Understanding the Impact that Principled Formative Feedback has on First Year Students’ Writing: Is it Useable or Not? An Action Research Project

By Penny Niven and Billy Meyer.

Published by The Learner Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

This paper reports on the second cycle of a broader critical action research project that is investigating the uses of formative assessment in an academic writing course for first year students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal
in South Africa. This stage of the project explores the impact that lecturers’ written comments on an early writing assignment had on the 12 students who received them. The students’ prior experiences of assessment are
investigated, their emotional responses to the formative comments, and whether the lecturers’ feedback was comprehensible and useable or not. Following Black and Wiliam’s (1998) extensive review of the generally positive
effects that improving formative feedback has on learning, the lecturers involved in the study assumed that their careful and principled formative comments on the students’ essays would be helpful and developmental. In fact, their comments and intentions were often misinterpreted and misunderstood by the students and possible reasons for this are implied by the data. The findings led the lecturers to conclude that their mode of giving formative feedback needed to be re-evaluated and redesigned. In the light of these insights a possible way forward into the next phase of the project is envisioned. Different ways of giving formative feedback, more closely tailored to the students’ past educational experiences and actual needs, are planned for the next phase of the project.

Keywords: Assessment, Academic Literacy, Useable Feedback

The International Journal of Learning, Volume 14, Issue 8, pp.13-22. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 541.479KB).

Penny Niven

Lecturer, Humanities Access Year, Univerity of KwaZulu - Natal, Pietermaritzburg, KZN, South Africa

Penny Niven has been a lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal since 2005.Apart from teaching the Academic Literacy course in the Foundation year, she is in charge of a recently established extended curriculum project in the Faculty of Human, Development and Social Sciences which aims to support the learning of disadvantaged ESL students in eight Humanities and Social Science disciplines. Before coming to UKZN she taught and studied at Rhodes University where her Masters research explored socio-cultural aspects of reading in a first level History class. Her current interests include an ongoing project exploring the effectiveness of formative feedback in developing Academic Discourse and the implementation of the extended curriculum modules.

Dr. Billy Meyer

Lecturer, School of Language, Literature and Linguistics, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, KZN, South Africa

I have twelve years of experience in teaching Academic Literacy for the Science Foundation Programme and the Humanities Foundation Year at the University of Natal / KwaZulu-Natal. The experience of working in both these programmes includes working in collaborative teams, at both programme and discipline level, which are constantly engaged in curriculum review and development. In 2003 and 2004 I coordinated a curriculum review process for the Humanities Foundation Year of the University of KwaZulu-Natal during which the offerings in Academic Literacy and English Language Development were completely rewritten.My Research record is strongly focussed in Academic Discourse Development. My PHD is a study of the Primary and Secondary Discourses of Theology Students and how these discourses impacted on their development of Academic Discourse. I have written three papers based on this research. In addition, I have research in to Academic Discourse development of Science Students and I am continuing similar research into the Academic Discourse of Humanities Students.


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