Advancing Learning: Feedback - are we sending our students hidden messages?

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Advancing Learning: Feedback - are we sending our students hidden messages?

Introduction

The area of feedback in the classroom has been discussed in many forms in a range of articles and books over the years and covers a myriad of different sub-sections. These range from, for example, Rinvolucri’s 1994 article, looking at different types of feedback to Scrivener and Underhill’s more recent focus on feedback in the guise of Demand High (https://demandhighelt.wordpress.com).  We can consider and plan the different types of feedback we incorporate into our teaching, from teacher–student feedback to peer feedback and everything in between. However, in this article I want to turn specifically to ‘unconscious’ feedback - the messages we may be giving our students without realising it - and I will set out some examples, how to notice it and what to do about it if it appears to be a problem.


What is unconscious feedback?

Unconscious feedback is the feedback we give our students without intending to.  It differs from what Harmer (2007, p. 138) describes as ‘implicit’ feedback, since that term can be used to describe intentional implicit feedback, such as purposely not commenting on a student’s performance because no comment is required.  Unconscious feedback may come from the movements or actions which we use without thinking, including non-verbal feedback, or it may be how often we automatically use certain phrases or how much attention we give some students over others.  It may lead to students perceiving our feedback on their performance (incorrectly or correctly) without us being aware of it.

One form of this type of feedback can be relayed through non-verbal communication. There will be many instances when we use non-verbal communication in the classroom in a thought-through and directed way, for instance kinesics (body language), proxemics (spatial separation), oculesics (eye contact), chronemics (use of time, pausing etc..), vocalics (pitch and speed of voice), silence and facial expression (Darn, 2005). However, cast your eye over that list again, and you will probably realise that some (if not all) of these aspects are prone to unconscious action, perhaps resulting in unconscious feedback to the learner.

Let’s look a bit closer at some of them:

Voice:  When we give feedback on a student’s performance, whether it is related to a 15-minute presentation or one answer to a reading comprehension question, our voice speed and pitch can say a lot.  A very fast and high pitch voice might suggest to the student that we are not particularly interested and want to move on. Perhaps our reason for moving on is a time constraint, but that might not be the feedback that our student picks up.  He is concerned about the feedback on his language, his answer, and our unconscious response may cause him to believe that, despite the words we use, what he said was negative in some way.

Eye contact can be similar.  Are we looking at the student to whom we are giving the feedback or are we thinking about the next thing we need to do in the lesson, and so glancing at our plan, the board or the next student we are going to ask? How will our lack of eye contact affect the message or feedback we are trying to give to that student?  Will our (lack of) eye contact override the message we are giving?

Facial expression can also be a giveaway to how we are feeling.  Have you ever frowned a little too much when a student makes a basic mistake or says something you disagree with?  This can become like a tic, an automatic reaction which can throw less confident students off-track.  Of course, we are aware how a well-timed arch of the eyebrow from the teacher can serve as a useful hint for student self-correction, but other accidental, unconscious expressions may provide unintentional messages to our students!

In addition to body language, other common classroom actions can also hide within them certain feedback to students.  Take for example monitoring.  Do we always start monitoring at the same side of the classroom and does this mean that we spend more time on the left of the classroom than on the right, by which time we are rushing to look at students’ progress?  Do some students on the right feel that we are not so interested in their work?  Are we aware ourselves that they are not getting the same feedback as others due to our unconscious bias to start on the left?

Do we always praise the same students for their work, highlighting them as good examples to the rest of the class, perhaps because it is easier to praise them than to find areas that they could be working on?  Is this providing feedback to them that they don’t need to improve any more and is it demoralising others in the class?

These unconscious ways of giving feedback are not restricted to the face-to-face classroom, either.  We can find similar examples with online teaching.  For instance, when using a platform such as Zoom, where do we look when giving feedback?  At the camera, at one student’s picture, moving our eyes around?  What effect does this have on how students perceive our feedback?  Another issue could be the ability to pick up on all comments and messages posted in a chat box during a lesson.  Do we miss any and is this ‘missing feedback’ problematic in the student’s eyes? 


Becoming more aware of our unconscious feedback tendencies

The problem with any unconscious feedback that we might be giving our learners is that it is unconscious and so we are usually not aware of it!  So, if we are at all concerned about it, finding a way to notice it is essential.   Below are some suggestions of how to do that.

Video yourself:  This may not be something you like doing, but it does allow you to see some aspects of your behaviour in the classroom that you normally miss.  Again, since your feedback is unconscious, you may not even know what you are looking for, so you may simply want to watch the video in the shoes of a specific student and imagine your perception of teacher feedback in the lesson.  Ask yourself ‘How would I feel about my performance and the feedback I was getting if I was in this lesson?’  Then try to notice if any of this was based on unconscious feedback.  I have found that to really notice what is going on and see any emerging patterns, it is useful to repeat this over two or three lessons.

 

Get a colleague to observe you: Having another pair of ‘critical’ eyes in the classroom can be just what you need to pinpoint unconscious feedback.  Similar to videoing, you can ask the observer to imagine they are a student in the class and see things from that perspective.  You could use a form similar to the one here:

 

What I* do in class

How the teacher reacts (words, body language, voice etc..)

What is my perceived feedback?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Remember, the ‘I’ here is the ‘student’.

 

 

Get student feedback:  This is probably the trickiest of the suggestions, since students may not be keen to give you feedback on your classroom behaviour but if this is done with a group that you know well, you could use a similar form to the one above.  However, particularly with new situations, such as teaching using Zoom, you can point out to students that things may seem a bit ‘different’ and that everyone needs to be patient with each other and the system to get things to work.  You can ask the students to tell you if things aren’t working for them and to share ideas.


Moving from unconscious to conscious feedback

Having noticed aspects of ourselves and our teaching which may be providing unhelpful and incorrect feedback to students, we will probably want to alter or eliminate the habit(s) we have spotted.

There are several ways we can do this and my tips for working on reducing unconscious feedback are:

  • Decide on one area you want to work on and make your focus on it conscious in at least 2 lessons
  • Plan for a couple of points in the lesson when you can stop and ask yourself how you are doing/remind yourself of your purpose (it’s easy to be pulled off track)
  • If possible, continue the idea of videoing yourself (if you used that to notice unconscious feedback) to check on how you are doing
  • Keep an open discussion with your students so that they can remind you if you are falling into unconscious habits; this can be particularly useful for online or new styles of teaching

These steps allow us to start to monitor our progress. Repeating some or all of them at regular intervals can help us keep a check on our unconscious feedback.

While unconscious feedback is a small part of the overall area of feedback, it can have a large impact on how our students feel in the classroom.  If becoming aware of some of our unconscious habits can provide students with more reliable and accurate feedback, then I firmly believe that it is well worth taking time to investigate.


References:

Darn S.(2004)  Aspects of Non-verbal Communication in The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XI, No. 2

Harmer, J. (2007) The Practice of English Language Teaching  Macmillan

Scrivener, J. and Underhill, A.  https://demandhighelt.wordpress.com Retrieved 10 Oct 2020

Rinvolucri, M. (1994)   Key Concepts in ELT: Feedback in ELT Journal, Volume 48, Issue 3, July 1994, Pages 287–288

About the Author

Carole Anne Robinson is a Senior Trainer at NILE (Norwich Institute for Language Education), where she works as a trainer on language and methodology courses, delivers workshops and looks after NILE’s online Delta Module 2 programme.  She is a CELTA and Delta tutor and assessor and is especially interested in peer observation, CLIL / bilingual teaching and discourse analysis. 

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