Providing post-secondary ELLs with high quality feedback

Formative assessment provides students with feedback that focuses on growth, rather than a grade. Effective formative feedback can help students demonstrate that learning has taken place, and that the learners have used the suggestions to improve their work. Students who can reflect and act on feedback are more likely to be successful in their academic tasks – however, students of all ages must be taught how to use and apply feedback for it to be impactful.

In a study on international post-secondary English language learners (ELLs), Dr. Sarah Elaine Eaton and Lorelei Anselmo, a Werklund MEd graduate, interviewed and surveyed 19 learners on their experiences with formative feedback, both in their home countries, and in Canada. The researchers examined what it means to deliver high quality feedback to students about their writing, and how these students perceive and experience receiving feedback.

Hearing students

Providing clear and understandable feedback is essential for feedback to result in learning. For international ELL students, understanding both the language and the assessment practices used by instructors can be a significant barrier. As some students had never received certain kinds of feedback, interpreting the meaning of the feedback was new to them. The participants indicated a desire to have clarity and specific instructions on how to improve their writing.

Goal-oriented feedback is also more effective for learners, improving their ability to take action on the suggestions. 12 of the participants wanted the feedback they receive to reflect the specific goals of each assignment – for example, in a compare-and-contrast essay, the students wanted ways to improve their writing in that particular style, rather than just grammar corrections.

The type of feedback learners receive also impacts how, and if, they reflect and act on it. The students in the study preferred that feedback be varied and tailored to their preferences and needs:

  • While oral feedback can provide clear and immediate feedback, the participants were also concerned about forgetting the comments or not having enough time to reflect on them.
  • 17 of the 19 participants indicated they found written feedback to be both effective and useful for improving their writing skills. A common form of feedback in the additional language classroom, students appreciated the ability to reflect on written feedback and to ask for clarification after reflecting on it.
  • Peer feedback, in contrast, was unanimously disliked by the participants. The students saw their classmates as equal learners and did not see the benefits to this style. While this could be addressed with pre-training, the time involved in doing so can make this an impractical approach.

Providing feedback

Instructors can help overcome misunderstandings and support students in engaging with the feedback by considering their formative assessment methods. Below are three suggestions for improving feedback practices, based on the current study and existing research in this area:

  • A feedback expectations discussion at the beginning of the term can be useful for setting the course’s foundation. A survey form can help the students reflect on their experiences and expectations, and give the instructor a sense of their students’ preferences. This discussion can also inform students about the types of feedback they will receive, and what they should do with the feedback.
  • Including a comments section for the instructor, and a separate section for the learner, in the rubric requires the learner to reflect and respond to the feedback provided. By releasing the grade after the student has written their comments can also help prevent misunderstanding about the grading of the work.
  • Instructors can use both oral and written formative assessment strategies together to lead to more effective feedback. A short oral conference with the student, in addition to written comments, builds on the strengths of both approaches.

Effective formative feedback provides students with clear, goal-oriented, and learner-preferred ways of improving their academic skills. Both the instructor and the students in the course play a role in supporting the feedback process, promoting improved teaching and learning.


See more from Dr. Sarah Eaton on her profile


Connected Citations

Anselmo, L., & Eaton, S. E. (2017). Making evidence informed decisions about formative written feedback. In P. Preciado Babb, L. Yeworiew, & S. Sabbaghan (Eds.), Selected Proceedings of the IDEAS Conference: Leading Educational Change, pp. 93-102. Calgary, Canada: Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary. Available Online