Number one for English language teachers

Alternatives to whole class feedback

Type: Article

Amanda Gamble offers some practical answers to a Forum question about whole class feedback.

Could anyone tell me how to properly give feedback during a lesson. Usually, I do whole class feedback but would like to use different methods if possible.
Thanks in advance for your help.

Introduction | What are the drawbacks of whole class feedback? | Feedback – a neglected idea? | Why do these? | What to do before feedback with the class | Some issues to consider | The role of learner training | Conclusion

Anchor Point:1Introduction

Take a look at the following classroom exchange:

Teacher:  ... and what’s the answer to number 3?
Whole class:  He bought a sandwich. (Sea of noise in which the teacher hears the answer)
Teacher:  And number 4?
Whole class:  He drank orange juice. (Sea of noise in which the teacher hears the answer)

Sound familiar? How many times have you done feedback like this? Probably many. Why do we fall into the pattern of getting feedback in this way? Is it the easiest way? The quickest?

When I first started teaching, I always did feedback like this. It took some time for me to realize that this kind of feedback was only for me. It was a way for me to check if the students had the correct answers. While I could pick out the correct answer from a sea of noise, many of my students couldn’t. I used to think, "I’ve done a good job. My students understand!" but then I began to realize that generally it was only the stronger or the more confident students who would shout out the answers.  When I looked at individual student’s work, I saw that they didn’t always have the correct answer and, more importantly, they didn’t know what the correct answer was. 

Anchor Point:2What are the drawbacks of whole class feedback?

  • The teacher is in control and decides when to move onto the next question.
  • The teacher is probably doing most of the talking.
  • Just because the teacher has heard someone say the answer it doesn’t mean that all the students know what the correct answer is.
  • This method doesn’t help weaker students – they often get lost during the feedback, especially if they have a lot of incorrect answers.

More importantly, it doesn’t tell the teacher what problems the students had with the activity or if they need further practice. However, the most crucial factor is that students don’t learn anything from this kind of feedback – all they get from it is ‘He drank orange juice’ is correct. They don’t learn WHY it is correct or why, for example, ‘He has drunk orange juice’ is wrong. 

In a communicative, learner-centred classroom whole class feedback goes against the grain. The teacher is in control and the students learn little if anything from the process. However, in many communicative, learner-centred classrooms I’ve seen, the feedback process has still been teacher-centred.

Anchor Point:3Feedback – a neglected idea?

I’ve been thinking about this subject a lot in the last couple of years. I’ve been asked to do workshops on it and have wanted to do these because of what I have seen during classroom observations. It’s not such an easy thing to give a workshop on because you have to do activities first in order to get feedback on them. And look in the reference books – can you find anything about feedback? Not much. I’ve come to the conclusion that this area has been somewhat neglected.

However, I should first define what I mean by ‘feedback’. There are different types of feedback:

  • Giving students an idea of how they’ve done after a speaking activity – looking at both their errors and the good things they have said.
  • Asking students what they think about an activity they have done or to reflect on recent classes.
  • Checking the answers to activities the students have done.

I want to concentrate on the third one. So students have completed an exercise and now the teacher wants to check the answers. What alternative ways are available to us? Take a look at the following ideas:

  1. Give the students an answer key or put the answer key on the wall or the board.
  2. Give each student the answer to one or more questions – they read out for the class to check.
  3. One student has the answer key and plays the teacher.
  4. Get students to write the answers on the board.
  5. Get one student to read out his/her answers – the rest of the class see if they have the same.
  6. Coursebooks sometimes encourage students to listen to the answers.
  7. Give the students a reading text with all the answers in.
  8. Students nominate each other to say the answer.
  9. Do it as a competition – students work in teams to check their answers and then get points.
  10. Teacher monitors while students are on task and makes a note of common problems to concentrate on in feedback.

Anchor Point:4Why do these?

1. To encourage learner autonomy – the teacher won’t always be there to provide answers. If you put the key on the wall, it also gets the students out of their seats for a few minutes. You can make it more fun by getting them to run to the walls, find the answers and go back to tell their partners – a bit like a running dictation OR give half the answers to one person and the other half to their partner. They share their information like an information gap activity.

2. Although the teacher provides the answers, the students are in control of the feedback.

3. I saw this done really well in an observation. The student with the answer key has to be able to answer questions asked by the class to make it more effective.

