The Impact of Asynchronous and Synchronous e-Feedback

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The Impact of Asynchronous and Synchronous e-Feedback

 on EFL Learners’ Writing Skills

Dr. Lamis Fanous*

Abstract

This study aims at investigating the impact of synchronous and asynchronous e-feedback (electronic feedback) on Lebanese EFL university students’ writing skills. This study was conducted at a private university in Lebanon where an e-learning environment is fostered. A total of 34 learners participated in this study. An experimental approach was utilized where a pretest and post-test were administered before the start of the experiment and at its end to assess the impact of e-feedback when provided synchronously and asynchronously on learners’ writing skills. A triangulation of instruments: a questionnaire, writing tasks, and semi-structured interviews were used for collecting quantitative and qualitative data. Findings reveal that the asynchronous approach of providing e-feedback proved to be more effective in improving the quality of writing of learns as well as their engagement in the writing process as a whole compared to the synchronous approach, despite the fact that both e-feedback approaches proved to be more favored by learners compared to traditional teacher-centered forms of providing feedback.

Keywords: Synchronous, Asynchronous, e-Feedback, e-learning, English Foreign Language

Introduction

The development of technology and its integration in every aspect of people’s life has demanded many changes in relatively many fields and domains, among them are the teaching- learning paradigm (Elola, 2016). Conventionally, the views of learning and teaching methods were centered on teachers and learners who interact in face to face mediums. Nowadays, as technology entered the domain of education and got integrated in the curriculum, the learning process diverged from the traditional pinpoint and entered a new realm. Shamim (2017) states that technology changed the conventional roles of both: teachers and learners. Currently, learners do not have the option of being passive learners whose role is limited to attending the class and receiving information; most of the work to be done is now put on the learners’ shoulders.

In EFL classes, the primary focus of written instruction is depicted in the process approach, which targets prewriting, multiple drafting, and revising to build up the learners’ writing ability (Yand & Zhang, 2010). In Lebanese contexts, and mainly in writing classes, the main role of the teacher is to lecture about writing skills and to evaluate the output of students by providing feedback (Orr, 2011). Nevertheless, the task of providing feedback on individual students’ writing task is time consuming. Moreover, some students do not take the initiative to engage in fixing their errors, even after being guided by the teacher (Leki, 1991).

The utilization of new pedagogical approaches that integrate technology to provide e-feedback, whether through online peer correction or directly via e-programs, tools and applications, has proven to be efficient and effective in reducing time consumed by teachers to provide feedback on writing outputs, providing higher quality writing instruction, and making learners more active and engaged in the learning process (Zaini & Mazdayasna, 2015). Hence, e-feedback can be provided to students either in class at the same time they attend their writing task, that is synchronously or online via peers or teacher’s feedback, that is asynchronously.

Statement of the Problem

In Lebanon, university level students are required to submit various written assignments in the form of summaries, reports and research papers, using English as a Foreign Language, regardless of the major they are enrolled in; however, a lot of students lack the proficiency of writing, which affects their grades and learning output in general. The norm in providing feedback in writing classes is teacher-centered. Usually the teacher provides feedback to students; some students refer to the feedback to check their errors and others do not (Hyland & Hyland, 2006). On the other hand, with the integration of technology in most higher education institutions in Lebanon, many teaching institutions are utilizing e-learning (electronic learning) methods in teaching and providing feedback as well (Ghosn-Chelala & Al-Chibani, 2018). Present studies interested in e-learning and e-feedback (electronic feedback) have investigated the impacts of either synchronous e-feedback

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* Lecturer of English Language and Literature Lebanese University- University of Balamand.

(Pyun, 2003; Liang, 2010, Saadi and Saadat, 2015) or asynchronous e-feedback (Tuzi, 2004; Birch and Gardiner, 2010) on writing skills of learners. Very few studies determined which of these two approaches is more functional and effective when providing feedback to enhance the writing performance of students (Shintani, 2016), and no studies tackled this topic in a Lebanese context. Therefore, the present study addresses this gap in EFL writing research through comparing the impact of synchronous and asynchronous e-feedback tools on EFL Learners’ writing skills in Lebanon.

Research Questions

To investigate the effect of e-feedback tools on EFL learners’ writing skills, the study mainly addresses the following research questions:

  1. What effect does the use of asynchronous e-feedback tools have on the writing outcomes of EFL learners.
  2. What effect does the use of synchronous e-feedback tools have on the writing outcomes of EFL learners.
  3. What are the attitudes of EFL learners toward asynchronous and synchronous e-feedback tools.

