skills Kit).  My question for students was “Which person’s experiences do you identify with and why?”  These images are of one student’s freewriting submission to me.  The first shows what I typically would have given back.  The image on the right is what I’ve actually given back, incorporating my reflections on the #30goals.

Student writing with typical feedback
Aim to do now
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22 thoughts on “It’s not only about errors

  1. Shelly Terrell

    Hi Tyson!

    I really enjoyed your video! Well worth the wait! Thanks for also including the examples of the feedback. I go through cycles of motivation, too. It’s a constant battle for me to keep myself motivated. Our Personal Learning Network has done wonders for my motivation. At some points, though, if I don’t get it all done I am happy for what I did accomplish.

    1. seburnt

      Hi Shelly,
      Agreed. Our shared PLN pushes me to keep on top of things. It’s an invaluable resource to me now. Hope the post was truly worth waiting for. I need a mic. I’ve learned that!

  2. Naomi Epstein

    This is great! But what about high-school students, weak ones (I teach special ed)? I’m experimenting with strategies to get them to LOOK at the comments, supportive or otherwise. For some, if it’s a graded assignment all they care about is if they got a passing grade or not and they throw it away. I’ve tried colors for instance but at the moment the only thing that gets that particualr type of students to READ the comments is an extra few points for correcting it in class!

    1. seburnt

      Hi Naomi,
      You’re right that students motivated by only marks will most quickly respond to getting marks for reading the comments. How about integrating the comments into a lesson? When you hand back the writing assignments, have your comments on separate papers. Put students into partners or small groups with their classmates’ papers. Then give out comments and have groups try to match the comments with the papers. Once done, return the papers to their original owners and ask them to determine if the comments were matched to their papers correctly or not. This will force students to read the comments in order to match them correctly. Maybe then have all comments on an OHP so students read all comments and try to find which ones match their own. The whole point is to at first force students to pay attention to the comments and then build some excitement towards reading them.

      Good luck!

  3. Lisa D

    Good work on your Vimeo! So happy that The 30 Goals supported you to go from “feedback 1” to “feedback 2”. This is something I always struggled to get my teachers to do for their students when I was a principal. It takes time, but well worth it. I applaud your effort to keep the feedback comments going! How awesome if this could spread to your colleagues. 🙂

    1. seburnt

      To be honest, I’m not sure if they already do this or not. I have and continue to slip into just error indication when the volume of marking is overwhelming. I’m sure this is a common situation among teachers.

  4. Naomi Epstein

    What a fascinating idea! You have sparked a whole train of thought here! My pupils are deaf and hard of hearing students in Israel learning English as a FOREIGN lang. The ones who can write compositions aren’t the problem, its the weak ones who don’t read the comments on their reading comprehension exams.
    In special ed it’s sometimes risky to have them look at each others mistakes and comments (lots of sensitivities here)but I CAN have the comments on a separate pice of paper and have them match the comment to the item!
    So grateful you took the time to share this useful advice!

    1. seburnt

      I’m glad to have provided some sparks for your own adaptations! Really, that’s the goal of any post. =)

  5. Vicky Loras

    Hi Tyson!

    Thank you so much for the video – it was so nice to see you moving and talking! I loved how you shared your own experiences.

    I also liked the two writing samples you show us and the differences. I love the feedback you give the student in the essay on the right. I agree with you when you say the comments motivate them – and I like how you add a personal touch for the student to come and discuss with you. I was very happy when my professors in university were welcoming to us during their office hours. The feedback they gave us was very important. We could ask questions.

    Thank you so much for this post Tyson!

    Kindest regards,

    1. seburnt

      Thanks for commenting, Vicky!

      I have office hours (a lot of them) every week and encourage students to come by, but they often sign up with very little to actually discuss. These freewriting opportunities have given them a chance to reflect, but also something more specific to discuss with me in person.

  6. Marisa Pavan

    It’s a great post, Tyson! An interesting reflection on Shelly’s goals. I also learn a lot by reading my PLN members’ posts and I do my best to read the articles and make comments on them. My motivation and inspiration also comes from my PLN, a constant source of knowledge and professional development.
    Hugs from Argentina!
    Marisa (@Mtranslator)

    1. seburnt

      Thanks, Marisa! Agreed on the inspiration and motivation provided by our PLN. It’s invaluable, that’s for sure.

  7. DaveDodgson

    Hi Tyson,

    Good to see you taking the plunge with a video post. I think it makes a nice change every once in a while, both for the person making it and the visitors to the blog.

    I’ve also been trying to make more responsive comments when giving feedback on my students’ writing this year (I discussed this in my response to Goal 2 as it happens although, as my students are 10, the context is completely different to yours!) I find that posing a question about something that seems to be lacking or is not entirely clear in the text gets a better reaction than just saying “Why didn’t you write about…?” or “This isn’t clear”.

