Electronic Feedback and Usability in the Composition Classroom

Proposal Title: 
Electronic Feedback and Usability in the Composition Classroom
Abstract: 

Because of the strong presence of online instruction at our university, many instructors provide electronic feedback out of necessity, but these methods of commenting on student papers often mirror that of commenting on paper drafts. However, we must consider that students do not engage as thoughtfully or closely with typed digital feedback that recreates the conventions of paper feedback. In this roundtable, we will explore the challenges and opportunities of e-feedback, in terms of usability for both instructor and students. Beyond the investment required in learning the new technology, which may prove time-consuming or difficult, composition instructors may also struggle with placing reasonable limitations on the time spent on e-feedback or even with Internet distractions. Although technology offers several affordances for commenting on student work, the efficiency instructors perhaps value the most highly is not necessarily one of them. We find that when we read and comment on student work electronically, the time we spend on each essay actually increases, even after we are proficient with the software we are using. While the term “efficiency” suggests a factory mentality that seems at odds with academic work, we know that the workload for composition instructors, often adjuncts, demands that we be parsimonious with the time we spend reading, reflecting, and commenting on student submissions. We want to suggest, then, that e-feedback should draw on all of the affordances of technology instead of just emulating a paper model in a digital environment. Discussion will be guided by questions about efficacy, practices, and opportunities for electronic feedback.

Proposal: 

In the increasingly pro-digital atmosphere of higher education, communication between composition instructors and students frequently takes place in a digital environment. Students access grades through course management sites, upload essays to course management sites or websites, and, at times, compose entirely in digital media. Because of the strong presences of online instruction at our university, many instructors provide electronic feedback out of necessity, but these methods of commenting on student papers often mirror that of commenting on paper drafts. Comments are typed out using the comment feature in Microsoft Word and are appended to the essay in an endnote. However, an essay written in traditional college essay format in Word is not optimized for reading in an electronic environment unless the instructor uses a rotating monitor to display more of the page at one time (as one of us has done), and it is difficult to flip through pages quickly, as we often do when grading a paper. One study suggests that this is a significant feature of writing from sources in a professional environment (O’Hara, 2002), and we would argue that our workflow is similar to that of a professional writer researching a topic. When we grade paper drafts, we are also able to visualize our progress as we move papers from a stack to be graded to a stack of graded essays.

 In addition to the challenges for instructors, the reading comprehension of students is also an important factor in their use of comments. While recent studies have determined that student reading comprehension is not negatively impacted by reading in digital environments (Kretzschmar et al., 2013), or that computer-based reading might aid reading comprehension (Huang, 2014), only limited research (McCabe, 2011) has been done to explore the efficacy of e-feedback in general composition classes. Several studies have been conducted on the reception of both instructor and peer feedback by L2 students, but these often explore the differences in the way international students view feedback from peers and instructors (Tuzi, 2004). In this roundtable, we will explore the challenges and opportunities of e-feedback, in terms of usability for both instructor and students, and as it impacts student comprehension of that feedback. We also want to ask whether students miss a crucial opportunity if they do not receive feedback electronically. 

Recent studies have concluded that college students prefer a paper reading experience to a digital reading experience (Kretzschmar et al., 2013; Foasberg, 2014), and many dislike reading feedback on a computer screen (McCabe, 2011), so we must consider that students do not engage as thoughtfully or closely with typed digital feedback that recreates the conventions of paper feedback. Long-term application of feedback to future assignments might also be affected by the relatively low-level of importance students place in electronic texts, in comparison to paper texts.  Other research (McCabe, 2011) finds e-feedback beneficial, but observes some student frustration with learning new technology. In particular, we should consider if first-generation or low-income students, many of whom attend schools that tout their adoption of technology in the classroom as an asset that will prepare those students for the workforce, are disadvantaged by e-feedback that assumes their media literacy. E-feedback may exacerbate the preparation gap suffered by first-generation and low-income students (Relles & Tierney, 2013). 

Instructors are then tasked with devoting class and in-office time training students to use technology and read electronic feedback. E-feedback may also exacerbate existing reading comprehension or attention problems in the student population, particularly when students must open feedback using specific programs or devices. Finally, e-feedback also creates technical and psychological challenges for instructors. Beyond the investment required in learning the new technology, which may prove time-consuming or difficult, composition instructors may also struggle with placing reasonable limitations on the time spent on e-feedback, or like students, with the draw of Internet distractions.

Although technology offers several affordances for commenting on student work, the efficiency instructors perhaps value the most highly is not necessarily one of them. While the term “efficiency” suggests a factory mentality that seems at odds with academic work, we know that the workload for composition instructors, often adjuncts, demands that we be parsimonious with the time we spend reading, reflecting, and commenting on student submissions. What we have both found, however is that when we read and comment on student work electronically, the time we spend on each essay actually increases, even after we are proficient with the software we are using. We want to suggest, then, that e-feedback should draw on all of the affordances of technology instead of just emulating a paper model in a digital environment. Chris Anson and Nancy Summer, for example, presented the use of audio and screen-capture feedback at CCCC in 2011. Researchers have also investigated the reception of an electronic feedback form by pharmacy students (Denton, Madden, Roberts, and Rowe, 2008). Our own commenting practices have included the use of screen-capture, the use of “stamps” in an iPad app, and the completion of PDF rubrics with comments while reading paper drafts, but we believe there are more possibilities that would make better use of the technology than to reproduce traditional practices.

The leaders of this roundtable will present research on online reading comprehension, usability by both students and instructors, and alternate methods of feedback. They will then open the discussion for participants in this roundtable to share their thoughts, research, and experiences with e-feedback and reading comprehension. Discussion will be guided with questions such as: What is the efficacy of e-feedback? How are you using e-feedback in your classroom? Are students missing out on something if instructors do not provide e-feedback? Do they comprehend e-feedback differently than handwritten feedback? What are the limits and opportunities of e-feedback for both instructors and students? How can we assess student comprehension of e-feedback? 

Context: 
Commenting on student papers is inherently interventional, but sometimes our interventions fail to have the effect we hoped. We often need to intervene in our own practices, examining, reflecting, and revising how we respond to students, in order to help students to achieve success.
Proposal Type: 
roundtable