Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Reading 'The motivational paradox of feedback: teacher and student perceptions'

I was alerted to the most recent volume of The Curriculum Journal (25:4) by my supervisor, as it was an Assessment for Learning special. I immediately set out to find and download it, and was not let down! Inside, I found a bunch of new articles that will be of use (or at least of interest) to me for my Thesis. The first one that I read, an article by Lisa Murtagh, titled 'The motivational paradox of feedback: teacher and student perceptions', was the most relevant to my own study. I was pleased to see that a number of the articles I read for my literature review, as well as the article I critically reviewed for Essay 2,  were cited by the author. This suggests to me that I have a pretty firm grasp of the literature, which is always a relief to hear.

Murtagh points out, as I have in my own analysis so far, that research into how children perceive feedback is 'somewhat scant' (p. 517). She specifically cites Hargreaves (2013), which is the paper I reviewed for Essay 2; as such, I have a very strong knowledge of the references that Murtagh makes, and an understanding of why she conducted her study. Her reasons are very similar to mine, so it's nice to see that research of this type is being conducted and published. That being said, the study that Murtagh undertakes concerns primary students again, which does little to fulfil the gap regarding secondary student perceptions. I'm not annoyed by this fact, as it proves yet again that I have identified a gap in the research - one that I hope to address.

The paper takes a different focus that I plan to take though, in that it focused on feedback and motivation. Specifically, she states that 'there is still a gap in the field about how feedback affects children's motivation to learn' (p. 519).

It goes on to discuss things like the different types of feedback; phatic, which is merely an acknowledgement of an exchange of information ('tick and flick'); evaluative, which provides some form of evaluation of pupils' work; and descriptive, which is defined as information communicated to the learner that is intended to modify the learners' thinking or behaviour (p. 518-519). The next bit of key terms used are performance goals versus learning goals. I particularly liked the clarity Murtagh gave to these last two terms; it's made me realise that I definitely know the most effective types of feedback, as learning goals are obviously the best to help reach goals and make progress.

One thing I noticed in the review, and I put this down to how critical I had to be for Essay 2, was that there was no mention of the ethical considerations given in the study. There is no mention about obtaining the consent of the parents or students involved in the interviews, nor how the two teachers agreed to participate. She mentions briefly why she chose the two teachers subjects, but no mention is given over which students were selected for individual or group interviews. That being said, I imagine that this version of the paper is the condensed version that was necessary to meet the publication requirements. Still, it would have been nice to see even a brief acknowledgement that the study was ethically sound.

One major thing that I will take away from the paper are the questions that she asked to the students during a focus group task. These were included in a table outlining her data collection methods, and included prompts like:

the teacher explains and model answers; the teacher talks to me about my work; the teacher writes on my work, telling me what I need to do to improve it; the teacher writes comments on my work in relation to the learning objective; the teacher writes on comment on my work; the teacher ticks my work; I know the criteria and mark my work myself; the teacher tells us the answers and we mark it ourselves; a friend marks my work with me (p. 523).

I think these questions would be useful for my baseline questionnaire. The results would be very interesting, especially because they could provide me with a snapshot of what the students think about their feedback.

One of the main conclusions that the report makes is that teachers often think they are using assessment in a way that provides students with targets for improvement, but actually, when you ask the students, and when you actually look at the feedback itself, it's clear that the teachers are not always providing descriptive feedback; often it was phatic or evaluative, with smilie faces and tick marks (p. 524).  In her own look at the feedback given in the two year 6 classes, Murtagh noticed that 'there was limited evidence of feedback that related specifically to the learning objective of the lesson (p. 524). This obviously poses a problem, because one of the first rules of giving effective feedback is that you need to make the goals and intensions clear from the start in order to ensure student success. If the work being marked doesn't even match the learning intentions, then what's the point of that piece of work?

Another point that Murtagh makes, and which came up in my own pilot interviews, is that teachers tend to give, and therefore students tend to focus on, spelling, punctuation or grammar targets. As mentioned above, these targets are not often linked to the learning goals. It's no wonder then that most students think that teachers mark their work for these types of surface features; if teachers aren't making the learning intentions clear, alongside specific success criteria, then students will inevitably assume that their work will be marked for more basic criteria.

She also reinforces the literature, alongside my pilot findings, that students do not like 'tick and flick' marking, and that instead they like receiving 'cues or reinforcements to learners in the form of instructional feedback and/or related to goals' (p. 533). Similarly, the idea that students need to have better training in how to conduct self and peer-assessment came up. She mentions how students need to learn how to 'trust' each other when it comes to doing peer-assessment (p. 535); this came up in my pilot interview with one student suggesting that they were uncomfortable with peer-assessment because they found that other students either marked too easily or didn't take the targets seriously, providing silly comments like 'write neater'.

I really enjoyed the fact that Murtagh appears to be on the 'side' of teachers; while she acknowledges that sometimes her two subject teachers didn't always 'get it right', she does suggest that their intentions were good and that it was a lack of training or time that kept them from doing things properly. She goes further to suggest that providing too much feedback, especially delivered as phatic or evaluative, will actually do the students a disservice; they will become too reliant on teacher feedback, becoming less able to self or peer-assess.

Murtagh also mentions that there is a 'disparity between descriptive feedback in written form compared with that provided orally' (p. 524). In fact, what I noticed from the interview and observation quotes was that the teachers often provided verbal feedback, both from themselves and peers, but very little of this feedback was stored in a way that the students could later use and reflect upon.  It would be interesting to explore how verbal and written feedback are used by students in lessons, so this might be a question that I pose to my research subjects.

Finally, the article was useful to me because it provided me with more backup for continuing down the road I'm going in. Towards the end of the paper, Murtagh suggests that 'research with children, rather than solely about them, is vital to promoting the importance of the 'child's voice' as well as providing a means of access to it' (p. 536). I highlighted this as a key quote, because I think it supports my own reasons for consulting pupils directly and making use of student-researchers. Overall, it was a very good read, and has provided me with a lot of supporting evidence for my own research project.