October 2016
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THE IMPACT OF NEGATIVE INSTITUTIONAL FACTORS ON TEACHER FEEDBACK
Elena Shvidko, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana, USA

As Goldstein (2004) rightly observed, pedagogical practices do not occur “in a vacuum,” but rather in particular sociocultural and institutional contexts; therefore, teachers “need to understand fully the context within which [they] are working” (p. 67). By the same token, teacher feedback is influenced by local institutional environments, “with multiple factors interacting and mediating each other” (Goldstein, 2005, p. 24); therefore, contextual factors should also be on the agenda of feedback research.

Earlier first language and second language (L2) research on feedback (e.g., Connors & Lunsford, 1993; Ferris, Pezone, Tade, & Tinti, 1997; Straub & Lunsford, 1995) focused on teacher responses through a decontextualized lens, examining an informative function of feedback (Hyland & Hyland, 2006) by looking at teachers’ comments as texts (Lee & Schallert, 2008) and leaving the situated aspect of feedback in the periphery. Later research, however, reflected the importance of investigating not only the what component of feedback practices, but also the why of it (Lee, 2008, p. 73). As a result, second language writing scholars embraced contextual factors as one of the pivotal influences on teacher response practices (Cooper, 2009) and attempted to describe feedback as a “socially and politically situated” practice (Lee, 2008, p. 81).

One such study is that of Lee and Schallert (2008), who acknowledged the influence of contextual factors on the level of trust in the teacher-student relationship. In their study, which was conducted in an EFL context, the authors distinguished between sociocultural influences (e.g., the teacher’s background and her beliefs about teaching, and students’ backgrounds and their attitudes toward writing) and program influences (e.g., the teacher’s part-time position in the program, lack of time, the long lessons of the summer course, the English-only instruction), which mostly functioned as constraints in the development of trust between the teacher and the students. Lee and Schallert (2008) also asserted that particular cultural and educational expectations have a notable effect on how students perceive teachers’ comments. In their study, for example, the frequent use of directive forms in the teacher’s feedback was considered an appropriate pedagogical practice in the Korean education system, but it could have had a different effect in a different teaching environment (p. 533).

The impact of contextual factors on feedback practices was also emphasized by Lee (2008), who, similar to Lee and Schallert (2008), conducted her study in an EFL context—Hong Kong secondary classrooms. Lee found that school policies played a major role in determining how writing teachers responded to students’ papers. For instance, the teachers in her study had to comply with the school expectations despite their own beliefs on feedback. In addition, teachers also felt accountable to students and their parents, who viewed a lack of marking as a characteristic of “lazy and irresponsible teachers” (p. 79). Finally, in order to prepare their students for public examinations, the teachers were forced to put a strong emphasis on writing accuracy. It is not surprising that many teachers in Lee’s study “felt disempowered to act against the system” (p. 79). Lee (2008) concluded that in the context where writing teachers’ performance and perceived competence are dependent on the extent to which they corrected students’ errors it was virtually impossible for them to put their philosophies about feedback into practice.

Séror’s (2009) socioculturally oriented study found a different effect of institutional policies. Séror (2009) focused on the relationship between the institutional forces and faculty feedback provided on the course papers of university-level international students. The study suggests that institutional values discouraged professors from “investing in feedback” (p. 217) and viewed providing feedback as “a poor investment of time” (p. 218). According to these values, the professors were expected to invest in research and publication rather than in teaching activities, including feedback. Another institutional policy influenced the feedback that students received on their writing: According to that policy, professors were not allowed to have more than 25% of a classroom’s population “do well” (p. 222). In this situation, L2 learners were likely to fail: All teachers had to do was “put more weight on the mechanics of the paper, with major deductions for not citing things properly” (p. 220). As a result, feedback was often delivered more like a justification of a student’s grade rather than as constructive feedback. Moreover, as Séror (2009) reports, it was easy to point out language issues in students’ writing, and thus easy to justify their poor grades. One professor in the study also explained that by giving students detailed, informative, and helpful feedback, instructors would build students up, so they would become better and better, and eventually their writing would reach the “A” level, leading to more than 25% doing well. This grade distribution policy was the reason for poor feedback, and it obviously did not aim at helping students improve their writing.

As this work illustrates, institutional policies appear to be a powerful factor influencing teachers’ decisions while they respond to student writing. Unfortunately, this effect is oftentimes detrimental, causing instructors to deviate from their beliefs and philosophies. As Séror (2009) powerfully put it,

No matter how good the instructors’ intentions might be, if ideal notions of writing feedback are not supported by the institutional forces that surround these practices, their efforts may well lead to brief, limited, and defensive types of feedback practices, and hence more often to the students’ frustration and misunderstanding than their success. (p. 225)

Therefore, in order to better understand teachers’ feedback practices, contextual factors cannot be dismissed from the picture.

Obviously, there is no quick solution that teacher-training courses can offer with regard to these contextual challenges. What the courses can do, however, is raise teachers’ awareness of the power of institutional constraints and the fact that teachers will have to make a number of pedagogical choices based on the reality around them. Séror (2009), for example, suggested that teachers organize publically available forums where they would share their perspectives on feedback, so that they “no longer feel they have to make these decisions alone in an unsupported way” (p. 224). Along the same lines, Lee (2011) recommended that teachers create professional communities in their local institutions and “involve their colleagues in community of practice” (p. 37).

Teachers, both novice and experienced, should also be encouraged to conduct classroom-based research and share findings with local administrators and other stakeholders. If teachers have empirically proven data that certain principles that they implement in class improve student writing, institutional policy-makers should also be aware of them. In other words, by having received proper professional preparation, teachers need to become advocates themselves and disseminate knowledge supported by theory and practice in order to bring about positive changes in their local institutions.

References

Connors, R. J., & Lunsford, A. A. (1993). Teachers' rhetorical comments on student papers. College Composition and Communication, 44(2), 200-223.

Cooper, D. J. (2009). Situating teacher written feedback in an EAP classroom: How context influences responding practices (Unpublished master’s thesis, Carleton University).

Ferris, D. R., Pezone, S., Tade, C. R., & Tinti, S. (1997). Teacher commentary on student writing: Descriptions & implications. Journal of Second Language Writing, 6(2), 155–182.

Goldstein, L. M. (2004). Questions and answers about teacher written commentary and student revision: Teachers and students working together. Journal of Second Language Writing, 13(1), 63–80.

Goldstein, L. M. (2005). Teacher written commentary in second language writing classrooms. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Hyland, K. & Hyland, F. (2006). Contexts and issues in feedback on L2 writing: An introduction. In K. Hyland & F. Hyland (Eds.). Feedback in second language writing: Contexts and issues (pp. 1-19). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lee, I. (2008). Understanding teachers’ written feedback practices in Hong Kong secondary classrooms. Journal of Second Language Writing, 17(2), 69-85.

Lee, I. (2011). L2 writing teacher education for in-service teachers: Opportunities and challenges. English in Australia, 46(1), 31.

Lee, G., & Schallert, D. L. (2008). Constructing trust between teacher and students through feedback and revision cycles in an EFL writing classroom. Written Communication, 25(4), 506-537.

Séror, J. (2009). Institutional forces and L2 writing feedback in higher education. Canadian Modern Language Review,66(2), 203-232.

Straub, R., & Lunsford, R. F. (1995). Twelve readers readings: Responding to college student writing. Creskill, NJ: Hampton Press.


Elena Shvidko is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at Purdue University. Her research interests include second language writing, multimodal interaction, interpersonal aspects of language teaching, and teacher professional development.

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