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Using digital feedback in support of middle school students’ persuasive writing skills: A Bernsteinian perspective

The provision of feedback is one of the most important changes a teacher can implement to enhance learning. Digital technology can support teachers' feedback to students by creating new and different spaces for conversations around learning. In this study I combined feedback and digital technology to create a different space for teachers and students to learn together about persuasive writing. My interest in persuasive writing arose during my reading of Bernstein’s work. Bernstein argues there are two types of codes, or discourses: restricted and elaborated codes. Students from more advantaged backgrounds can switch between these discourses. Schools operate in the elaborated code, which can be challenging to fully comprehend, especially for students from less advantaged milieu. Bernstein offers that the knowledge to be acquired at school is or needs to be recontextualised by teachers so all students can access this academic knowledge. Persuasive writing is a difficult genre to master as it is complex and presents codes which can be challenging for students to comprehend. However, the literature suggests that it allows students to become democratically informed and active citizens. It is for this reason that this genre of writing was chosen as the focus of this study. The investigation I undertook aimed to answer the following question: How does the use of an online collaborative writing platform to create feedback as dialogue support diverse middle school students’ learning of the persuasive genre? To answer this question, a design-based intervention was conducted in a middle school with two participating teachers and their classes, of which 10 students were chosen by the teachers to be the target students. These students formed three groups: one group of three students was working above the national standard in writing, a group of three students was working at the standard and another group of four students was working below the standard. The study, conducted within the critical paradigm, sought to transform the educational reality for students working below the standard in writing. Students were asked to produce two pieces of persuasive writing and were provided with written and audio-based feedback on Google Docs. The teachers co-created rubrics regarding the persuasive writing genre and co-planned lessons. Data were collected in the form of semi-structured interviews, surveys, class observations, documents such as teachers’ mark books and students’ work samples. The findings show when effective feedback is provided to students, their writing attainment is more likely to increase. To be effective, feedback needs to be timely, personalised, and understood by the students. The four target students whose writing was below the standard benefited, and some of them preferred, from being provided with audio-based feedback. However, students whose writing attainment was already high, preferred receiving written-based feedback due to ease in reading and comprehending this feedback. Regardless of their literacy level, the target students preferred being provided feedback on Google Docs as it allowed timely and personalised feedback. The teachers and their students not only agreed on the efficacy of providing feedback on Google Docs, but they also shared the view that producing written pieces on Google Docs allowed students to produce more, better quality writing and it permitted students to redraft their work more easily. This study provides an example of how a Bernsteinian perspective can be applied to provide a new and useful understanding of the role of feedback in supporting students to enhance their persuasive writing genre. Teachers in the study were able to use feedback to recontextualise the School’s discourse and knowledge and create a bridge to the codes students comprehended. Furthermore, the findings show that for some students whose literacy level was below the standard audio-based feedback can be particularly effective as a recontextualisation tool that helps students in comprehending the School’s discourse by making the meaning of the feedback comments more explicit for them. On the other hand, students whose literacy level was above the standard commented they preferred written feedback. These two contrasting findings can be explained by student understandings of the codes of the written feedback. A surprising finding was that although the teachers had co-created rubrics regarding persuasive writing and their students commented they would have liked to use them as they could have served as goals to aim for in their writing, the teachers did not use the rubrics. Drawing on Bernstein it is possible that these teachers found themselves in the field of production of knowledge, a field within which they did not feel comfortable operating, and so they reverted to the field of reproduction of knowledge, and used the school’s e-asTTle rubric, with which they felt more comfortable. The implications for teachers teaching writing are that they need to be aware of the codes their students comprehend and consider the use of recontextualisation tools, such as audio-based feedback, to modify the School’s discourse so all students can access the School’s knowledge. Professional development providers and policy makers could consider providing teachers with support and adequate training to thoroughly comprehend the process of provision of feedback.
Type of thesis
The University of Waikato
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