Materials writing: feedback is an essential element

Cyanistes caeruleus 3 Luc Viatour

I’ve been writing materials for my students for many years now, including digital material for blended and online courses. One of the benefits of writing for one’s own students is that we have a lot of information about them. We know their needs, we know their skills, we know their interests,  we know how they like to learn, what motivates them, what is culturally appropriate, how much time they have to learn, their work and (often also) their personal circumstances.

Another benefit is that we get immediate and direct and indirect feedback from our students when we use the material we have written for them, whether in the classroom or online. With direct feedback I mean what they tell us about the lesson or activities we have planned or the handouts we have produced. Some students, especially if it is an ESP course, will tell us whether the material were useful or appropriate, whether they think they will be able to apply what they learned in their job, or whether they found the activities interesting and engaging. Some students might even make concrete suggestions for improvements.
With indirect feedback I mean what I can observe: Are students engaged? Do they seem to like the text, the listening piece, or the activities that go with them? Do they make any remarks about the content? I find this kind of immediate feedback very insightful and rewarding.

Last year, I had the opportunity to work for and write lessons plans and material for project-based lessons for a group of vocational colleges in the Middle East. The material was delivered as PDF (teacher’s notes, worksheets) and had an online component for the students. It was the first time that I had to write lessons for students I didn’t know personally and lesson plans for other teachers, who I didn’t know, who were at an institution I didn’t work at. For the first time, I thought about coursebook authors who always find themselves in this situation. How difficult, I thought, not to receive any direct feedback! Of course, their materials are piloted and feedback is collected from teachers and students, but it just isn’t the same as walking into the classroom with one’s material and plan and trying them out. How would I know whether my material engaged the students, whether the teacher’s notes were clear, whether the timing was good, and the objectives were achieved? Without the immediate student (or teacher feedback), an important element was missing for me.

Then, I saw the colleges’ monthly newsletters and I was extremely happy to see pictures of students displaying what they had created in the project-based lessons that I had written! How nice it was to be able to see what students and teachers had actually done with the material! Sometimes, they had taken it further than I had planned for them. For example, I sometimes suggested that they work together with other classes or that they hold an exhibition to display their work to make it all more real and motivating, but I wasn’t sure whether they would be able or were allowed to do this. However, in one lesson based on health, where their task was to interview each other and create health posters, they had involved the whole school, interviewed teachers on their eating habits and gave every interviewee a health snack as a little present. Another lesson was about writing up their favourite recipes. What they made out if it was to actually bake and prepare other types of food and have a garden party with teachers and students where they shared the food.

How often does it happen that material or course book writers get to see this kind of thing? It made me feel very happy.

Another reason why I liked  this particular project was that the teachers were encouraged to provide feedback and could do so in the “staffroom” on the platform. I received feedback and questions from the teachers who were using my lesson plans and I could react to these by explaining the rational behind a lesson plan, helping them with some aspects, or, even better, by immediately making changes they asked for. One teacher, for example, suggested that one activity was not possible in their city, so I changed the lesson plan quickly slightly to make it work for them. This was easily possible because the lesson plans and materials were distributed digitally. It wasn’t a print coursebook.

Of course, it can also be challenging to receive such feedback if it comes across as criticism. One has to be open to this and ready to make changes where appropriate and possible. But for me, so far, it’s been a very rewarding experience.

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