Literature Review

The first part of this review takes the concept of feedback in terms of its objectives and content, as well as challenges depicted in providing it as a point of departure. Next, the review tackles studies concerned with providing electronic feedback on students’ writing outputs, mainly synchronously and asynchronously.

Feedback in writing classes: objectives, content and challenges.

As Yorke (2003) states, feedback is the information about current performance that can be used to improve future performance. Feedback plays a major role in any educational process since it can significantly improve both learner’s and teacher’s performance and reflect some essential aspects of their performance which can be improved. Dignen (2014) argues that feedback is the most important communication skill, both outside and inside the classroom because it is around all the time; it is just another word for effective listening; it is an opportunity to motivate; it is essential to develop performance; and it is a way to keep learning. In fact, feedback should be an inseparable part of any assessment and course evaluation. Teachers can employ various feedback strategies such as assessment of students’ works, peer review, students’ self-reflection, in-class discussions, course evaluation questionnaires, or focus interviews with students. All these feedback strategies can undoubtedly contribute to an overall students’ and teacher’s picture of their performance. As Hyland (2006) claims, “providing feedback to students is often seen as one of the teacher’s most important tasks, offering the kind of individual attention that is otherwise rarely possible under classroom  conditions”.  Thus,  the  more  frequent  and  constructive  this  feedback  is,  the  more  performance  improvement can be done (p. 102,103).

One of the basic challenges that EFL instructors face is providing feedback that makes a difference (Gibbs & Simpson, 2004; Stern & Solomon, 2006). The conventional form of feedback entails writing and marking-up (Stannard, 2008), and teachers are advised not to overload students with it (Bitchener & Ferris, 2012; Ferris, 2006); however, when the number of errors is big, corrections can become overwhelming for students, rendering writing a tedious task for instructors. Hence, being able to maintain a balance between too little and too much written feedback is challenging. Therefore, as Ferris et al. (2011) have advised, other approaches for providing feedback need to be consideration.

On the other hand, clarity of feedback by itself is also considered challenging as it plays a vital role in the learning and development of learners. Students, in some cases, may find it difficult to comprehend the feedback provided on their writing tasks, even when standard editing symbols are used (La Fontana, 1996; Straub, 1997). Students consistently report dissatisfaction with the legibility and clarity of traditional feedback, which may explain their failure to engage with it (Cranny, 2016). Some teachers resort to one-to-one meetings with learners to overcome this challenge. They believe that offering flexible and personalized feedback can help learners to clarify feedback (Frank, 2001); however, this approach is not very practical as it is considered to be time-consuming and not always logistically possible.

Besides the above, responding to students’ needs and preferences is another challenge faced by instructors when providing feedback for the writing tasks of learners. Ferris et al. (2011) reported that although teachers should assess and address needs and strengths of second language (L2) student writers and the challenges that they face, they seldom do so. For instance, Lee (2004) found that students desire a combination of comprehensive and written corrective feedback on English language assignments. Furthermore, teachers and students agree that revision of writing based on teachers’ commentary is important and that student factors like learning styles and preferences are important when considering students’ feedback needs (Goldstein, 2004). Bitchener and Ferris (2012) similarly found that practitioners largely ignore students’ learning styles and preferences in feedback provision. Although there is debate on the worth of learning styles as effective, evidence-based teaching practice (Newton & Miah, 2017), researchers acknowledge a lack of consideration toward student preferences regarding how they receive feedback, or feedback modes, and suggest further work in this affective area ( Alshahrani & Storch, 2014; Diab, 2015).

Electronic feedback in writing classrooms.

