A Journal of Teaching English Language and Literature

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

Training Language Learners to Use Feedback: An Action Research at BITS Pilani, Hyderabad

Santosh Kumar Mahapatra

This study is based on the researcher’s own experience of finding a solution to a pedagogic problem related to the use of feedback by students. It is often observed that even if teachers learn to provide constructive feedback to students, it does not yield great results in terms of student achievement. Students often do not utilize the feedback the way the teacher would like them to. There could be many reasons behind it. But the important ones could include lack of learner training in using feedback, absence of any follow-up activity and an unfavourable institutional belief about the role of feedback in learning. In this connection, the researcher made an attempt to train his learners in Advanced Communicative English, a course on academic communication skills, at BITS Pilani, Hyderabad Campus. The aim was to raise their awareness about how to utilize the feedback given on their presentation skills and enhance the same skills in the process.  

Learner Training and its Impact on Learning

Learner training is an essential step towards promoting learner autonomy in the classroom. According to McCarthy (1998), it can help ‘improve learning’. Brown has quite appropriately called it strategy-based instruction. Research on learning strategies also focuses on learner training and its impact on learner achievement. The impact of training on learners has been often found to be positive (Cohen, Weaver & Li, 1998; Rossiter, 2003; Kirkwood, 2005). However, any such success entails meticulous planning and focused execution. The teacher should try to prepare students to self-reflect and develop students’ metacognitive awareness -  an awareness about their own thinking - so that they become independent learners.

Role of Feedback in Language Learning

Formal instruction remains incomplete without feedback. Merrill (2002) gives it strong position in instructional design theory and asserts that it leads learner guidance. Feedback can be explicit or implicit, oral or written, negative or positive, form-focused or meaning-focused. It is the teacher who decides aspects related to ‘when’, ‘how’, ‘what’, ‘how much’, etc. of feedback. However, for young adult learners, an interactional approach to providing feedback (Gass and Varonis, 1994) has been found quite effective. Mackey (2006) calls it ‘noticing’ and finds it useful for second language learners.   

Research Methodology

Action Research: Often considered to be an aid to reflective teaching in ELT, action research involves addressing an instruction-related problem through a planned intervention, which is later evaluated after careful documentation of the entire process. While conducting an action research, the roles of the teacher and researcher get integrated and students, who also play the roles of subjects, are involved in the process. Moreover, the process of research may continue even after getting results from the initial study. The current study adopted action research because the researcher, who was also a teacher of students who participated in the study, observed that the students did not make use of his detailed oral and written feedback on their presentation skills.

Research Questions: The study addressed the following questions:

  • How does learner training in using feedback influence students’ presentation skills?
  • How do students respond to learner training?

Sample: Though the class in which the study was conducted had 70 students from B. Tech., B. E. and B. A. (Economics), only 10 students, who were regularly present in the classroom, were included as the sample of the study. The students were a heterogeneous group and studying in the either second or third or fourth year of their course. The selection was based on the availability and willingness of students to undergo the training provided by the researcher.

Tools: Three research tools were used for collecting the required data for the study. They were:

  • Pre- and post-tests to assess students’ ability to make effective presentations
  • Voicethread: It is a Web 2.0 tool through which feedback was provided. On this web platform, one can upload and share audio, video and pictures. The people, with whom it is shared, can post written, audio and video comments on it. It is a wonderful tool for promoting collaborative learning and peer feedback. For more information, visit www.voicethread.com.  
  • Informal interview with students to find out about their experience 

Data Collection The data for the study were collected in stages. In the first stage, the students were asked to make academic presentations on a mutually-agreed upon topic. The duration of the presentation was between 4-10 minutes. The students were aware of the assessment criteria which comprised the following components:

  • Introducing the topic and stating the purpose and plan of the presentation (5 marks)
  • Execution of the plan (4 marks)
  • Conclusion (3 marks)
  • Use of correct sentences and pronunciation (3 marks)
  • Appropriate body language (3 marks)
  • Proper pace of delivery (2 marks)

The students’ performance was scored by the researcher and a record was maintained. After analysing students’ performance, a detailed plan was made to train the students in using the feedback given on their individual presentation. The researchers offered both written and oral feedback on the Voicethread platform. As per the plan, the researcher had a question- answer session with students in each class. Some of the questions were: ‘Why were you speaking so fast in the middle?’, ‘What was my suggestion?’, ‘I know you tried but you were a little too fast. How do you plan to tackle this in your next presentation?’, etc . Efforts were made to bring students’ problems and the researcher’s corresponding suggestions to their notice and make them address their problems. As a part of the plan, students were asked to respond to teacher’s feedback with at least two comments on Voicethread. Also, students were asked to analyse and rate video recorded presentations made by students from other colleges and universities. They continued to make presentations but those were not scored.

