Perception towards Metalinguistic Feedback and Its Impact on Writing Quality: A Preliminary Examination

by Daron Benjamin Loo



In today’s competitive world, it is common to find students who are more concerned about their grades and not the learning process (expedient learners). Nonetheless, there are also students who are invested in the skills and knowledge they gain from their modules (deep learners) (see Alauddin & Ashman, 2014).

In the writing module I teach (ES5000 Basic Level Writing – Graduate English Module), the two types of students mentioned above can be found. Because of their different learning philosophies and experiences (a majority of these students are from non-English academic backgrounds), the way in which I present learning materials needs to be varied, including the way feedback is provided. There are students who prefer direct feedback (correction of errors is given) and there are those who appreciate the thinking process, such as that seen through the use of metalinguistic feedback (comments given by an instructor prompt students to analyze errors in order to self-correct). Furthermore, students do not hold a homogenous view towards feedback, even if feedback is provided by one instructor (Poulos & Mahony, 2008).

At the broader level, the perceived usefulness of written corrective feedback (WCF) is also varied. This has resulted in a continued interest among applied linguists on WCF in the university, ESL, or EFL setting, especially after Truscott’s controversial claim that WCF is of no value (see Truscott, 1996). In the past decade, different researchers have attempted to examine the effects of different types of WCF in different settings (see Ellis, 2008 for the typology of various WCF; for research on WCF, see Bitchener & Knoch, 2010; Ferris, Liu, Sinha, & Senna, 2013 etc.).


Impact of WCF on Writing Quality 

As mentioned, because of the different types of students in ES5000, the manner in which feedback is provided needs to be expansive. I normally employ direct and indirect feedback (corrections given or errors marked without corrections), accompanied by metalinguistic feedback (commentary on the quality of writing). Aside from the reason that there are different types of students, another reason is because I believe in the value of thinking about the errors and ways to correct them. I also believe a student can produce a better draft when thinking is involved.

In a simple observation made on two separate assignments (each assignment consisted of two drafts) written by two students of ES5000 (Student A & B), it can be noted that the response to the feedback was different. Nonetheless, corrections were made, even when explicit corrective feedback was not directly given. This was expected when direct/indirect feedback and metalinguistic feedback are given side-by-side (see Benson & DeKeyser, 2018).


Table 1. Observation of two writing tasks of 2 students

Student Writing Task 1 Writing Task 2
Feedback provided in Draft 1 Observation made in Draft 2 Feedback provided in Draft 1 Observation made in Draft 2
A Most of the WCF was metalinguistic feedback Student was able to provide correct forms; corrections were made only on problematic areas Most of the WCF was metalinguistic feedback Student was able to provide correct forms*; corrections were made only on problematic areas
B Most of the WCF was metalinguistic feedback Student was able to provide correct forms; however, there were still odd expressions; corrections were made only on problematic areas Most of the WCF was metalinguistic feedback; some direct feedback (cf. forms*) Student did minimal correction, primarily only on forms*; corrections were made only on problematic areas

*tense; subject-verb agreement; types of nouns – gerund; to-infinitives, etc.


Perception of Students on Pedagogical Approaches 

To gauge what the students thought of the pedagogical approaches employed in this module, I also conducted an informal survey** at the end of the semester. This survey listed all the approaches utilized throughout the semester. Students were instructed to rank each approach according to its perceived usefulness/uselessness. Despite the assumption that students are inherently different, and that there are those who are expedient learners, the results of the survey indicated that many do believe in the usefulness of approaches that promote deep learning. Table 2 lists 6 of the 13 approaches mentioned in the survey. The first four were those that were favored because of its perceived usefulness while the remaining two were perceived as not as useful.


Table 2. Students’ perception towards usefulness/uselessness of pedagogical approaches

Pedagogical Approach Percentage of students indicating usefulness (n = 33)
Provision of metalinguistic feedback in written tasks 91%
Analysis of academic text (published articles)

Students analyze published text to understand various aspects in writing: grammatical forms; structure; discourse moves; etc.

