Efl students’ Perceptions of Teacher Feedback and Intra-Feedback in Writing Essays

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EFL Students’ Perceptions of Teacher Feedback and Intra-Feedback in Writing Essays

Maryam Kazemi, Shirin Abadikhah*1, Mahmood Dehqan

Department of English Language and Literature, University of Mazandaran, Iran


This study examines EFL learners’ perceptions of teacher feedback and intra-feedback in writing essays in an EFL university context. Traditionally, teachers, who were considered more knowledgeable, provided feedback to students' writing. Recently, peer feedback is considered as an alternative form of feedback, which involves a dynamic process of reviewing and discussing one another’s text in a writing class. Intra-feedback, another form of peer feedback, is a reviewer-oriented practice in which two reviewers discuss their comments provided individually on the composition of another student. This paper investigates 21 EFL students’ perceptions of teacher feedback and peer feedback using intra-feedback technique. Both quantitative and qualitative data were collected using a questionnaire and follow-up semi-structured interviews. The results of the questionnaire indicated that students perceived teacher feedback to be most useful in improving the content, organization and language of their essays. From the interviews with the students, their preferences toward feedback provider, feedback focus, feedback provision and intra-feedback inclusion were elicited. Some pedagogical implications for the EFL writing instruction can be made including creation of opportunities for students to become aware of effective reviewing techniques, improvement of peer feedback quality and increasing students’ confidence and critical thinking.

Keywords: Teacher feedback; Intra-feedback; Peer feedback; Students’ perceptions

1. Introduction

Feedback has long been a central aspect of L2 writing programs, both for its potential for learning and for student motivation (Hyland & Hyland, 2006). Arndt (1993) believes that “feedback informs the writing process, permeating, shaping, and moulding it” and considers it as a “central and critical contribution to the evolution of a piece of writing” (cited in Tsui & Ng, 2000, p. 148). Keh (1990) defines feedback as “input from a reader to a writer with the effect of providing information to the writer for revision” (p. 294). The reviewer’s evaluations, questions, criticisms, and suggestions help the writer to develop a reader-friendly prose. However, this simple definition of feedback as information on performance seems narrow in terms of its scope and is not suitable to cover the whole issue especially self-provided feedback.

Sociocultural theory (SCT) emphasizes that peer interaction incorporates both the cognitive and social aspects of language by allowing peers to make meaning within the framework of dialogic interaction (Zhang, 1995). Consequently, it suggests an ideal basis for the study of peer feedback. According to Aljaafreh and Lantolf (1994, p.495), learning occurs within the learners’ zone of proximal development (ZPD), with the “graduated”, “contingent”, and “dialogic” assistance or guidance (Aljaafreh & Lantolf, 1994, p. 495). This guidance, which is called “scaffolding”, is provided by the more knowledgeable person to the person who is less knowledgeable (Weissberg, 2006). Adopting this theoretical perspective, second language acquisition scholars assume writing as a skill which is in the social context by refusing the outdated view which considers writing as an individual act in which the author wants to convey his/her meaning to the intended audience (Santos, 1992, p. 3). On the other hand, feedback practices in writing classrooms, whether between students and teachers or between peers, can be regarded as one of the tools by which writing skill as a form of higher mental activity is developed and internalized. Its absence in composition classes treats writing as an individual engagement in which learners attempt to express their messages without having an opportunity to discuss them with their audience and taking advantage of sharing and pooling expertise.

