Could Indirect Feedback be too Difficult? Examining Students’ Perceptions towards Indirect Feedback

by Daron Benjamin Loo


In my provision of feedback, I would typically include a variety of feedback. If I perceive that an error may be difficult for students, I might offer direct feedback. For errors which I think students might be able to correct, I might give indirect feedback by highlighting a word or a phrase that is incorrect. In some cases, I would accompany the indirect feedback with some comments (see Ellis, 2009 for a typology of feedback).

The comments are to spur students’ knowledge about language, as what metalinguistic feedback aims to do (Shintani & Ellis, 2013). However, the comments that I leave for the students are not explanatory in nature; instead, they are prompts in the form of questions or statements regarding the concerns observed in their writing. Here are some examples:

  • This structure needs rearranging 
  • This prepositional phrase should be somewhere else
  • Plural form 
  • What does this mean?

The intention of providing such indirect feedback is to get students to think of an error and arrive at a revision or solution on their own. This may be a valuable experience, as studies have indicated that students who were able to correct based on the explanation of an error made fewer errors in future drafts (Shintani & Ellis, 2013). Nonetheless, using such feedback convention assumes that students already possess suitable linguistic or writing knowledge, and are familiar with my feedback practices.

To explore whether students actually understood my (indirect) feedback practices, I had students rate the difficulty of three feedback they received from me, and give reason(s) for the rating of the feedback. I used a simple rating scale of 1 [not difficult], 2 [somewhat difficult] and 3 [difficult]. There were 33 feedback rated by 11 students, with explanations accompanying their ratings.


Most of the students rated the indirect feedback as somewhat difficult (2) (Table 1). Furthermore, as seen in Table 2, many of the students rated grammar or syntax error (52.9%) as somewhat difficult. Items that were rated difficult (3) were also grammar or syntax error (57.1%). When we look at some of the explanation. Based on students’ ratings and explanations, we can see that students may not necessarily possess sufficient knowledge about grammar (or about writing, use of words etc.). Furthermore, some aspects of grammar might appear more difficult, especially in terms of usage in complex structures.

The students’ rating prompts me to reconsider the usefulness of indirect feedback. While completely removing this type of feedback may not be necessary, I need to ensure that there will be feedback uptake among my students. Hence, some considerations that I should take could be to create enabling opportunities supportive of students’ management and (positive) response towards feedback. Having activities such as analyzing sample feedback and working through feedback with peers may be useful to enhance students’ feedback literacy (see Carless & Boud, 2018). Another consideration could be to have lessons on form, even if students are studying at the graduate level. As seen in the students’ ratings, many might actually struggle with grammatical concerns (see also study by Ma, 2021). Furthermore, grammar lessons, such as building a ‘local grammar’, has been found to be effective in teaching rhetorical or discourse acts in an EAP setting (Zhang & Su, 2021).



Carless, D., & Boud, D. (2018). The development of student feedback literacy: enabling uptake of feedback. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education43(8), 1315-1325.

Ellis, R. (2009). A typology of written corrective feedback types. ELT Journal63(2), 97-107.

Ma, L. P. F. (2020). Writing in English as an additional language: challenges encountered by doctoral students. Higher Education Research & Development, 1-15.

Sheen, Y. (2007). The effect of focused written corrective feedback and language aptitude on ESL learners’ acquisition of articles. TESOL Quarterly41(2), 255-283.

Zhang, L., & Su, H. (2021). Applying local grammars in EAP teaching. Journal of English for Academic Purposes51, 100983.


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