Writing tasks with multiple drafts 70%
Writing a mock exam with feedback/consultation

A timed assessment where students produce a piece of text; followed by a 20- to 30-minute consultation with the instructor

Giving explicit instructions on grammar 45%
Unfocused feedback

All types of errors are identified


**40 surveys distributed; 39 were completed, but only 33 were usable.


While there seems to be an overall preference for approaches which promote deeper thinking, the observational notes in Table 1 present contradiction. What may be seen here is an example a mismatch between beliefs and actions – that is, while students believe that metalinguistic feedback is useful, their actions may indicate otherwise.


Based on these preliminary observations, several issues become apparent. They are:

  1. Metalinguistic feedback may not be appropriate when students’ fundamental knowledge of form and structure is not yet strong (e.g., errors still persisted in Student B’s draft, especially those related to meaning and idiomatic expressions). This parallels Mulliner and Tucker’s (2017) argument, where students may not understand WCF. This may be further problematized by the prior educational experiences of the students, who completed their previous degrees in a setting where English is used as a foreign language.
  2. While metalinguistic feedback may support thinking, the correction that ensued was only confined to the errors. In other words, thinking about isolated errors did not encourage students to think about the whole text (see Han & Hyland, 2015).

Taking these into account, together with other variables such as timeliness of feedback, perceived significance of feedback, value placed on assignments, and year of university education (Poulus & Mahony, 2008), a consideration that I need to make in the upcoming semester is to inculcate strategies to respond to WCF. In particular, ways to encourage students to think beyond isolated language use when doing a writing task. For example,

  • Think of whether a form was used correctly throughout the task, even if the error was not global;
  • Revisit sections where corrections were done to consider if the corrected sentence is the best way to express the intended meaning

This would also mean familiarizing students with the different levels of thinking and looking at writing as an interrelated process, even with different writing tasks (e.g., through the compilation of written work in a portfolio). When students are able to see their writing quality from a broader perspective, this may help develop a better awareness for language use and self-regulated writing strategies (see Ali, Ahmed, & Rose, 2017).

In closing, providing quality feedback, whether in the form of metalinguistic feedback or direct feedback, is a crucial pedagogical element that needs to be thought through (Rahimi & Zhang, 2015). The failure to do so from the onset of higher education studies may result in a negative perception and engagement towards feedback in the latter years (Ali, Ahmed, & Rose 2017; Poulos & Mahony, 2008).



Alauddin, M., & Ashman, A. (2014). The changing academic environment and diversity in students’ study philosophy, beliefs and attitudes in higher education. Higher Education Research & Development33(5), 857-870.

Ali, N., Ahmed, L., & Rose, S. (2017). Identifying predictors of students’ perception of and engagement with assessment feedback. Active Learning in Higher Education. doi: 1469787417735609.

Bitchener, J., & Knoch, U. (2010). Raising the linguistic accuracy level of advanced L2 writers with written corrective feedback. Journal of Second Language Writing19(4), 207-217.

Ellis, R. (2008). A typology of written corrective feedback types. ELT Journal63(2), 97-107.

Ferris, D. R., Liu, H., Sinha, A., & Senna, M. (2013). Written corrective feedback for individual L2 writers. Journal of Second Language Writing22(3), 307-329.

Han, Y., & Hyland, F. (2015). Exploring learner engagement with written corrective feedback in a Chinese tertiary EFL classroom. Journal of Second Language Writing30, 31-44.

Mulliner, E., & Tucker, M. (2017). Feedback on feedback practice: perceptions of students and academics. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education42(2), 266-288.

Poulos, A., & Mahony, M. J. (2008). Effectiveness of feedback: The students’ perspective. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education33(2), 143-154.

Rahimi, M., & Zhang, L. J. (2015). Exploring non-native English-speaking teachers’ cognitions about corrective feedback in teaching English oral communication. System55, 111-122.

Truscott, J. (1996). The case against grammar correction in L2 writing classes. Language learning46(2), 327-369.

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