By Sulaiman Jenkins (Professor – College of Education Westcliff University)
In order to achieve anything in life, we always measure ourselves and our performance against a certain standard. Success then is determined and measured by that standard and we are always in a continuous process of gauging where we are and how much further we need to go in order to reach our objective. In learning, this constant process of performance and reflection is critical to a student’s development as it helps him/her to acknowledge his/her strengths and identify areas of improvement. Herein lies the difficult task we all face as professors; how much do we intervene in that process and how integral are we to students’ development? This short post will seek to argue why instructor intervention is critical to students’ development and will offer a few focal points of interest when considering giving corrective feedback to learners. While my perspective is mostly from a language teaching background, many of the principles of giving corrective feedback are pertinent for any discipline and as such, this post is meant to address a general audience of educators.
Students making errors is an evitable part of any learning process. Our job as teachers is to infuse in our students the knowledge that we have, and their job is to internalize that knowledge, take ownership of it, and demonstrate to what degree they have taken such ownership. Based on myriad reasons, some students internalize knowledge sooner than others and each student has his/her each unique style of learning. Notwithstanding, one thing that is integral to the learning process and universal to all learners is a teacher stepping in to help guide the student when he/she makes an error. As Harmer (2000, p.99) states, “feedback encompasses not only correcting students, but also offering them an assessment of how well they have done, whether during a drill or after a longer…..exercise.” We have to correct our students’ mistakes and we have to tell them so directly or indirectly, orally or written. But what should such feedback look like? We have to understand that correcting a student’s mistake doesn’t just involve pointing out where he/she went wrong, but it also entails pointing to what the student has done well. One might ask why. At the heart of giving feedback is treading carefully with regards to the student’s self-esteem. Feedback, while essential and critical, can either be motivating or demoralizing and thus it is up to the teacher to adopt strategies to make sure that 1) the student has a realistic assessment of his/her current position with regards to the learning objective or performance standard and 2) such assessment positively reinforces what the student is doing well while simultaneously indicating where there are clear areas of improvement. Correcting a student in one manner might push him/her to excel and achieve at the highest levels; correct him/her another way and he/she might lose all hope and interest in studying altogether. Thus, we have to tread carefully when giving feedback so as to motivate, and not demoralize, our learners. How do we do that?
In my opinion, there are two critical points that we should focus on when giving feedback: the language used in the corrective process and the frequency with which feedback is given. Words are very powerful. The same message can be conveyed in two completely different ways. Take for example the difference between saying “This is not up to standard” as opposed to “There’s a little more work left for you to reach the objective”. In both cases, the teacher is communicating that the student has not yet reached the objective, yet the first instance conveys total negation of the student’s efforts (which can be very demotivating), whereas the second instance acknowledges that the student has achieved some of the objective but needs to work to achieve the rest. Psychologically, the effects are incomparable! One’s primary strategy should always be to present the corrective feedback in a way which acknowledges first what the student has done right and then proceed to mention areas of improvement. In my experience, such an approach has gone a long way in helping students not only remain confident in their abilities, but it also gave them confidence and comfort to make mistakes knowing that they wouldn’t be embarrassed or reprimanded for doing so. The other important aspect of corrective feedback is to gauge how often one should intervene. I would refrain from intervening excessively as the student may feel he/she is always being told what he/she is doing incorrectly and that may be done disproportionately to any positive feedback given. Also, some errors are more prominent and severe than others. So as an educator you have to distinguish between the critical errors that absolutely need intervention and those lesser errors that don’t impede understanding nor interfere with the communication of crucial information. Corrective feedback is never an easy task, but it is a necessary evil; how you determine to deliver such feedback and how often you deliver will make all the difference in the world.
Harmer, J. (2007). The practice of English language teaching. Harlow: Pearson Longman.