Two major feedback delivery methods, commonly used in EFL classrooms, are teacher written feedback and peer feedback. Considering teacher written feedback dynamics and constraints as well as L2 students’ reactions, expectations and needs, it is safe to argue that teachers’ feedback practices are influenced by “multiple contextual, teacher and student factors interacting and mediating each other” (Goldstein, 2004, p. 67). Rollinson (2004) argued that Korean students receiving feedback from their teachers felt that their teachers are the only audience of their writing. It was also shown that feedback is more useful between drafts, and little improvement is made when it is done at the end of the task. Hence, L2 researchers have suggested teachers to change their responding behavior in order to enhance the effectiveness of their commentary and the students’ revisions (Goldstein, 2004). They have also advised L2 instructors to construct an interpersonal relationship with students through written commentary in order to provide them with useful and appropriate intervention to avoid appropriation and misinterpretation (Goldstein, 2004). Finally, L2 writing teachers have been recommended not only to discuss their commentary philosophy, the rationale behind their feedback practices, and the way their comments should be interpreted and enacted with the students, but also to consider students’ preferences and expectations (Ferris, 2003; Goldstein, 2004).

Peer feedback, which may constitute several forms including peer review, peer response, peer evaluation or assessment, and peer editing has been defined as “the use of learners as sources of information, and interactants for each other in such a way that learners assume roles and responsibilities normally taken on by a formally trained teacher, tutor or editor in commenting on and critiquing each other’s drafts in both written and oral formats in the process of writing” (Liu & Hansen, 2002, p. 1). The learning benefits of peer feedback is mutual since not only the student writers but also the reviewers or editors can improve their writing skills by means of observing their classmates’ approaches to writing, and internalizing writing criteria and standards (Abadikhah & Yasami, 2014).

Students often receive oral feedback on their papers. Proponents of this approach to feedback delivery claim that teacher-student conferencing can potentially be more advantageous compared to written form as it provides an opportunity for negotiation, clarification, instruction, and decision-making (Ferris, 2003). They also maintain that the two-way interaction which occurs during oral feedback prevents appropriation of students’ papers (Sommers, 1982; Zamel, 1985). Finally, it has been suggested that certain types of writing problems are too complex to be tackled through written commentary and require oral feedback to be addressed more effectively (Conrad & Goldstein, 1999). In addition to teacher-student writing conferences, there is peer feedback conferences in which the writers and reviewers discuss peer feedback (e.g. Best et al., 2014; Tsui & Ng, 2000); the peer exchanges are mainly done after reviewers have presented their feedback to writers (i.e. post hoc in nature). Thus, the reviewing task of reviewers seems not to be supported in such conferences. Moreover, in peer feedback conferences, where there is collaboration and negotiation among reviewer and writer, lack of structured and interdependent collaboration could limit reviewer oriented support (Berggren, 2014; Shehadeh, 2010). In order to overcome shortcomings of peer feedback conferences, Lee (2015) proposed a reviewer-oriented practice, namely, intra-feedback. According to this paper, intra-feedback is “a peer-feedback-on-peer-feedback task directed by and targeted at individual reviewers” (p. 3); however, only junior secondary L2 students' perspectives on peer feedback was considered. To extend this line of research, this study attempts to investigate the preferences of EFL students towards teacher feedback and intra-feedback.

2. Literature Review

Several different studies have elicited learners’ perceptions of and attitudes towards teacher and peer feedback. The focus of these studies has been on L2 learners’ views about the efficiency and value of teacher and peer advice and their relative appeal.

Keh (1990) reported on a study investigating Cantonese students’ perceptions of peer feedback and claimed that learners benefited from peer feedback. The participants expressed that since their papers were reviewed by readers other than their teachers, peer feedback assisted them to obtain a greater sense of audience. Moreover, according to the results, peer feedback was regarded useful because of receiving immediate, live feedback and developing learners’ critical thinking and “analytical power” (p. 269).

In order to examine the learners’ concerns and expectations about error correction, Leki (1991) surveyed 100 college-level ESL composition learners. According to the findings, the majority (91%) of the respondents perceived accuracy in writing as a crucial element. Furtherover, more than two-third of the learners preferred their teachers’ reference to both their major and minor errors and 67% wished their teachers not only to determine their errors but also to write a clue about their accurate forms. The participants judged their teachers as the most helpful source of feedback and peer feedback were reported to be the least beneficial. In the conclusion of this study, Leki claimed that ESL students are greatly in favor of developing error-free writings and ignoring their expectation of lacking error in writing could bother them. Hence, she suggested that teachers might devote the time of class to discuss with their learners the methodologies they prefer.

