Students in the Feedback Loop


Summary

Cathy Dantec in the Department of Language and Linguistic Science had observed that some of her first year students were having difficulty adjusting to the level of independent learning required at university, as well as the different language norms and writing styles needed for academic writing. She wanted to use a blend of technology and face-to-face practice to address these issues. In particular, Cathy wanted to provide students with a means to better internalise the change in their thinking that needs to occur for progression in Higher Education.

Cathy chose to address these needs using a dialogical design based on the creation of feedback interactions between instructors and individual students.  This was further supported by additional electronic interventions. The feedback interactions were conducted both face-to-face and also mediated via a cloud-based assignment mark-up tool (Google Docs).

Aims and Objectives

  • Improve students’ transition from A-Level to university study, promote the development of self-regulated learners.
  • Provide a framework for investigating effective feedback, from the perspective of both tutors and students.
  • Ensure consistent and high quality teaching without increasing staff hours.
  • Improve student’s transferable skills, employability and general digital literacy.

Overview

In brief it was felt the key skills Year 1 students needed to develop were broadly as follows:

  • An ability to critically assess and exploit sources for their own production.
  • An awareness of language norms and register in various types of communication.
  • The ability to analyse and therefore acquire language by themselves.

With a view to addressing the observed issues it was felt that there needed to be underpinning conceptual shifts in the way students think about their academic work.  These shifts include:

  • Maximising students’ ability for self-regulation and decreasing their reliance on external expert feedback.
  • Changing students’ perceptions of learning, from passive absorption of external data to active construction of knowledge.
  • The importance of embedding skills development within the discipline and at programme level.

Methodology

With a view to achieving such significant shifts in student thinking in mind, tackling this required a review of the first year of the programme as a whole.  Any interventions implemented needed to inform student work across the whole programme; not just one module. Cathy identified ‘Apprentissage autonome’, a module running across all three terms of the students’ first year, as the main vehicle for addressing the identified needs.

From a technology point of view the module was implemented with two main strands:

Strand 1

  • Centred around self-assessed activities delivered via the VLE and Google Docs.

Cathy developed a series of exercises designed to improve students’ basic critical skills. For some of the more complex exercises, Cathy developed A4 Word document exercises that included instructions on what to do to complete them (9 in total).  These exercises required students to undertake tasks such as editing, refining or critically proofing textual content. Where questions could be delivered using the VLE’s test engine Cathy complemented the document-based exercises with tests in the VLE.

The exercise documents were delivered by scripted creation of a set of Google Documents (a set for each student in the cohort) based on the master exercise documents developed by Cathy.  These Google Docs, though not owned by the students, were shared for editing with the students so they can undertake the exercises.

Layout of exercise area within the VLE

Strand 2

  • Supports and applies the principles covered in strand one.
  • Each student is allocated a personal tutor who engages in both online communication as well as face-to-face meetings with their students.
  • Explicit links are made between online activities, face-to-face activities, the ‘Apprentissage autonome’ module and other programme modules.

Strand two aimed to immerse students in the process of exploring, questioning and communicating their understanding of new knowledge in the target language with a focus on process. To support this Cathy provided a series of current affairs video clips to watch in the VLE from which the students could pick a subject to write about. Students were then asked to draft a paper, based on research of their chosen video clip.  This would ultimately be shared with another student to form a mini-portfolio of the two students’ work.Screenshot of Google sites that were given to students

This is where the dialogical design really came into its own with the teaching team supporting students in an iterative drafting process using Google Docs.  Students shared their drafts with tutors who provided (digital) feedback on the process as well as feedback in face-to-face meetings. The students would then further develop their draft in light of the feedback.

The final paper was inserted into a Google Site shared by two students and visible to the teaching staff.

cathy-dantec-google-group-content

Reflections

The transparent, two way process provided a clear window on students’ perceptions in key areas of their development, including:

  • Understanding the purpose and norms of higher level communication.
  • Their capacity to critically review writing.
  • The importance of modelling.
  • The types and language used for feedback that students best respond to.
  • The assumptions acquired by students from their previous learning.

As the module progressed the dialogical design enabled tutors to react to student feedback and activity in some of the following key areas and ways:

  • Refine and more clearly articulate frames of reference.
  • Provide training for proofreading/peer evaluation and examples for modelling.
  • Differ the types of feedback and minimum level of information necessary for students to self-correct.
  • Explicitly address some misunderstanding/gaps of knowledge acquired in previous learning.

A key outcome of the change in programme delivery was a shift to supporting students through the process rather than focusing on product.  The dialogue centred on “how” rather than “what”.  The re-design of the teaching interventions also encouraged students to operate at a higher level rather than merely acquiring language items.

More responsibility was ultimately given to students in terms of their self-management and the provision of a structured self-study programme also contributed to the students’ development as independent learners.

A further welcome outcome was the building of a much greater shared understanding amongst staff teaching the programme.

Transferable lessons learned

  • Explicitly integrating individual stand-alone activities within face-to-face sessions (such as exercise completion) and considering how earlier activities in particular are articulated to students can dramatically improve students’ understanding their overarching relevance.
  • Embedding/integration of the activities across the whole programme (not just in one module) helps maximise the benefits to the students’ learning.
  • Google Docs provides an excellent platform for supporting the transparent development of student writing skills but does require appropriately supporting the students in Google Doc usage; particularly in how the platform might be used to handle referencing.
  • Google Docs proved an excellent platform for delivering complex writing exercises to students that could be transparent to teaching staff.  Some thought does need to be put in to the sustainability of this in terms of creation of the exercise documents however.
  • The whole model of delivery is potentially transferable to other contexts and disciplines.

Next Steps