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Scholarly Pursuits

The Tragedy of Errors

Students get lost in the spiral of corrections

Prof. Icy Lee Kit-bing believes it will take a fundamental top-down overhaul of error correction to achieve a breakthrough in teaching and learning

Prof. Icy Lee Kit-bing
Department of Curriculum and Instruction

When secondary-school students learning English in Hong Kong get back their assignments from their teachers, they sometimes find themselves staring at a sea of red ink. Their instructors feel an obligation to mark up every single mistake, just as their own work was graded when they grew up.

But they are doing their students and even themselves a disservice, according to the research of Prof. Icy Lee, the chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at CUHK. They burden their charges with a host of changes that they don’t always understand – and they burden themselves with hours of unproductive grading, a task that many say is their least-favourite aspect of teaching.

The practice is particularly damaging for weaker students. The teacher may request corrections and even re-corrections from the students – but those learning by rote may not understand the actual basis for the change.

“Sometimes the students don’t know how to correct,” Professor Lee says. “You have pointed out 50 errors, some with correct answers that they just copy. If there are not correct answers, they may just leave it blank or copy the error code. It’s not very practical.”

The process, in other words, doesn’t help them understand their errors so that they can avoid making them again. To make matters worse, teachers know that the system does not work well but feel compelled to sustain it. They themselves are graded on their grading; they worry that their work assessment will suffer if they do not mark up every single mistake. And they remember the lessons of their childhood.

“If you ask teachers in Hong Kong, they always complain that they mark and mark, but the mistakes occur again and again. And they are not happy,” Professor Lee says. Corrections certainly have a place in teaching. But she believes the comprehensive approach is very inefficient.

To compile her research, Professor Lee first examined the feedback practices of Hong Kong teachers by investigating how 26 secondary-school English teachers had marked up 174 student texts. In the second phase of her research, she conducted in-depth interviews with six teachers to find out why they had responded to the student texts in the way they had.

In its guidelines for teaching and feedback, the Hong Kong Education Bureau in fact recommends that teachers mark written errors selectively. But those are voluntary guidelines, and they are routinely ignored. All 26 teachers marked up errors comprehensively.

In another study, Professor Lee administered an error-correction task to 58 secondary-school teachers to establish the accuracy of their marking. She found that teachers over-correct, by quibbling with a word choice that in fact was perfectly adequate, or reformulating a sentence that was perfectly correct. Only slightly more than 50% of the corrections were “necessary”.

Occasionally, the teachers were flat-out wrong in their changes. For instance, three teachers marking up a paper about water pollution changed the wording that the pollution had “caused damage to the beach,” a sentence that uses an uncountable noun correctly, insisting in error that the sentence should say that “the pollution had caused damages to the beach.”

Professor Lee also surveyed 58 secondary-school students on their response to teacher feedback. Strong students from a Band 1 school felt favourably about comprehensive error feedback, with around 70% of students requesting that it continue. But with low-proficiency students at a Band 3 school only 18% liked comprehensive error feedback. Other research shows those students experience “cognitive overload,” unable to make sense of what they have done wrong.

Professor Lee followed three English-language teachers for an entire academic year to track various issues, including feedback. One teacher agreed to mark her students’ written errors selectively for the year. There were initial positive findings – the students felt there was less “bureaucracy”. Weaker students who at times would not write anything at all in an exam began to at least write a few sentences.

The experiment also showed the flaws of the approach. Once the first term ended, the teacher reverted to marking up all the errors. She was concerned her own performance review would suffer.

The teacher felt she was innovating in isolation. “She did not get support,” Professor Lee says. “If there’s only one teacher who feels very strongly that this practice should be changed, it’s not going to be effective.”

The negative reinforcement comes from more than just the school administration. Peers, parents and even the students will compare the way that teachers respond to academic work, and often assume that a teacher marking selectively is just being lazy.

Professor Lee hosts workshops for teachers outlining the logic behind selective marking

Professor Lee published her findings in the Journal of Second Language Writing. Her article “Understanding teachers’ written feedback practices in Hong Kong secondary writing classrooms” won the journal’s prize for the best paper of the year in 2008. In 200910, she won the Award for Excellence in Teaching from the world’s largest organization of English-language teachers, Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. A year later, she received a Research Excellence Award at CUHK. 

At the request of schools, Professor Lee has hosted workshops for teachers outlining the logic behind selective marking. She recommends that second-language teachers relate their corrections to the particular topic that they are teaching. If they are giving instruction on storytelling, say, they could focus on the use of the past tense. If they are teaching dialogue, they should encourage students to write conversations, and concentrate their feedback there.

Focusing on three or four areas to correct is much more likely to make sense to students. Modern teaching theory also suggests that before the assignment, the teacher should give the student the opportunity to highlight what he or she would like to work on.

“Teachers have to be flexible, and students should have ownership of their work,” Professor Lee says. “This will make teaching more focused, and more effective as well.”

Professor Lee feels that best practices on teaching will continue to go unheeded unless educators address the root cause of the problem.

“In reality, teachers will continue to spend a massive amount of time marking student writing, complaining that it is time-consuming and ineffective; students will continue to receive papers inundated with red ink, and feel frustrated and discouraged,” Professor Lee says. She believes it will take a fundamental top-down overhaul of error correction to achieve a breakthrough in teaching and learning. 

By Alex Frew McMillan



This article was originally published on CUHK Homepage in Mar 2016.

Icy Lee Department of Curriculum and Instruction Faculty of Education Hong Kong education Research Excellence Award professors