A Journal of Teaching English Language and Literature

ISSN Print : 2229-6557, Online: 2394-9244

Synchronous Versus Asynchronous Computer Mediated Feedback: A Case Study

Sajida Sultana

Abstract

In many post-graduate courses, students are expected to write term papers, assignments, book/journal reviews, reports and dissertations. Very often, the language teacher is required to provide feedback to learners on two or three drafts of these writings to enable them to revise and rewrite primarily because English is not a core subject for these students. This feedback, when the draft is submitted as a soft copy, could either be face to face (synchronous), or through online review (asynchronous). Although there is a lot of research on the nature and focus of teacher feedback, there is very little research on the differences between these two kinds of computer mediated feedback. This study attempts  to compare the first level of review of the written work of two post-graduate students registered for a course in a reputed social sciences institute. One feedback involved highlighting the areas of improvement and a face-to-face discussion with the student. The second feedback was completely online in which comments/corrections were made on the soft copy and emailed to the student. The two types of feedback given by the teacher researcher were compared to identify whether they provided similar or different information to the students. An in-depth qualitative analysis of the comments indicated that the two modes of feedback impacted the superficial or deeper nature of rewriting guidance provided.

Keywords: written feedback, synchronous and asynchronous feedback, nature and modality of written feedback, computer mediated feedback.

Introduction

Computers are becoming an integral part of the teaching and learning of academic skills in most higher levels of education. They are especially useful for improving the written skills of students and to help them successfully accomplish tasks such as writing reviews and responses to journal articles, subject specific books, reports and dissertations. A language teacher however needs to provide constant feedback on such written work to assist the student in the development of academic writing skills. Also, the feedback must be given on the draft of the students’ writing so that the entire process is meaningful and effective. The nature of this feedback could be oral, written, face-to-face or by using the computer.  

Nearly 20 years ago, reviews of written work were usually done on paper, where the teacher’s comments on the drafts were hand-written, resulting in a huge amount of paper use and a considerable effort on the part of the teacher. It was also demanding for the teacher to maintain a record, or monitor the review comments to assess the student’s progress.

With the advancements in technology, there are some in-built features in processing programs such as MS Word, that may be utilized by the teacher to teach a second or foreign language, or for evaluation and providing feedback. The MS Word “Review” is one such feature that the teacher researcher used in two ways. In the first instance, the teacher met the student to discuss the feedback given in the soft copy and in the second instance, the teacher–researcher added comments using the “review” feature. These comments had to be self-sufficient. The first method of feedback could be termed synchronous and the second one as  asynchronous.

In general, synchronous feedback takes place when the student is physically present to receive feedback. In such a scenario, the feedback and its related discussion happen at the same time. Asynchronous feedback occurs when the teacher provides feedback at one point in time and the discussion with the student may happen at a later point. In some cases, there may not be a post feedback discussion at all.  For this reason, the teacher needs to ensure that the feedback given is self-explanatory.

Studies in the area of computer-mediated/generated feedback have attracted the attention of many academicians. Rodina (2008), advocates a step-by-step application of the MS word review tool,  to provide feedback and for peer editing in a French class for those teachers who have an inclination to incorporate computers in their feedback process. According to her, not only would this reduce the time taken for feedback, but it would also make the classroom paperless. Other studies in the area of computer mediated/generated feedback are  those of Ware (2011) and Nagata (1993). In both these studies, the authors focused  on computer assisted language programmes such as Natural Language Processing to facilitate language learning and to enhance writing programmes. In another interesting study, Matsumura & Hann (2004), try to co-relate students’ levels of computer anxiety with the feedback method they chose for the assignment review thereby resulting in effective learning. Krucli (2004), demonstrated the benefits of using a computer to improve the drafts of student writing by incorporating interactive feedback. This included using voice comments to speak to the students, providing hyperlinks, and inserting pre-written comments on the mechanics of writing with the help of the “AutoText” function of MS word. 

