Feedback is where the learning happens
One of the most useful pieces of feedback I have ever received was given to me on my DELTA after an observed lesson where I had kept my class working on tasks and activities throughout the hour. I had given them task after task, they had worked hard to develop their understanding and discuss what they were learning from activity to activity.
At the end of the lesson, the tutor stepped in and asked the class some simple questions using the language they had studied, and they were slow to respond, showing that they did not have the confidence to use what they had learnt in an authentic interaction with him, outside of the task situations form the lesson. The result of all the activities that I had planned was too much teaching from me and not enough learning from the students.
This comment made immediate sense to me: Our goal is to get students engaging with language, thinking about how and why they use it, and for them to demonstrate that they can take it out of the classroom and apply it in different authentic situations. In order to do this, they need the chance to reflect on their learning process, try it out in different situations and consider the possibilities that the language opens up for them communicatively. This is the essence of post-task feedback, a lesson stage which is often planned with a focus on teaching rather than learning.
Post-task feedback: a chance to reflect
After students complete a task with questions to answer, the way that students report their answers to the class can affect how they engage with the language they are learning. Do learners complete language tasks because they have to, because they want to get the answers right, or because they need to express themselves more clearly using that language? By managing what happens after students finish a task, we can instil a more reflective, analytical purpose into what they do, to ensure that language development, not just obeying instructions, is the focus of what they do.
Without a chance to stop and think about what they are doing, learners are more likely to work through task after task, getting answers right or wrong without really considering why or how they can apply them into their own language, in other situations. Without this reflection on learning, students do not have the chance to fully process what they are doing in class, and they will not be able to apply what they learn in their own ways. For this reason, we need to think about what we are asking of our learners when they finish a task.
Looking for processes, not answers
A typical post-task feedback session will involve the teacher asking students what their answers were, and correcting them where necessary. However, just getting the answers correct is not enough to show that deeper learning has taken place. Often, the process of finding the right answer is more important than the answer itself. A single correct answer is a single event from a language lesson, but the process of finding and applying a process to a task is a skill which can be transferred to any other second-language situation where the learner needs to use that language.
An effective feedback stage will not only ask for answers, but also focus on the process of finding that answer, and comparing that process with other possibilities that different students suggest
Opening feedback up for reflection
One way of achieving this deeper, reflective approach to feedback is to ask the right questions to students when they have finished an activity. Research into the language that teachers and learners use during feedback stages shows that teachers typically follow a formulaic routine: Initiation, Response, Feedback (IRF), which looks like:
(I) Teacher: What is the answer to number 3?
(R) Student: False.
(F) Teacher: Good work!
(I) Teacher: What is the answer to number 3?
(R) Student: True.
(I) Teacher: Hmm. Are you sure?
(R) Student: (looks again at the question) … OK, False.
(F) Teacher: Good. In the text it says…. (Teacher explains the answer)
As you can see, this IRF routine focuses strongly on the answer only, and praises the student for getting it right (or prompting for the correct answer again if they get it wrong). This does not encourage much deeper reflection on how or why the response was acceptable (or not).
Extending feedback for reflection on learning
The point between the student response and the teacher’s feedback is a magic moment where an opportunity for critical thinking can be developed. Rather than instantly confirming the accuracy of the student’s idea, take a pause and think of other ways that this routine can be opened up for more critical work. Rather than the stamp of approval ‘Good work!’, what happens if the teacher asks another question, to engage the class in different ways? Replace the feedback (F) in the above examples with another question - an more reflective extension such as:
‘Does anyone else have this answer?’
‘OK, why did you think that?’
‘Which sentence in the text gave you that answer?’
‘Juan, do you agree?’
These extension questions can open up a whole dialogue with the student and others in the class, to discuss the how’s and why’s of the different responses, rather than just ‘rubber-stamping’ an idea as correct or wrong (both of which shut down the possible reflection about learning).
Focusing on the process of finding answers, bringing other students in to the conversation about the task and getting students justifying what they say raises the critical/analytical thinking that happens after any task, gets students listening to each other and working together, and can add a more reflective purpose to the simplest of tasks. All of these are strategies for learning which can be applied in different situations outside of the specific tasks that learners perform in class, and prepare students to take a more analytical approach to learning - something that will benefit them in their future study and work.
So next time you ask your students to do an activity in class, think about how you talk through the answers after they finish. Aim for more critical discussion and reflection on what they have done with the task, and the learning that happens as a result will be deeper and more purposeful all round.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.
If you are interested to know more about these qualifications, or you want take your teaching to a new level with our teacher education courses, contact us or see our course dates and fees for details.