Mangelsdorf (1992) conducted a study with 40 heterogeneous advanced ESL composition learners at the University of Arizona. She aimed at addressing some of the reservations which were stated concerning the use of peer feedback. Her data was composed of students’ written answers to four questions which were eliciting their opinions about peer evaluation usefulness, the focus of peer comments, students’ feedback preferences, and the value of peer-review process (pp. 275-276). She also wanted instructors to write down their reflections on advantages and disadvantages of peer feedback technique. Both students and teachers confirmed that peer feedback could help student writers to comprehend their audience expectations, to view their texts from their viewpoints and to clarify the misinterpretations if needed. Based on the findings, Mangelsdorf recommended some techniques for improvement of peer review efficiency including modeling the peer feedback, briefing learners about the goal of the activity, making students to review an essay jointly, conferencing with students and helping them in the revisions, carefully structuring the groups, and allocating a percentage of the course grade on peer review practices. She concluded that “peer review takes patience – from both students and teachers”, if it is carefully structured, it is valuable and can be efficient (p. 283).

Hyde (1993), criticized teachers’ use of pair work without considering students’ preferences and being clear on pair selection criteria. Therefore, he elicited 20 EFL students’ attitudes towards pair work using questionnaire and interviews. The participants were young adults from Europe and the Far East, with both sexes. According to the results learners were not concerned about gender and age difference but were concerned about their pair’s personalities and characteristics. The participants also preferred working with different partners during the semester so that they could gain a wide range of ideas. Participants expected their teachers to choose their partners for peer selection to avoid bias. The most favorable type of interaction among the four types of interactions, was teacher-centered form in which the whole class interacted with the teacher. In addition, the least preferred one was pair work. In short, Hyde did not reject the use of pair work in classrooms but suggested group work as a better alternative technique because it would give students a wider choice.

Carson and Nelson (1996) employed 3 advanced Chinese ESL university composition students and examined their negotiation and their reflections concerning peer response groups. During this period, the interactions of learners were videotaped and their reactions to the activities were stimulated by the use of retrospective interviews. Moreover, the research included two Spanish-speaking learners only for the purpose of comparison and interview data triangulation. Data analysis revealed useful information about the participants’ perceptions of peer response group interactions. Specifically, the researchers found that Chinese students did not criticize their peers’ papers since they were concerned not to hurt the writers’ feelings. Hens, they refused to discuss with their peers as they thought it would damage group relations. Their limited language proficiency and their incapability to offer valid alternatives was another reason for not providing honest peer feedback. Finally, the findings of their study revealed that the Chinese students’ “primary goal was to maintain group harmony, and this goal affected the nature and types of interaction they allowed themselves in group discussions” (p. 7). They emphasized that this view was in contrast with “highly individualistic cultures” in which “writing group function more often for the benefit of the individual writer than for the benefit of the group” (p. 2).

Zhang (1995) investigated 81 tertiary level ESL students in a questionnaire-based study. Although all of the participants had adequate exposure to teacher, peer, self-feedback, the length of residence of them in an English-speaking country differed. In fact, Zhang’s main concern was to verify whether the affective benefits of peer feedback in L1 context was appropriate for ESL instruction. Doing some statistical analyses, he reported that the majority (93.8%) of respondents indicated a very strong desire for teacher feedback. However, the students claimed that peer feedback was preferable (60.5%) to self-feedback. Furthermore, ESL participants’ favorite feedback source severely deviated from their L1 counterparts which was in line with the earlier empirical research Finally, he suggested ESL investigators to critically re- consider and make necessary changes to “L1-based theoretical stances or pedagogical emphases” (p. 218) before generalizing them to ESL context.

