How Does Formative, Written Feedback Help Students Improve Their Geographical Writing, pp. 5 of 17

While a considerable amount of research has been done on written feedback at the Tertiary level, there seems to be limited literature on feedback at the secondary school level. A study on improving student writing abilities in Geography done by Boyd, Leydon and Wilson (2014) shares the most relevant concerns of this action research, although it examined first year university students. The study critically examined the effectiveness of writing intervention strategies used in undergraduate courses, and noted the lack of awareness and skill in ‘writing to the discipline’, that is, writing geographically, among first year students. The study evaluated a process writing strategy involving drafting, marking and giving of feedback before a final draft was assessed, and found that generally a multipronged approach that provided ample platforms for the giving of effective feedback (2014: 155).

Taking inspiration from this study, this action research adopts a similar approach of investigating the effectiveness of a process writing approach as a platform for giving formative feedback, and aims to arrive at a deeper understanding of what constitutes effective feedback. Most notably, the research is motivated by, and concerned with how 16-year-old, Year 4 students in a Singaporean educational context[i] view geographical writing and teachers’ feedback, with the objective of improving and clarifying our practice as Geography tutors. With the syllabus documents of the GCE ‘O’ Level and ‘A’ Level syllabuses explicitly foregrounding the importance of geographical thinking[ii], improving geographical writing is naturally a key concern.

Methodology

Having clarified the role of feedback as a pedagogical tool in a constructivist mode for learning, the design of the learning intervention was guided by prior understanding of how process writing can be conducted, with a view of the constraints of a tight curricular schedule. What was foremost in the design consideration was the vehicle through which written feedback was given. The cover page design provided for the inclusion of ‘stars’ and ‘wishes’ - the former referring to warm feedback or positive elements the tutor acknowledged about the student work, and the latter referring to feedback on areas for improvement (Figure 1).

The motivation behind such a terminology and approach was the observation in the literature that feedback and assessment in general reinforces the hierarchy between tutors and students, where teachers ‘judge too much, and too powerfully’, which is especially problematic when the assessment process is a ‘deeply emotional one’ (Boud, 1995, cited in Carless, 2006). Higgins et al. (2001), argue that ‘students have emotional investment in their assignments’ and so would reasonably be affected by the feedback given for their work, to some degree. Furthermore, grades were not shown to the students on the cover page. This was motivated by such studies as Butler’s (1988) on ‘task-involving’ and ‘ego-involving’ motivation, which compared the effects of grades and written feedback on student improvement. The findings that students who were graded and given comments for their first assignment showed less improvement than their peers who were not shown a grade but given comments, suggested the negative effects of summative evaluation on students’ motivation to improve.

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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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