How Does Formative, Written Feedback Help Students Improve Their Geographical Writing

Abstract

Written communication is an essential performance of understanding and critical thought for the Geography student, especially given the assessment objectives of the current national curriculum. The literature affirms that iterative pedagogies that involve formative feedback, such as drafting and process writing, can be effective for developing writing competency. This article discusses the findings of an action research project on the effectiveness of formative written feedback to help upper secondary students improve their geographical writing. The article frames formative written feedback as a constructivist pedagogical approach, and highlights that effective formative feedback should help students improve by meeting their needs for scaffolding, modeling and affirmation. More broadly, formative written feedback is a means for teachers to model for their students a reflective attitude towards learning.

Introduction

As a discipline, Geography is rooted in the tradition of the humanities, which necessitates extended critical discussion of issues from a geographical lens. In the context of assessment, as well as teaching and learning, writing skills are fundamental for conveying this critical discussion, especially as a performance of understanding by the student. Such written performance is essential, not just as a summative gauge for promotion and accreditation, but also as valuable data that informs the teacher’s pedagogy and provides an indication of the student’s learning. It is no surprise then that the teaching of writing forms an important part of a holistic education, especially in the humanities.  It is also a particularly salient issue when geography students cannot write well, and even more aggravatingly, cannot demonstrate their understanding and thoughts about geographical matters effectively through writing. Indeed, the writing skills of students is an ongoing concern, whether at the tertiary level (Cadwallader and Scarboro, 1982; Gambell 1987), or at the secondary and pre-tertiary levels.

Thompson et.al (2005) and Dummer et. al. (2008) assert that getting students to be more comfortable with writing regularly within the geography discipline can help students with deep learning (Slinger-Friedman et.al, 2012, pg. 180). Many geography instructors argue that writing as part of classroom learning is crucial for students to learn to think like geographers (Libbee and Young, 1983; Slinger-Friedman and Patterson 2012, cited in Leydon et al., 2014) and writing allows students to explore ideas in-depth (Slinger-Friedman et.al., 2012).

In the current context of mainstream education in Singapore, the role of writing as a means for students to demonstrate competency in thinking and disciplinary knowledge has always been pertinent. Indeed, extended writing is still the main mode of assessment at the GCE ‘O’ Level and ‘A’ Level examinations, whether in short, structured answers or in extended essay responses (MOE and UCLES, 2015). Furthermore, the criteria for credit for essay questions can only be evidenced in the written responses of candidates, and the effective communication of these criteria necessitates good writing competency.

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An Inspiring Quote

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~ John Dewey, How We Think

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