Jacobs and his colleagues surveyed 121 ESL undergraduate university students’ reactions to peer feedback and they offered some suggestions for successful implication of this activity in L2 writing class (1998). The study was carried out in Taiwan and Hong Kong and the participants’ proficiency levels ranged from lower to upper intermediate. Indeed, their purpose was to question Zhang’s method of discovering ESL students’ feedback preferences, since he had needed them to choose “between teacher feedback and non-teacher feedback” (p. 309). This choice, Jacobs and his colleagues claimed, was a “false dichotomy” (p. 308). Hens, they altered the question and asked the learners whether they liked their papers be reviewed by their classmates or not. However, in this study respondents were not obliged to select between teacher and peer feedback but rather to focus only on whether they liked or disliked peer feedback. From the statistical analysis of the data, the researchers found that a great majority (93%) of the learners welcomed receiving feedback from their peers on their writings. The two most common responses which were found in the participants’ answers were that “peers provided more ideas and were able to spot problems they had missed” (p. 312). As a result of this finding, the researchers recommended a “middle path” which was a “judicious use of a combination of feedback sources; teacher, peer, and self-directed feedback” (p. 314).

Nelson and Carson (1998) inspected 11 advanced ESL students’ perceptions of peer feedback effectiveness at a large metropolitan university in the U.S. Data collection tools included videotaping of all peer response group sessions, which was followed by interviewing 5 participants. The interviewers tried to elicit interviewees’ responses to the discussions they had using stimulated recall. Qualitative analysis of data indicated that all participants valued constructive feedback since it improved revisions. In addition, the learners were more in favor of teacher’s feedback rather than peer feedback. However, Chinese students’ perception of the key role of peer feedback differed from their Spanish classmates; they referred to group work as the main objective of peer feedback, Spanish students’ central focus was on the task and refining the papers of the group members. The researchers concluded that the use of peer feedback practices in ESL composition classes should be re-examined since L2 students are still in the process of learning second language and so are not confident enough in their abilities.

In order to elicit 217 Chinese business students’ perceptions of peer collaboration and assessment, Roskams (1999) carried out a broad survey study at the Chinese university of Hong Kong. Participants who had pair works both in and out-of- class in order to communicate and practice writing skills, were surveyed once before and then after experiencing collaborative learning. According to descriptive analysis, participants (a) showed stronger collectivist motivation than achievement motivation, (b) had more positive reactions to joint work rather than individual work, (c) were more interested in teacher comments, although found partner feedback helpful, (d) did not accept that collaboration made them work harder than they worked alone, (e) claimed pair work was beneficial since it helped them make new relationships, share the workload of the tasks, widen their horizon, and gain better grades, (f) generally found peer feedback a useful learning mechanism, (g) found the experience of peer feedback enjoyable, (h) considered peer feedback and giving feedback more beneficial than being evaluated and receiving feedback. But, they indicated doubts about the quality of peer feedback practices. The researcher concluded that assigning students into pairs or groups and merely asking them to work jointly does not necessarily lead to successful collaborative learning context since teachers are required to “train students explicitly in collaborative skills, ensure individual accountability, monitor the groups and inculcate a theme of cooperation” (p. 103).

Tsui and Ng (2000) examined feedback incorporation behaviors of 27 Chinese pre-university L2 writers in Hong Kong. They used a questionnaire, students’ original and revised drafts, and follow-up interviews in order to compare the relative effectiveness of teacher and peer comments in facilitating revision. Based on responses of participants to the questionnaire, they showed more positive attitudes towards teacher feedback than peer feedback and they preferred reviewing their classmates’ writing significantly more than reading their comments or listening to their oral feedback. Moreover, participants implemented teacher suggestions in their revised drafts more frequently than peer feedback. These findings of the survey were also true based on interview data in which the perceptions were elaborated. The reason for students’ more positive attitude towards teacher feedback was his ability in giving more specific, better quality, and concrete feedback. Moreover, the participants did not incorporate peer feedback since they did not trust in peers’ feedback. However, students assigned four advantages to peer feedback (a) it raised their sense of audience, (b) boosted their self- monitoring skill, (c) improved collaborative learning, and (d) helped the ownership of the text (pp. 166-167). At the end, they suggested that oral discussion of the comments is necessary for learners since the use of only written comments may not be enough and since peer feedback is a learning process, it should be emphasized by teachers.