These studies make us aware of the various discourses available in the area of computer-generated/mediated feedback. Futhermore, the discussions highlight the role of computers in improving students’ performance in writing, and in second or foreign language learning. There is however a need to look at the feasibility of such feedback. The computer must allow for an effective review process for the teacher, especially where the class strength exceeds 50 students and the students come from varied social and cultural backgrounds. The present study, where two types of feedback are used by the teacher researcher to reflect on and arrive at the most efficient feedback process, is therefore different .

In this study, I will attempt to investigate:

Whether there is a difference in focus between written comments and highlighted areas of improvement, and

whether one mode is more conducive to individual writing development than the other.

Background

Post-graduate students gain the  required knowledge in their subject areas from what they read and from the teaching done by the core faculty members of those subjects. The guidance that they get on their language use takes place after the student has read the required subject literature and noted down her/his ideas, done the planning for the essay and also written the first draft.  For this reason, the formative assessment done by the language teacher is usually more focused on language and less on the content of the actual paper itself. The most important and valuable method of formative assessment is when the teacher provides on-going and systematic feedback to students on written assignments such as report writing, responding to/critiquing various articles, writing dissertations and academic writing documents. These writing assignments usually  undergo a minimum of three rounds of feedback between the teacher and the student.  More often than not, the feedback and review is done on soft copies of the written text. Having the students’ work available and accessible for feedback on the computer helps the teacher track the learning growth of that student.  The teacher who uses the review feature can ‘key’ in feedback and  the student can read the suggestions at leisure and modify accordingly.  But this requires time to send, time to read and time to modify.  On some occasions, for pragmatic reasons, (usually lack of time) some students receive face-to-face (synchronous) feedback.

Methodology

In this qualitative study, the teacher–researcher investigated the first level of review of the written work of two post-graduate students from a reputed social sciences institute in India. In the synchronous feedback session, the teacher–researcher highlighted the areas of improvement in the text using the inbuilt “Text Highlight Color” in MS Word 2010 (under the tab “Home”). There was no need to write any comments as this was accompanied by a discussion with the student to make him understand his errors.

For the asynchronous feedback, the teacher–researcher added comments, and made changes in the text using the “Track Changes” feature of MS Word. The teacher researcher had to be more careful while providing this feedback because in case the student would not be able to come for a post feedback face-to-face discussion, he/she would need to understand the comments so as to make the necessary corrections. Ambiguity in these asynchronous feedback comments would result in no learning, thereby leading to non-achievement of the desired goal. As teachers, we provide the feedback that suits the context, and rarely reflect either on the differences in the nature of feedback, or the quantity and quality of feedback given.  Such an analysis is attempted in the next section of this paper.  

Data Analysis

As the teacher–researcher reviewed the first draft of the two written samples, certain questions arose about the nature and modality of feedback given in these written samples. These questions form the basis of the investigation mentioned in the “Introduction” section of the paper.

The data of the two students has been analysed on three broad levels and 17 sub-levels. The broad levels were: accuracy (with 7 sub-features),  content (2 sub-features) and mechanics (8 sub-features. The sub-levels are listed under the heading “Focus of feedback” in the following table. The details are presented below:

Table 1

Analysis of Feedback given to the 2 students

Broad areas of feedback

Focus of feedback

Synchronous feedback (Student 1)

Asynchronous feedback (Student 2)

Accuracy

Organization of a sentence/structure of a sentence

3

3

Use of linkers/connectors between paragraphs or sentences

3

3

Use of articles

3

3

Correct form of tense

3

3

Use of preposition

3

3

Vocabulary use

3

3

Use of modal verbs

 

3

Content

Elaborate content/explaining terms

3

3

Relevant data is provided

 

3

Mechanics

Longer sentences to be broken down

3

3

Appropriate reference/citation

3

3

Structure of report

 

3

Capitalization

 

3

Spelling

 

3

Punctuation

 

3

Line spacing

 

3

Use of neutral language

 