4. This is a good way to deal with early finishers.

5. This works well if students have different answers to questions because they can discuss the answer and come to an agreed conclusion.

6. A good way to introduce intensive listening into your classroom with a real purpose.

7. An alternative way to get the students reading in your class. It practises scanning skills and, like 6, has a real purpose.

8. A student-centred version of whole class feedback. It works better if students choose the questions to answer at random as it keeps them on their toes and encourages them to listen to each other. 

9. Makes the feedback more interesting and fun and could help to change the pace of the lesson.

10. This saves time going through answers which the students have got correct and gives more time to work on the answers they got wrong and think about the reasons why.

This leads me onto my next point. A further reason why the above techniques are useful, when compared to whole class feedback, is that error correction can be dealt with. Some of the techniques above will allow for discussion of the answers more easily than others, for example 2, 3 and 10. Doing this with number 9 would distract the students’ attention away from the competitive element, although it could be done afterwards. 

One of the drawbacks of whole class, teacher-led feedback is that there is little chance for the students to discuss their answers. For feedback to be effective and worthwhile, students need the opportunity to talk about their answers so that they can see why the correct answer is right and why the incorrect one is wrong (as I mentioned earlier). In this way, we can encourage students to learn from their mistakes. It also gives us valuable feedback on our teaching. If we see that students have had a problem with particular questions, we probably need to ‘re-teach’ or at least review this area again.

Anchor Point:5What to do before feedback with the class

Before using any of these techniques, it’s important for students to check their answers together with a partner. This gives students confidence and a chance to communicate in English to discuss their answers. As the teacher, you might have to help a bit here so that they don’t slip into L1 as may sometimes happen. You can give them ‘task language’ such as:

I think...
What do you think about...
I think so too  / Me too
I don’t. I think...

If you get students used to giving each other feedback after activities and introduce the appropriate task language, not only will the students get a chance to discuss their answers but they will also have an opportunity to use language. It could be a good opportunity to get them practising, for example, agreeing and disagreeing, negotiating meaning etc. In this way, feedback has a real communicative purpose. 

Other things to do before getting class feedback:

  • Getting students to check their answers in pairs is a good way to mix the students up and get them moving around for a few minutes. 
  • If you have a student who always finishes before everyone else, look at his/her answers and tell him/her how many he has got wrong but not which ones. This is a good way to keep an early finisher busy for a little while longer while the others catch up. It’s also a good way to get students to look at their answers again – something I find very few of my students do especially in tests or exams, so this is a good strategy to encourage.

Anchor Point:6Some issues to consider

So, back to the techniques of checking answers with the whole class. It’s all well and good having these alternative ways but there are some issues to consider when choosing which technique is the most appropriate.

  • Time – If it only took the students five minutes to complete the exercise but the feedback takes 15 minutes, then this probably isn’t the most efficient use of time.
  • Level – Lower level students might have some difficulties with some of the above – number 3 for example.
  • Activity type – A True/False activity would suit number 4 but would probably be pointless for number 2.
Anchor Point:7

The role of learner training

Before using these techniques with your students you will probably need to give them some learner training. Issues you will need to consider are:

Issues Solutions

Students need to understand the purpose behind using different feedback techniques.

They will learn and understand more if they are in control of the feedback as it will be more meaningful and they will be involved in communication for a real purpose.

Some students might not feel comfortable being told an answer by another student.

Encourage a positive classroom atmosphere and use activities at the beginning of a new class that build the dynamics.

Some students might feel uncomfortable about having this kind of responsibility.

Students need to be encouraged that they can learn from each other and that the teacher isn’t the ‘fountain of all knowledge’.

Students don’t know how to check answers for themselves.

When you introduce the different techniques, show the students what to do. You can also encourage them to self-check outside the class by setting homework and getting them to look at an answer key as many workbooks encourage nowadays.

These techniques need to be introduced at an early stage so that students see them as part of everyday classroom life.

Anchor Point:8Conclusion

My aim here has been to suggest some alternative ways of getting feedback on activities. If we use student-centred activities in our classrooms, it’s also important to support these with student-centred feedback. Using some or all of the different techniques I have suggested will mean that feedback has a real, more meaningful and communicative purpose and that students will learn something from the process.

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