Why asking our students to self-correct the errors in their essays is a waste of time…

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In this very concise article I will argue that involving our learners in Indirect Error Correction on its own is an absolute waste of valuable teacher and learner time. By Indirect Error Correction (henceforth IEC), I mean highlighting or underlining the errors in our students’ written pieces (with or without error coding), pass the essay back to our students who will make the corrections and pass it back to us for any necessary amendments to be made. In addition, some of us will ask the students to rewrite the whole essay incorporating the corrections.

It sounds like a very time-consuming activity!

The pedagogic rationale behind this approach seems pretty clear: the students get cognitively involved in the correction process. They are not just the passive recipients of the teacher’s correction but they are actually doing something about it. Moreover, by working on their mistakes they will become more aware of their problems and in the long term they will stop making them.

Unfortunately, in actual fact, the learning our students get out of this corrective technique in terms of language acquisition and error reduction do not justify the above effort at all. Several studies, (e.g. Semke, 1984; Robb, Ross and Shortreed, 1986; Ashwell, 2000; Chandler, 2003) have shown that it is not significantly more effective than direct correction or even than no correction at all. Why?

The first reason why it does not significantly enhance acquisition, relates to the distinction between Errors (mistakes due to lack of declarative knowledge) and Mistakes ( inaccuracies due to processing inefficiency, i.e. Working Memory’s failure to cope with the demands of the task – see previous blog post “why our learners make mistakes with preposition, articles….”). Errors (lack of declarative knowledge) are caused by not knowing the rule which governs the language item we got wrong. So, for instance, if I write ‘Ayer voy al cine’ (intended meaning: yesterday I went to the cinema) because I do not know the Preterite in Spanish, I used the present ‘voy’ simply because I do not master (declaratively) the Preterite tense – as my teacher has not taught it to me yet, for instance. However, there might be another reason: I know the preterite tense, but because my brain (my Working Memory) was busy simultaneously trying ‘to sort out’ vocabulary choice, word order, agreement as well planning the content, I chose the wrong tense – but if someone asks me to translate ‘I went’ into Spanish, in isolation, I can do it correctly.

As it is clear, if the teacher highlights the mistake in the first scenario (i.e. the learner does not know the rule) the student will not be able to correct it – unless prompted to find out about the Preterite by the instructor. In the second scenario, the learner might be able to. What am I getting at is that, unless the teacher goes through the essay thoroughly with the students, s/he will never find out what the real reason for the mistake is, which may lead to underlining a mistake the learner will never be able to correct.

Another important implication of the dichotomy Errors vs Mistakes for the ineffectiveness of IEC refers to the surrender value of this corrective practice. If the student has the knowledge to correct the errors pointed out by teacher, s/he is not really learning anything new, right? Someone might argue that s/he will learn not to make that error again, that s/he will pay more attention in the future. Chances are s/he will not because, as it is obvious, self-correcting when you are cued to a mistake is totally different to self-correcting whilst you are proofreading without anyone telling you ‘hey there is a mistake right there’. Especially for beginners whose Working Memory, when they are proof-reading, is loaded with so much information to attend to, that they will not have enough cognitive space to spot every single mistake they made. Especially if under pressure.

In my research, Conti (2001, 2004) I found that students’ ability to self-correct effectively when they are told that a given sentence contains errors, is very low. In my experiments they managed to get less than 30 % right. However, when cued to the word where the errors was, they managed to self-correct more than double that.

To make things worse, past studies have found out that IEC can have a negative impact on students’ motivation in that it causes learner’s anxiety and frustration. Imagine being a weak learner and being given your essay back with lots of errors to self-correct and not having the slightest clue of how to correct half of them…

Another issue with IEC that I identified during my study as well as in my teaching practice refers to what I call the ‘if not X then Y’ correction strategy. This refers to a common scenario where, when cued to the presence of an error the students can self-correct NOT because s/he knows or understand the rule or the context that caused the mistake, but rather because there is only ONE possible change that can be made. Example: If a student writes ‘la chien’ (‘dog’ in French) and the teacher underlines the definite article ‘la’ because the noun ‘chien’ is masculine and should therefore be preceded by the masculine definite article ‘le’, the student will correct because there is no other option, not because he has an internalized mastery of that context. Nor can we assume that by self-correcting this way he will never make the same mistake again, as, in the absence of follow-up (recycling of that information) and depth of processing, this information is likely to be lost after a few hours.

On the other hand, if IEC is only the prelude, the first step in a more complex and, most importantly, long-term approach like the one of Lalande’s (1982) study, the impact of the corrective process can be more beneficial. Lalande (1982) compared the effects of two different types of feedback on the writing of FL German learners: Direct and Indirect error correction. Upon reception of the marked essays the learners were asked to correct their mistakes and re-write the entire essay. For the experimental group, this involved interpreting the codes. As the course progressed, the experimental group learners monitored the frequency and recurrence of error types by referring to Error Awareness Sheets (error charts in which students logged their mistakes). Lalande found that “the combination of error awareness and problem solving techniques had a significant beneficial effect on the development of writing skills” and “effectively prevented students from making more grammatical and orthographic errors.” (Lalande, 1982: 78).

The simple addition to the traditional IEC approach of the extra steps of having to interpret the code and log errors in the Error Awareness Sheets makes the process more valuable from a learning point of view, in that it enhances the learners’ metacognition (self-knowledge) and, consistently keeping a log of their errors causes them to be more sensitized to the issue of accuracy and, possibly, more motivated to eradicate those errors in order to see their error-chart stop growing. In my view, though, even Lalande’s approach is way too laborious and time-consuming for the result obtained.

In conclusion, teachers should not waste so much valuable time – that could be devoted to planning or teaching or to more fruitful feedback activities – on Indirect Error Correction.

Please note that I am not advocatinng doing away with error correction altogether. Not at all – I do believe negative feedback can indeed be useful. I do believe, however, that traditional forms of corrective intervention such as Direct and Indirect Error Correction are too consuming for the very modest results they yield in terms of enhanced proficiency and acquisition.

If you would like to find out more on Error Correction research and what I believe to be the best way forward, read my blog post : “Why teachers should not bother correcting errors in their students’ writing (not the traditional way at least)