3

 

A quick look at Table 1 reveals that the broad focus of the two different kinds of feedback was similar. However, there were some areas that were identified and commented upon more in asynchronous feedback. These were: use of modal verbs, capitalization, punctuation, spelling, line spacing, and using neutral language in writing.  These are only five areas and except for two features, ‘structure of the report’  and ‘use of neutral language’, all the others deal with the mechanics of language.  One could consider these as not important, and conclude that the two types of feedback are quite similar and that there is no major difference between the two kinds of feedback.  However, before coming to that conclusion, I decided to also take a look at the number of times I had pointed out or marked or corrected an area of language in the two types of feedback. This information is provided in Table 2.  For ease of reference, I have numbered the relevant columns  as A, B, C and D. 

Table 2

Analysis of the quantity of feedback given to the two students

 

 

A

B

C

D

Broad Areas of Feedback

Focus of feedback

 

 

 

 

Accuracy

Organisation of a sentence/structure of a sentence

3

2

3

8

Use of linkers/connectors between paragraphs or sentences

3

1

3

4

Use of articles

3

2

3

7

Correct form of tense

3

1

3

4

Use of preposition

3

2

3

5

Vocabulary use

3

1

3

8

Use of modal verbs

-

0

3

3

Content

Elaborate content/explaining terms

3

2

3

4

Relevant data is provided

-

0

3

2

Mechanics

Longer sentences to be broken down

3

1

3

2

Appropriate reference/citation

3

1

3

3

Structure of report

-

0

3

1

Capitalization

-

0

3

7

Spelling

-

0

3

5

Punctuation

-

0

3

9

Line spacing

-

0

3

1

Use of neutral language

-

0

3

2

 

A quick comparison of the numbers in columns B and D particularly with reference to accuracy,  2 versus 8, for sentence structure, 1 versus 4 with reference to linkers, 2 versus 7 comments on the use of articles, 1 versus 4 statements on the use of the correct tense form, 2 versus 5 markings on the use of prepositions and a significant 1 versus 8 comments on vocabulary use shows that there is indeed a significant difference between the two types of feedback.  When highlighting areas that the student needs to correct or modify, (while providing synchronous feedback) as a teacher, I stopped with highlighting the most visible mistakes, discussed these with the student, and assumed that he would, with such awareness, correct the other instances on his own.  But, by contrast, when using the review comments option in MS Word, (providing asynchronous feedback), as a teacher, I seem to have done what all teachers are told not to do!  I have pointed out and even corrected every incorrect use of tense, article, verb and even content words.  If the same mistake has been repeated five times in an essay, (wrong use of tense for example), as teachers we are told to mark one of them, and also, make sure that only one mark be deducted (if such deduction has to happen) for that ‘error’. But when providing asynchronous feedback, by using the MS Word review option, I seem to have gone overboard with  my corrections, modifications and comments. 

This is reflected not only in the quantity but also in the quality of feedback provided.   Some relevant examples of feedback are provided in Table 3.   Three different areas on which feedback was given  to both students, one dealing with accuracy, in this case, articles, the second dealing with the length of sentences and the third with content have been selected for analysis.

Table 3

Samples of feedback given to the two students

Example

Focus area

Student 1

Feedback - highlighted

Student 2

Feedback - comment provided

Articles

1. nature of soil

The sentences/phrases are highlighted so as to identify that an article is needed

the small farmer

Please use “a” in place of “the” because you (the student) are introducing this text.

2. get profits in first few years

...version of supporting non-farm activity by government of India is that Pradhan Mantri MUDRA Yojana.

Always use “the” before Government. Also delete “that” and add “the”. “that” is not the appropriate word here.

Longer sentences

1. As we know over use of fertilizers will lead to reduce the natural fertility of soil and also increase environmental pollution in various aspects creates health problems for consumers

Discussed and highlighted. Explained the areas that need to be revised.