Electronic feedback, also known as Computer-mediated feedback or digital feedback, refers to feedback provided via multiple electronic mediums such as e-mail, synchronous and asynchronous discussions, on-screen annotations, audio, video, and completely computer-automated feedback (Ware & Warschauer, 2006). These modes enable innovative ways of providing rich and meaningful feedback on English language writing and other assignments (Harper et al., 2015; Shintani & Aubrey, 2016). In Koolivand and Iravani’s study (2013), students who received electronic corrective feedback made greater improvement than learners who received traditional feedback. Also, Tafazoli, Nosratzadeh, and Hosseini’s (2014) study revealed that electronic feedback has positive effect on the writing accuracy of Iranian ESP students. The obtained results from Farshi and Safa’s (2015) study showed that electronic feedback was more effective and profitable than traditional type. Many researchers suggest many benefits of electronic feedback, such as greater levels of participation (Gonza´lez-Bueno, 1998) and more motivation and interest (Skinner & Austin, 1999 as cited in Shang, 2007). E-feedback has been used in EFL classes to provide both: synchronous feedback, that is feedback provided during class hour at the time a student sits for the writing task via available software (Oztok, Zingaro, Brett, & Hewitt 2013), and asynchronous feedback, that is online via peer review at the convenience of the students (Ene & Upton 2018).

Asynchronous e-feedback.

One form of asynchronous e-feedback in EFL writing classes is feedback provided by peers. This form of e-feedback has taken feedback to a new dimension in the process of writing approach (Ho & Savignon 2007). Asynchronous peer e-feedback is provided after learners complete their writing task and submit the writing output electronically. Such feedback aims at targeting writing problems via mutual scaffolding from peers to develop stronger writing ability, grammatical accuracy, suggestions for global revisions and critical thinking ability (Abdu Saeed, 2017).

Despite that fact that this feedback is given to learners after the writing task is completed, learners have preference for this approach, for they consider it more detailed, fairer, provides non-threatening environment, and reduces anxiety (Weirick & Lawson, 2017). Based on a study conducted by Tuzi (2004), many students expressed that receiving e-feedback from peers made them focus on the strong and weak points of their writings, which directly encouraged them to re-read their writings and revise them. Besides, the availability of e-feedback at later time also encouraged them to revise more. Another interesting finding in Tuzi’s study was that the majority (35%) of the draft revisions came from electronic feedback and e-feedback had a great impact on revision at clause, sentence, and paragraph levels.

Some studies made investigations into the effect of online peer feedback on the second or foreign language writing (Yang, 2016; Liu & Peng, 2009). For instance, Liu and Peng (2009) indicated that electronic peer review could produce more overall comments and a larger percentage of revision-oriented comments with the focus on local revision; however, Tuomey’s (2014) findings are different from that of Liu and Peng (2009); he discovered that students in a writing class were more likely to discuss textual issues such as grammar and vocabulary in face-to-face sessions, but tended to focus on global revisions such as content, organization and topic in synchronous online sessions. Tannacito and Tuzi (2002) in their study concluded that electronic peer feedback had made influential changes in revisions in larger blocks of text and in adding new content to the essay.

Synchronous e-feedback.

This form of feedback branches out from computer-mediated environments. It is another method for providing online feedback. Synchronous e-feedback occurs when learners are in the process of completing their writing tasks, hence enabling them to correct the detected errors immediately via the use of a web-based editing program such as Google Docs (Shintani, 2015), Grammarly, Ginger and others. Findings from web-based synchronous e-feedback research indicate that synchronous feedback can be potentially beneficial to students’ writing because it conveys needed information about the target language in context which can result in higher chance on students attending to the feedback (Chong, 2019). In case of error correction, synchronous e-feedback permits learners to apply a comparison between their own language production and the appropriate form which elicits learners’ cognitive process and retention (Long, 2007). Ebadi and Rahimi (2017) conducted a study to examine learners’ responses to synchronous feedback in a writing class over a semester. Their findings revealed that such form of e-feedback promoted learners’ writing skills. Moreover, Van Beuningen et al. (2012) highlighted that computer-mediated feedback was effective in improving EFL learners’ grammatical accuracy when writing tasks. On the other hand, Vyatkina (2010) reported that there was no noticeable difference in the effect of direct and indirect feedback in writing classes. Shintani and Aubery (2016) reported that the direct feedback was not preferable by learners as they were unable to correct their errors due to their lack of proficiency on the foreign language.

Research Design

This study was conducted at a private university in Lebanon during the fall semester of 2019. Learners were informed that participation in the study is voluntary, and they can terminate their participation at any point. The following sections provide details about the study setting, participants, design, and procedure.

Study Setting.

At the institution where the study was conducted, English is used as the language of instruction. Hence, students should have at least a fair command of the language skills to complete their coursework. Prior to enrollment in courses, a learner takes a placement test that determines whether he/she shall be enrolled in an intensive language course. Three levels of intensive English writing classes are available. In these courses, instructors usually revert to a well-structured rubric to give feedback to learners based on their performance, which is grammar and mechanics as well as content and style, over multiple drafts, to help learners improve their writing skills.

