Improving the writing process with an online feedback tool
Juhana Nieminen ja Jan-Mikael Rybicki, Aalto-yliopisto
During their university studies, students write many documents, such as reports and essays, as a part of course requirements. In language and communication courses, the students sometimes engage in a process writing approach by creating reports or essays in smaller steps to better support the learning of writing. Currently, these documents are submitted in an electronic form and commented by the teacher either using pen and paper, word processor or a commenting/annotation tool. Each of these systems have their strengths and weaknesses (see Rybicki et al. in Sulop 2010). At the Aalto University’s Language Centre in Otaniemi, teachers have used all of these three approaches. The more technology-oriented teachers have used commenting tools for some years, but the available tools did not receive a wider user base as using some of these existing tools did not suit well to the teaching methods, or they were not particularly user-friendly. Nevertheless, the earlier experience clearly indicated that many teachers would be interested in using such a text commenting tool provided that it was easy to use in the writing process. To address this need, we designed a new, more flexible and user-friendly tool, known as KungFuWriting (KFW), for giving feedback on student writing. The following sections will discuss how this tool has been incorporated into the language courses at Aalto University’s Language Centre across languages.
The basic pedagogical principle of using a commenting tool is to provide students with clear written explanations and suggestions in order to help them to improve their written language skills. As many language problems are frequently repeated by many students, the teacher can reuse the saved comments by simply clicking a button that links the feedback within a student text. The students’ task is to revise the text based on this feedback. Since the KFW tool supports multiple languages, it has now been used to give feedback on writing in many languages at different skill levels. In its simplest form, the writing process consists of three main steps. First, students write and then submit a draft assignment to the teacher for feedback. In the second step, the teacher gives feedback to the students on their writing assignment and returns the commented text to the students for revision. In the third step, the students go through the feedback and try to improve the written assignment and re-submit the revised version back to the teacher for checking the work. In the current English written communication courses (at B2-C1 CEFR level), students have written a 1500-word report which compares and evaluates three alternative approaches to a general engineering problem. Due to the length of the document, it was written in several parts starting from preliminary planning documents over the period of 12 weeks. Two sections of the report were commented by the teacher using the KFW tool, and for the other sections students received in-class peer and teacher feedback. The final report was graded using a scale of 1-5 using a holistic grading rubric. English teachers at the Language Centre have used the tool already in the beta testing phase, and after the launch of the stable version, the tool and the process writing method have been adopted by other languages, such Swedish and Spanish. As the language skills levels are lower, the texts written in these languages tend to be shorter, but the writing process still involves the basic three steps. The number of texts commented during a course varies to some extent from teacher to teacher. From the technical point of view, the tool can be operated via a web browser and therefore works in all common operating systems (Windows, Mac and Linux), which provides flexibility for the users. From the pedagogical point of view, the KFW tool was designed to support the entire writing process, whether fully online or blended, both for the teachers and students. As students submit their texts, the teacher can keep track who has (or has not) submitted their assignments. The teacher can use a text comparison tool within KFW to quickly compare different versions of student assignments to see how well each student has managed to improve their writing based on feedback. Statistical tools allow the teacher to identify areas of writing that seem to cause problems for students, which is useful in the development of course teaching.
The use of a commenting tool in the writing process has been very rewarding from the point of pedagogical development. One such area has been increased cross-language collaboration between teachers even across different universities. In practice, the teachers have been sharing both pedagogical insights and practical suggestions to giving written feedback, which has resulted in a better and shared understanding of the teaching of writing. The collaboration has allowed teachers to learn best practices that might not otherwise be shared, as the discussions related to writing can now be focused on very concrete ideas that teachers encounter in their daily work, such as how to create feedback templates; how much feedback and what kind of feedback is suitable for a particular course or group of students; what has or has not worked well in the feedback; and how could something be done in a more efficient manner.