1. This integrated farming (crop + livestock) system provides an open ended framework, the residues of one component is the source of another component and its vis-versa, like, the waste product or the by-product of crops are the source of food of the animal and the waste product of the animal (organic manure) is an good source of nutrients for the crops which enhance the productivity of the crop

This is a very long sentence. Please try to break this into two sentences. Check spelling of “vis-versa”.

Content

1. I recently visited XYZ  village.

Discussed that along with this, the purpose of visit and other details need to come along with it .

1. As eye witnessed, a farmer…

First, eye witnessed is one word and not two words. You may use a - hyphen. Second, who is the eye witness and for what? Clarity is needed. Third, please use another word instead of eyewitness.  Fourth, in the Introduction you (the student) are bringing what has been observed. It is better to move it to the Methodology section.

 

A quick look at the two columns where the areas highlighted and the comments provided are given, shows that there seems to be a lot of prescriptiveness on my part while  commenting using the review option.  The contrasting nature of the comments and the areas identified for improvement have been discussed in the following section.

Discussion

Before we move to the details on the nature and modality of the computer mediated feedback discussed in this study, it could be argued that the nature of feedback is determined mainly by the language proficiency of the student, thereby resulting in more work for the teacher to correct inadequately drafted work. Although this holds true, it is equally true that irrespective of the English proficiency level of the student, the modality of providing feedback, the impact of learning and the effort put in by the teacher during the review stage are related.

Looking at the first version of the two drafts, it is clear that except for a few similarities, there were differences in most of the sub-levels. The language areas that were focused on include:

Organization of a sentence/structure of a sentence

Elaborate content/explaining terms

Appropriate data

Use of linkers/connectors between paragraphs or sentences

Use of articles

Longer sentences to be broken down

Correct form of tense

Appropriate reference/citation

Use of prepositions

Capitalization

Vocabulary use

Spelling

Punctuation

Tone of a sentence/neutral language

Use of modal verbs

Spacing between lines

It is evident from the data that student 1 (who received synchronous feedback) has fewer comments as compared to student 2, but this does not imply that student 1 performed better than student 2 in the first draft of the assignment. It reflects less teacher effort to review a student’s written work without compromising on effectiveness. In the case of the second student, the focus of review moved to the mechanics of writing rather than the content.

To substantiate these arguments, let us look at the parameter “use/non-use of linkers or connectors” in the text of student 1. The mechanics of report writing were explained to the student who had received synchronous feedback along with a handout on common linkers used in academic writing. The placement of linkers/connectors was highlighted in the first two paragraphs of the text and the student was asked to go through the remaining text independently, keeping the handout for quick reference. The same parameter in asynchronous feedback required the teacher researcher to highlight all the areas where linkers/connectors were needed.

Similarly, incorrect use of articles may not seem to be a critical error in academic writing, but while giving feedback it is much easier for a teacher to explain to students with examples (synchronously) and ask them to make the revisions on their own, rather than to point out and write in a comment box, “‘the’ needs to be deleted” or “‘the’ needs to be added” because the student is talking about “the village” and not any “village”.

To reiterate, the modality of the two ways of feedback impacts the nature of comments as seen from the data. Synchronous feedback focused on explaining the structure of a report—the aim of the written work, getting clarification from the student on the nature of data the student has collected to support their argument(s), and the relevance of the content provided. This space for interaction is crucial for the teacher and the student in order to fulfill the writing objective. It also helps the teacher researcher to clarify the writing issues then and there, instantaneously as it were, including queries related to the points that are mentioned by the student or are “picked up” by the teacher by correctly interpreting puzzled expressions on students’ faces. Synchronous feedback may also be viewed as a platform for the students to present their ideas and to learn about their areas of improvement so as to not repeat their “errors”. During feedback, the teacher researcher, after explaining the areas of improvement may ask the students to check the remaining text on their own. This allows the students to take ownership of their work resulting in more meticulous writing in the future. Overall, the feedback becomes interactive and effective with this modality.

