In this systematic review we present the results from research in feedback on student texts in writing instruction. The studies included cover pupils in elementary school grades 4-9 and in upper secondary school.
Feedback and writing development
For feedback to contribute to the pupil’s continued development and learning, it should contain information about what the pupil already knows, what needs to be developed, and what the pupil can do to further advance. The term “writing development” signifies positive changes in a person’s writing. For example, it is about developing a correct language, but also to learn how different types of texts can be written. The teacher’s feedback can potentially support all possible dimensions of pupil writing development.
What are the main results?
This review shows that three aspects are central for feedback of the writing process, and as such reasonable to illustrate.
1. When should feedback be given to advance pupil’s writing development?
Pupils are more likely to benefit from feedback given while they are still in their writing process, than if they have already finished their the text. If feedback is to be beneficial to pupils in their development as writers, writing processes should be organized so that teachers can provide feedback before the pupils’ texts are considered complete. Pupils can then immediately use the teacher’s feedback in the process of developing and processing drafts.
According to research, a condition for feedback during the writing process to work is that the current writing task is sufficiently challenging. For writing tasks that the pupils can handle as well on their own, feedback can be an annoyance. For those who need support, guidance is more welcome.
2. What should feedback take notice of to advance pupil’s writing development?
Pupils are given better opportunities to use feedback if it is versatile, namely/that is, if it refers to more dimensions of the text than just formal linguistic correctness. Unilateral focus on formal shortcomings does not provide the tools that pupils need to make progress in their writing. On the contrary, there is a risk that pupils may feel inhibited from trying more advanced alternatives regarding the content and language of the text.
Research also shows that a prerequisite for feedback to have the potential to work is that it has content that is in line with the learning objectives of the specific task For example, a teacher who plans an element for the pupils to become aware of how to write in a particular genre, and then in his or her feedback only notices spelling mistakes, may make the pupils believe that the moment is actually about spelling rules.
3. How should feedback be given to advance pupil’s writing development?
Based on the results from the primary research, we can draw four conclusions concerning the how-question:
First of all, dialogue plays a key role in making feedback constructive. The dialogue serves, on the one hand, for teachers and pupils to gain a common understanding of the signification of the teacher’s suggested changes, and on the other hand, the purpose of reaching a consensus on why these changes are important. Both of these purposes may require further explanations by the teacher, but also negotiation and compromises.
Secondly, research points to the importance of the teacher understanding and being responsive to differences between pupils. Some pupils need more clarity than others, and the same type of feedback can work very well for one pupil but not at all for another.
Thirdly, there are dilemmas that teachers and pupils need to handle for the feedback dialogue to work. On the one hand, both teachers and pupils express the importance of the feedback creating motivation for continued writing; on the other hand, it is in the school’s mission to make sure that the writing is aimed at given goals and that pupil’s writing performances are measured and assessed. This balancing act seems to be a difficult art.
Fourth, research results show the importance of a good relationship between teacher and pupil. Teachers may want to provide feedback that not only focuses on achievement, but also praises and makes the pupil visible as a person. The purpose of the latter is to motivate the pupils and make them feel good about their work.
How can the results be used?
The overview can give teachers good guidance, in many cases pose major challenges. The results do not make it possible to predict what will happen, but they might help anticipating possible events. The results provide knowledge of structures and patterns that you can recognize if and when similar situations arise in a new context.
What is the aim of the review?
With this systematic overview, teachers are given the opportunity to make use of research-based knowledge that can assist them in their use of feedback aiming at developing pupils’ ability to write.
What has the review been studying?
The research question we want to answer with this overview is:
What characterizes feedback from teachers to pupils who provide the prerequisites for, or can contribute to, the development of pupils’ ability to write?
What studies are included?
The literature searches made in both Swedish and international research databases resulted in 10,481 studies. After relevance and quality assessment, made by researchers in the field, 22 studies remained. These form the basis/groundwork of the systematic overview. The studies are of different nature, but they give an understanding of – or explanations of – what characterizes teacher feedback that provides the prerequisites for or can contribute to the development of pupils’ ability to write.
The systematic review is available as summary, information sheet and full report (in Swedish).