A few informal interviews were conducted with all the participants. The researcher tried to obtain information about the students’ experience with Voicethread and how they felt about question-answer and video-analysis sessions in the classroom.

In the last stage, each student made an academic presentation, uploaded them on Voicethread and those presentations were graded using the same set of criteria used earlier. The pre- and post-training presentations were compared both quantitatively and qualitatively. The students were part of this process of comparison too. Changes were evident in several aspects of oral presentation skills.

Findings

How does learner training in using feedback influence students’ presentation skills?

The students unconsciously developed their own presentation skills while undergoing training in which they analysed and commented on others’ presentations. The employment of Voicethread kept students interested and gave them easy access to the feedback, which was available online below their recorded presentation on screen. Their acquaintance with most of the typical problems faced by people while making presentations enabled them to focus on selected problem areas which, in turn, helped them address the problems more efficiently. Some of the sample comments and corresponding changes are mentioned in the following table:

Teacher’s Comments (transcript of oral comments) Observed Changes in the Second Voicethread Presentation
Hi XX, Just watched your presentation …(at first, good things about the presentation like good English, appropriate gestures, etc)… I believe you can make it a much better presentation if you change a few things. You need to sound a little more formal and academic. Think about changing the vocabulary and the tone. The introduction of the topic is good but you need to state the purpose and plan.Also, highlight the main points while concluding the presentation.  XX did not use many informal words like ‘guys’, ‘cool’, ‘bucks’, etc. but could not change the informal tone on some occasions. May be, the meaning of ‘informal/formal tone’ needed a little more explaining. He stated the purpose and plan a little more clearly. The conclusion, however, could have been better, though he tried to quickly summarise the main points.
Hi XY,…(starting with good things like effective introduction, good use of academic vocabulary, excellent pronunciation, etc., about the presentation.)…You should state the purpose of your presentation a little more clearly. It can be done by stating why you wish to talk about 'cell theory'. Refer to the BBC website shared on the CMS (course management system of the university). Your language is good and the pace of delivery is quite smooth. You look confident and the body language is appropriate. However, I believe you should control your hand movements and not let the hands move beyond your shoulder. Just one more thing! It sounds a little clichéd if you say- ‘I would like to conclude by saying that…’. Refer to the BBC website I shared with you to learn about better ways.  XY introduced the topic well and made use of the BBC materials to improve her introduction and conclusion. In conclusion, she started with ‘So in this presentation, I talked about three important things:…’. Her hand movements were, to a great extent, controlled.
   

 

As you can see in the above table, some of the suggested corrections were accurately carried out. However, some other suggestions could not reach the students. Thus, it is necessary to give feedback with sufficient information about what, how and why to change, and reference materials.

How do students respond to learner training?

The students’ response to learner training was encouraging in the beginning though they reported during the interview that they did not know about any training. The researcher, however, had to make extra efforts to keep them involved the process. On occasions, they were a little too worried about their scores and did not participate in classroom interactions and video-analysis sessions. For such students, the researcher posted oral questions on Voicethread. Most of the students responded to those questions, though they took a little extra time.

Conclusion

The current study made use of the available resources and the institutional freedom to address a relevant and recurrent problem often faced by ESL teachers. Though the study was conducted with a privileged group of students in an elite institution, the findings are nonetheless quite encouraging. In addition, it can be replicated in other professional colleges and universities across India. It is hoped that the study will aid teachers in improving their students’ language ability by training them (students) to utilize their (teachers’) feedback.   

References

Cohen, A.D., Weaver, S., & Li, T-Y. (1998). The impact of strategies-based instruction on speaking a foreign language. In A.D. Cohen (Ed.), Strategies in learning and using a second language (pp. 107-156). London: Longman.

Gass, S. M., & Varonis, E. M. (1994). Input, interaction, and second language production.Studies in Second Language Acquisition,16 , 283-302.

Kirkwood, M. (2005). Learning to think: Thinking to learn: An introduction to thinking skills from nursery to secondary. UK: Hodden Gibson.

Mackey, A. (2006). Feedback, noticing and instructed second language learning. Applied Linguistics, 27 (3), 405–430.

McCarthy, C. P. (1998). Learner training for learner autonomy on summer language courses. The Internet TESL Journal, 4 (7). Retrieved from http://iteslj.org/Techniques/McCarthy-Autonomy.html.

Merrill, M. D. (2002). First principles of instruction. Educational Technology Research and Development, 50 (3), 43-59.

Rossiter, M. J. (2003). "It's like chicken but bigger": Effects of communication strategy in the ESL classroom. Canadian Modern Language Review, 60 (2), 105-121.

santosh@hyderabad.bits-pilani.ac.in

Santosh Kumar Mahapatra is a Faculty Member at BITS Pilani, Hyderabad Campus.