    The questions seem to automatically prompt them to respond and reflect. Some will answer me orally, others will write answers (a bit like you directly addressing your teacher in your writing journal) but the important thing is that they are revisiting their writing and taking my comments on board. 🙂

    1. seburnt

      Exactly. The question form, by definition, presumes there’ll be a response and conversation can naturally take place about it. Plus, like you say, questions cause reflection.

      I find I still need to use the codes to make marking practical and my students are at a context they can expect that sort in future. It’s the added commentary that I’m hoping shows my students that I am reading what they’re writing and not just have my ERROR button turned to ON.

  8. Sabridv

    Hi Tyson,
    I agree with you. Comments about content are a great way to motivate students to write. To me, writing implies showing our deepest feelings, and therefore, we, teachers, have to be very careful when we mark these compositions. Students may be hurt. It happened to me once, as a student, that one of the teachers failed my writing, pointing at very little grammar things, that to me at the time were just details. I thought that it was very unfair because It had taken me a lot of time to write that. I believed it was a very creative story, and the teacher didn’t give a thought about the content. I was trully disappointed and didn’t want to continue writing anymore.
    By the way, Cecilia has already written about this topic here: Have you read it?
    Kisses from Argentina

    1. seburnt

      Thanks, Sabrina. Students’ feelings are often something we can easily overlook and like your story, probably don’t realise the emotional effect we can have. Definitely something we all need to be cognisant of when marking.

      Thanks for the link to Ceci’s post. No, I hadn’t seen it actually–Cecilia, shame on you for not pointing it out to me. My commentary on writing feedback certainly isn’t revolutionary, nor was it meant to be. I’ve just been realising it in my own marking. =)

  9. Cecilia Lemos Coelho

    Hi Tyson 😉

    I apologize for not telling you about the post on Ken’s blog. I didn’t know you were looking into feedback. But we’ve settled it now…

    Making feedback the most effective is something I feel very strongly about, because I just don’t see much effect on the marks we usually leave on students’ work that focus on form. Most of my students barely look at them. On the other hand, if you comment on content the student knows you really read it and paid attention to WHAT they said – as opposed to HOW they said it. And isn’t the students having the ability to express themselves in English the sole purpose of us teaching them a foreign language?

    I try to do it as often as possible, as it is more time consuming and I just can’t do it every time.

    I loved to finally see you moving and putting a voice to the head 😉 Fantastic way to join the #30goals project. You sure made an entrace! Kudos for it!

    1. seburnt

      Haha, thanks RE the voice/head part. Glad to oblige.

      One thing I wanted to mention was the the mechanics of the language I refer to with the marking code isn’t solely grammar, but also wording and writing style and structure. This can impede being able to express themselves in the medium or context they’re in, in my case–higher ed. You’re right: the purpose of teaching a foreign language is to have students express themselves. And this gets broken into further points in different contexts. The HOW is very important too once you get to a certain level of proficiency. Being able to express yourself accurately, naturally and appropriately in a given context is the purpose of teaching them English at this level.

      Anyhoo, I’m glad you’re passionate about meaningful feedback because it certainly does help motivate students and provide some investment into their learning.

      If your students do tend to barely look at your error correction feedback, might I suggest a variation of the activity I gave Naomi above: integrate it into an activity. =)

      1. Cecilia Lemos Coelho

        I had seen the activity you proposed to Naomi (and plan to use it next week). I think it’s a simple, creative and very effective idea of getting students to read the comments.

        I agree 100% with you that the HOW can’t be ignored because it is after all the means through which the students are able to communicate. It’s just that I’ve seen papers that looked like real bloodbaths (I truly avoid the red ink – I know it’s silly, but I do) filled with corrections of very simple mistakes. I’m not saying we should overlook mistakes, but maybe not overly focus on them. I know you know, I’m just saying.

        I think I have just found my area of interest and what I am going to dive into now… 😉

        1. seburnt

          I have to admit, apart from purple (which is hard to find in good pen colour), red stands out nicely to me. Yes, convention suggests now that it’s a poor choice. Meh.

          One way to lighten up the ‘bloodbath’ is to only mark certain things, but make students aware that that’s the case.

          Now, you’re going to dive into another blog post about this or you’re going to start “feedbacking”?

          1. Cecilia Lemos Coelho

            I like green (color of hope) and orange…yeah, I know, orange is practically red, but it works for me 😉

            As for diving into… well, a blog post is certainly on the list, and I already “feedback”. I am thinking more along the lines of a more structures research/work on it. 🙂

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