During asynchronous feedback the teacher–researcher focused on the aspects that are mentioned in the previous paragraphs in the essay, but considering the learning/teaching that happens during the feedback stage, certain technical issues arise (as the teacher researcher is not the subject teacher of the course for which the student has drafted). These issues could range from usage of technical words to the capitalization of a certain term. The situation becomes more complex when the student gradually moves to giving their opinion (by using ‘should’) when the requirement is to simply state the facts. Anticipating that the student would read and learn from the comment in the comment box, the teacher–researcher tends to write an explanation of the concept thereby spending more time on the document. This explanation of each occurrence of “error” in the comment box gradually morphs into the teacher–researcher making some of the actual corrections (instead of simply pointing them out), especially the minor ones dealing with the mechanics of language like adding or deleting unnecessary commas, or inserting or deleting articles.  Such additions or deletions become counter-productive, for the student does not learn or understand the rule. The student can only tell himself: “my teacher made this change: it must therefore be right.  The reasons for the change are rarely explained and therefore, learning does not take place. The outcome of such focused, but sometimes ‘prescriptive’  feedback results in:

1) a 1500-word report “loaded” with comments, not a sight that the student expected from a teacher who was supposed to provide support

2) low student motivation and

3) the teacher–researcher having to put in a lot of extra effort accompanied by having to leave a few issues still lacking clarity.

From this discussion, it is clear that a face-to-face conversation/synchronous feedback is definitely a more efficient way to provide feedback to ensure that the student has learnt the concept, and that a similar strategy of review and discussion needs to be applied to asynchronous feedback. There is a possibility of spending more time and giving more comments during asynchronous feedback that may or may not be directly related to the learning goals.

Conclusion

The reflections in this study demonstrate that the feedback provided by the teacher is scaffolded according to the student’s needs and goals.  But this scaffolding does not happen to the same extent with asynchronous feedback as it does with synchronous feedback.  The aim of a teacher while providing computer-mediated feedback needs to be more of a facilitative nature than directive. Using computers to provide language feedback is an effective way to provide support to students to help them improve their writing. But this does not mean that teachers become either the pseudo writers  for their students, or harsh critics who correct the work of their students with a red pen. It is not always possible for teachers to have feedback discussions with their students.  More often than not, time and distance are factors.  The MS Word review option is a feature that ought to be manipulatable in such a way that it enables scaffolded, learner centered, and non-prescriptive feedback.  But for this to happen, teachers need to  reflect on the kind of feedback they provide when working asynchronously. The option of using only comment or comment along with track changes exists in MS Word.  If we teachers could restrict ourselves to only using comments in the review option, (and also consciously hold back from correcting accuracy errors), the online review mode/asynchronous feedback could be utilized in a more productive manner. It is likely to then become as useful as synchronous feedback.

References

Krucli, T. E. (2004). Making assessment matter: Using the computer to create interactive feedback. The English Journal, 94(1), 47-52.

Matsumura, S. & Hann, G. (2004). Computer anxiety and students’ preferred feedback methods in EFL writing. The Modern Language Journal, 88(3), 403-415. DOI: 0026-7902/04/403-41

Nagata, N. (1993). Intelligent computer feedback for second language instruction. The Modern Language Journal, 77(3), 330-339.

Rodina, H. (2008). Paperless, painless: Using MS Word Tools for feedback in writing assignments. The French Review, 82(1), 106-116.

Shute, J. V. (2008). Focus on formative feedback. Review of Educational Research, 78, 1, 153-189. DOI: 10.3102/0034654307313795

Ware, P. (2011). Computer-generated feedback on student writing. TESOL Quarterly45(4), 769-774. DOI: 10.5054/tq.201 1.272525

 

Sajida Sultana is a Visiting Faculty at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Hyderabad. She has submitted her PhD dissertation in the field of English Language Education at the English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad. Her areas of interest include teaching of English at madrasas, education concerning minorities, and sociology of education.

sajidas@gmail.com