Improving tutor feedback on online academic writing courses for postgraduates

  • Northcott, Jill (Principal Investigator)
  • Caulton, David (Co-investigator)
  • Gillies, Pauline (Co-investigator)

Project Details


Feedback is considered to be central to student learning and academic achievement. With the continuing increase in the numbers of both distance and face to face international Masters students, providing effective online formative feedback to develop second language (L2) English academic writing skills has become a crucial concern. Identifying the characteristics of effective feedback is an important first step in spreading good practice more widely.
Whilst there is a general consensus that effective feedback is personalised, specific and timely (Busse 2013, Hyland 2013), studies into student and teacher perceptions of feedback effectiveness have sometimes produced conflicting results because the experimental design removes feedback “from the contexts in which it has meaning for students” (Hyland 2013: 182). This small-scale grounded theory inspired study aims to provide rich data by investigating written teacher feedback on the weekly texts produced by taught and research postgraduates taking academic writing courses run jointly by ELTC and specific academic programme organisers. The teaching and learning environment is, potentially, a very meaningful context for research in this area.
It is envisaged that the research will develop both understanding and skills in providing effective feedback for ELTC tutors which will contribute to developing better support for the improvement of postgraduate students’ academic writing ability. A better understanding of how to effectively tailor our approach to different disciplinary areas and programme needs should also ensue.
We hope to be able to share our learning more widely with other university staff though both the Schools and IAD initiatives

Key findings

Ferris (2006, p.98) maintains that there is ‘a strong case for the superiority of indirect feedback over direct feedback’. Other research reported (Ferris 2006) suggests that written corrective feedback should be indirect when dealing with so-called treatable errors. Untreatable errors, such as word choice and word order, it is claimed, can only be addressed by direct correction as there are no rules which students can apply (Ferris 2001). Indirect feedback, on the other hand, allows learners to engage with the rules and apply them to their own correction of errors, resulting in deeper learning.
However, our data suggest that any kind of correction, including proofreading for errors may result in perceived improvement and student satisfaction with feedback if other factors are present. It appeared that the combination of corrective feedback with personal engagement by the tutors, improving confidence and establishing a relationship with the student, individualising feedback to take account of both the student’s first language (L1) and cultural background as well as disciplinary and professional background were more likely to result in student satisfaction with feedback and perceived improvement. Matching students comments with drafts of writing and tutor written feedback we developed the theory that it is a combination of POS/NAMED/CF on referencing/citation as well as grammar/sentence structure/vocabulary with ACADEMIC + CONFID with evidence that the student has acted on the feedback which leads to both student satisfaction and improvement.
This tentative conclusion is perhaps not so different from Lee (2008) researching Hong Kong secondary classrooms, discovering that ‘student incentive in the study was found to be inextricably linked with the teacher’s personality and pedagogy, which can indirectly influence student reactions to teacher feedback’(p.156). We concur with Lee (p.146) that ‘feedback is a social act’. This is as true of the online as the face to face classroom context. Establishing a persona online to project a friendly and involved yet critical friend is central to good feedback practice.
As expected, feedback uptake proved complex. We found examples where although all of the above elements were present, it was clear that the student had not acted on the feedback to make changes and corrections to their writing. We found, however, little evidence of what Truscott (1996, p.355) refers to as ‘the inherent unpleasantness of correction’. On the whole, our postgraduate students appreciated the correction provided, even when there was little evidence that they had acted upon it.
Effective start/end date1/06/1431/10/15


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