To understand peer feedback characteristics as well as student reactions to this practice, Saito and Fujita (2004) carried out a comparative study on 61 Japanese business management students at a university in Tokyo. Indeed, the purpose of the research was to find out the similarities or differences among self-, peer, and teacher ratings of papers and factors which influence student attitudes in EFL writing classes. Using a simplified essay evaluation model created by Jacobs et al (1981), the learners assessed both their peers and their own essays. Based on statistical data analysis, significant similarities between the peers’ and instructors’ scoring methods was discovered. Moreover, learners indicated positive attitudes towards peer evaluation irrespective of the score they had received from their peers. Hennce, the researchers concluded that their findings contradicted the negative beliefs articulated by experts regarding the invalidity of peer feedback and supported students’ capability in giving qualified feedback in EFL writing classes.

Morra and Romano (2009) conducted a study with 108 EFL undergraduate students and interviewing two teachers at the School of Languages, National University of Córdoba, Argentina. The purpose of this study was to discover the reactions of EFL undergraduate students to peer feedback. Because of dissatisfaction of EFL teachers and reluctance of EFL students with the current peer feedback approach employed in EAP writing classes, the researchers of this study aimed to solve the problem and improve the instructional approaches of EAP writing courses. Drawing on the results of the study, they concluded that providing appropriate training with establishing friendly and stress-free atmosphere among peer feedback group members and restricting learners’ focus for revision help the success of peer feedback sessions.

Finally, Kaufman and Schunn (2011) explored the origin of students’ resistance to peer evaluation in writing and its relationship to their revision writing. A questionnaire gathered responses of 250 undergraduate students in ten disciplines across six universities and also a follow-up interview with 84 participants was carried out. The findings showed that the participatns articulated the most negative opinions about peer feedback as it was unfair and unreliable since the only source of grading were peers. Further, after participating in peer feedback sessions the doubts of participants about the quality of the peer feedback increased sharply. Furthermore, the findings also showed that students paralleled fairness of peer feedback with the content and usefulness of the feedback they received and their attitudes towards peer feedback did not affect their revision. The researchers suggested that instructors could lessen students’ anxieties about the fairness of peer feedback by engaging in the grading process and providing them with training and support for conducting peer feedback.

In a recent study, Lee (2015) conducted a comparative research investigating junior secondary L2 students’ perspectives on peer feedback. He compared the students’ perceived usefulness of peer and teacher feedback and examined their preferences for different feedback modes. For data collection, a questionnaire and an interview were used. The results indicated that the participants showed a statistically significant preference for inclusion of intra-feedback in peer feedback practice, and both the options of having teacher feedback only and a combined mode were significantly preferable to the option of having peer feedback alone.

In line with the above arguments, the purpose of the present study is to investigate EFL university students' preference for peer feedback and teacher feedback by proposing the practice of intra-feedback and by examining its value with reference to the student perceptions. Furthermore, different stages of peer feedback including reading and commenting on peers' essays, discussing one's own comments on peers' essays with a partner, reading peer comments on one's own essays, and discussing peer comments in an oral response session will be tackled. To this end, the following research questions are addressed:

  1. How do Iranian EFL students assess different stages of intra-feedback and teacher feedback in terms of their usefulness for their writing improvement?

  2. What are Iranian EFL students’ perceptions of feedback provider, feedback focus, feedback provision and intra-feedback inclusion?

3. Method

3. 1.

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