Digital Feedback. Why? When? How?

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By Dina Dobrou

The first time I heard about recording feedback for students was so many years ago that the tool suggested was cassettes! Back then it was suggested that teachers record themselves on cassettes to provide essay feedback. I did not try it out as it sounded complicated and time consuming. Years later, I attended a talk by Russell Stannard on ‘talking feedback’ using digital tools and this time I was instantly convinced to experiment with it as the tools suggested worked literally at the click of a button.

There are, obviously, things to ponder, such as: Why should we incorporate digital feedback into our ‘repertoire’ as teachers? Why should we choose it over ‘non-digital’ or ‘analogue’ feedback? When should it be used in terms of level and age group and when would it best be avoided? Hopefully, the examples I will provide as to how it has been used in my classes will shed some light on these questions.

Why?

In order to determine why digital feedback is beneficial to students we first need to understand the nature of feedback.

According to Black et al (1998) there are four elements that form the feedback system:

  • data on the actual level of some measurable attribute (by data we could mean a writing task, and by attribute we could mean the communicative effect the writing has on the reader)
  • data on the reference level of that attribute (e.g. writing assessment grid)
  • a mechanism for comparing the two levels, and generating information about the gap between the two levels (ways you provide feedback)
  • a mechanism by which the information can be used to alter the gap (and this is perhaps the key issue)

Feedback on Oral work:

In terms of fluency, we avoid interrupting students unless there is a breakup in communication in which case we help them continue the discussion.

In terms of accuracy we can monitor the activity while taking notes and provide feedback afterwards, e.g. by writing both correct uses of English and problematic areas on the board and asking them to define which is which.

In both cases digital feedback can provide a record of the students’ oral work for them (and us) to use and compare to a model and hence help our learners notice the gap in knowledge and skills they need to fill.

One of the issues of giving feedback after the event is that it isn’t easy to remember exactly what students have said if you want to focus on accuracy. This is why recording their language performance with audio or video recorders allows for them to listen to or watch themselves and be involved in peer feedback or even self-reflection, which also develops their learner autonomy.

How? When?

These two questions can only be answered together as I’d like to explain the rationale behind each tool I use (both on PC/Laptop and Tablet/Smartphone) as well as the reasons I use it with certain levels.

Computer tools:

  • Vocaroo (It provides a lot of options for sharing the recording. You can email, download or even embed the link created)
  • Audacity (It can be downloaded on your PC for free and it allows for audio editing)
  • The Sound Recorder tool on your computer/laptop

Smartphones and Tablets apps:

  • iRig Recorder (available both for iOS and Android) One of the best and most trustworthy, as it allows for various ways of sharing the recording and also the paid version has the option of optimising the sound, hence making it louder if it cannot be heard properly.

I’ve used these with Young Learners (not Very Young Learners) as well as older students. I would say the rule of thumb is to choose levels and age groups where the learners have the capacity to recognize and appraise any gaps in their knowledge, understanding, skills and the capacity to assess themselves or one another. They need to be able to understand the goals they are failing to attain by comparing their performance to a reference level as we mentioned earlier.

At first I used it mostly to prepare students right before exams (YLE, A1-C2 exams) but later realised it’s best for students to have a record of their development throughout the year as very often they feel they aren’t developing, so this forms proof that they are. In all cases the learners knew they were being recorded and they knew that they had to focus on their task and that we would focus on feedback afterwards.

In the case of Young Learners, I paired them up (one being the candidate and the other one the examiner) and they interviewed each other while I recorded them on iRig. After the recording, we listened to it again and I gave them time to take notes. The ‘examiner’ had to write down ideas for improvement as well as praise her classmate for good use of the language and the ‘candidate’ had to self-reflect and think what went well and what didn’t go so well. Eventually they discussed and compared notes. Then it was time for them to switch roles.

In the case of Adults, I used it in my Business English class. We usually have a case study at the end of the unit where they have a mock meeting to solve some issues. This is a group recording and while they are on task I take notes. I find it works best if I send them the recording to hear at home and then they return to class with notes to compare to mine. They are often provided with a checklist, so they would have to check whether they’ve used the suggested expressions we learned for exchanging ideas in meetings, grammar, range of vocabulary, pronunciation, interaction, etc). In certain cases, I might email individual students areas I would like them to improve on and I’ve been told they find it useful to go back to the recording and use it as a point of reference.

Feedback on written work:

Providing feedback during the writing stage is optimal, as this is the zone of proximal development where students need our input in order to further develop their writing skills. Are they heading in the right direction, or not? Are they using the tools we taught in class, or not? Are they on their way to an impeccable piece of writing, a model writing? This is where they want to know. After the writing process, they want to be given their mark, and yes, in all probability they won’t look at the comments we’ve made, and if they do, chances are, these will be swiftly forgotten.

However, with digital feedback, they get to listen to detailed comments by their teacher at their own pace and they will have to take the time to do so while looking at their piece of writing in more detail. They can later be asked to rewrite it (and this is how the feedback is used to alter the gap in their knowledge).

Computer Tools:

  • Jing This is a screencasting tool that allows you to record your voice while pointing at the areas you want them to focus on. It works best when you want to provide a lot of information about how to structure and organise a piece of writing, the same way you would tutor them in person. Only they get to keep this and refer back to it whenever they want.
  • MailVu This tool allows you to video record yourself and then email this to your students. I use it whenever I have collected, mistakes from essays and want to suggest some tips and ideas addressing the whole class. Showing myself, according to my students, makes it more personal.

Smartphones and Tablets apps:

  • ShowMe It is similar to Jing and allows you to write over your students’ work while recording your voice. Even if they have given you a hard copy of their work, you can still take a photo of it and then add your comments.

As with every other technique, method, tool we use in class, digital feedback need not be something that we opt for all the time, but rather something to complement what we are already doing, and have been doing, anyway, before the advent of technology. So, in my experience and to my knowledge, it should go hand in hand with ‘analogue’ feedback and it can definitely find its place in our lessons.

References:

  • Black, P. and Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and Classroom Learning. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 5(1), pp.7-74.
  • Gifford, T. (2013). Feedback Loops and ELT. [online] ELTjam. Available at: http://eltjam.com/feedback-loops-and-elt/ [Accessed 7 May 2017].
  • Harmer, J. (2007). The practice of English language teaching. Harlow, England: Pearson Longman.
  • Scrivener, J. (1994). Learning teaching. Oxford: Heinemann Publishers (Oxford) Ltd.
  • Stannard R., (2007). Using Screen Capture Software in Student Feedback. [online] Available at: http://english.heacademy.ac.uk/2016/01/16/using-screen-capture-software-in-student-feedback/ [Accessed 7 May 2017].
  • Stannard, R. (2012). Talking feedback. [online] the Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/education/2012/jan/10/esl-video-feedback [Accessed 7 May 2017].,
  • Stannard, R., (2015). Talking about video feedback. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gkdwg_4KJSc [Accessed 7 May 2017].

Bio: Dina Dobrou has been an EFL teacher for over 20 years. She is a frequent presenter at national, international and online conferences and has experience teaching multicultural classes in the UK both as a Senior Teacher for Cambridge Education Group and as an EAP Lecturer at De Montfort University. She currently works for the British Council in Athens.

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