How Does Formative, Written Feedback Help Students Improve Their Geographical Writing, pp. 4 of 17

A range of factors need to be considered in accounting for the opacity of written feedback to its intended audience: The language used in the feedback may or may not be accessible, the lack of debate and dialogue in the process, the power relationships between tutor and student, and the emotional nature of the student investment in writing an assignment all can inhibit understanding (Carless, 2006; Higgins et al., 2002). As a result, students do not find feedback to be routinely helpful (Maclellan, 2001), and may feel so disempowered by not having the opportunity to discuss and to question it, that they disengage from learning from it (Hyatt, 2005).

In the context of this action research it might be useful to consider feedback in two categories: evaluative feedback and formative feedback. On the one hand, evaluative feedback, expresses to a writer how well the instructor’s instructional priorities have been met. This type of feedback typically passes judgement on the draft in terms of some abstract, undefined notion of an ‘ideal’ paper, reflects a preoccupation with sentence-level errors, and takes the form of directives for improvement on present or future assignments. Teachers who provide this sort of feedback may assume that addressing the curricular purpose of the assignment is enough to inspire ‘improvement’.

On the other hand, formative feedback (also sometimes referred to as facilitative or intermediate feedback) typically consists of feedback that takes an inquiring stance towards the text. Addressing the particular needs of individual writers, it often consists of questions intended to raise awareness of the reader’s understanding of the meaning of the text as a means to encourage substantial revision on the next draft. This feedback is rooted in the assumption that writers create their own communicative purpose—the story or ideas that they wish to share—beyond the instructional purpose of the assignment that needs to be tapped in order to motivate revision and then improvement. The features and implications of these two feedback approaches are explored in greater detail below.

Current literature suggests that evaluative feedback at the tertiary level and traditional pedagogy have provided little guidance for motivating student writers to look beyond surface errors to develop and to refine their communicative intentions. Instead, formative feedback, given its inquiry-based and iterative nature, might have greater potential for engaging student writers in negotiation over the emerging meaning of their texts. Indeed, the importance for reflection and iterative revision as a means of learning and acquiring deeper understanding is echoed consistently amongst other quarters of pedagogical research. For example, Margaret Roberts’ notion of geographical enquiry, founded on a constructivist view of knowledge and learning, emphasizes the importance of student involvement in making meaning through questioning geographical phenomena and reflecting on their meaning making process (Roberts, 2003). Formative feedback as a pedagogical intervention towards the goals of developing thinking and writing, is evidently also founded on constructivist belief about learning: that the feedback is given not so much to satisfy the need for judgement and summative evaluation, but more so as a tool for learning.

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An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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