Integration of technology is part of the university’s strategic plan to enhance teaching and to help students meet learning outcomes. The trend toward increased technology integration to promote instruction and learning is of course widespread (Ware & Warschauer, 2006; Sankey et al., 2010); instructors at universities have turned to technology to address such issues as plagiarism and deficiencies in motivation and engagement as well as to facilitate group discussions of course material.

Study e-feedback tools.

Based on the researcher’s review of literature on technology integration for feedback on writing, the researcher chose to integrate Grammarly, the web-based writing software, as the synchronous e-feedback tool and Moodle Blogs, which is integrated by the university, as the asynchronous e-feedback tool.

Grammarly is a tool that makes it easy to check writing for grammar errors, potential stylistic mistakes, and other features of interest (https://www.grammarly.com/faq#toc0). Grammarly is a free-online proofreading website that can be used to scan documents for grammar mistakes. Users of Grammarly can type in, upload or copy and paste their texts into Grammarly through an internet browser. They can submit their texts as one of six document types: General, Business, Academic, Technical, Creative, or Casual (Grammarly, Inc., 2014a). After a few seconds, Grammarly generates a web report with the total number of issues found, the categories of error, and a score of the paper in its current condition. For most issues, Grammarly’s comments (called “cards”) offered both “short” and “long” explanations, with the latter being the default. Grammarly displays its cards in categorical groups, such as faulty parallelism, punctuation within a sentence, or wordiness (Grammarly, Inc., 2014a). Lastly, Grammarly numerically scores each submission through its system on a 100-point scale, based on the number of generated cards per word count (excluding its suggestions for vocabulary enhancement). The resulting score place each paper in one of four categories: “poor, revision necessary”; “weak, needs revision”; “adequate, can benefit from revision”; or “good” (Grammarly, Inc., 2014a).

Moodle Blog (Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment) is an open-source software that provides the ability to manage e-learning. One of its functions is that it serves as a platform for learners to submit their assignments and receive peer feedback in the form of comments and discussion at a time of their convenience. This software allows learners to read, reflect, and write when it is convenient for them as individuals. In this study, learners completed their writing tasks ad submitted them on Moodle. Peers had a period of two days to check the writing output of their previously assigned peers and to provide them feedback covering language, grammar, content and style based on a checklist provided by the instructor.

Study Design.

To answer the research questions, the current study utilized the experimental design. Participants in the study were divided into two groups: experimental group A where the asynchronous e-feedback approach was used, namely Moodle Blogs, and experimental group B where the synchronous e-feedback approach was used, namely the online software Grammarly. These two groups were chosen randomly from learners enrolled in the Intensive English Program at the university where the study was conducted.

Participants

This study was conducted at a private university in Lebanon over a period of 16 weeks. Participants of this study consisted of learners of English as a Foreign Language who are taking an Intensive English writing course. All participants did not meet the English Language Proficiency Requirements, and accordingly were required to undergo an intensive English course to further develop their English language skills. Mainly this intensive course covers teaching the four skills of the English language. As for the writing skill, students had to attend five writing sessions per week, which were centered on fostering students’ academic writing, mainly paragraph writing skills through a process writing approach.

The total number of participants was 34 students, comprised of 14 females and 20 males. All participants were holders of the Lebanese Baccalaureate. This Intensive English course was their first course at the university; accordingly, none of the students had prior experience with computer mediated feedback. Based on the data collected from the demographic questionnaire, the average age of participants was 18.25 years. Eight out of the 34 participants were French educated; however, they had a matching English level as their peer participants. The following table provides a brief description of the demographics of the sample under study. Data was analyzed after being collected from the questionnaire.

Table 1- Sample Demographics and Characteristics.

Characteristic Number Percentage
Gender    
     Male 14 41.17
     Female 20 58.83
Years of Learning English    
     Never Learned English 0 0
     1-3 years 0 0
     4-6 years 0 0
     7-10 years 11 32.35
     10 years and more 23 64.65
Evaluation of English Ability and Proficiency    
      Below average 18 32.37
      Average 15 44.11
      Good 8 23.52
      Excellent 0 0
Familiarity with Computer Mediated Feedback    
       No acquainted with such approach 34 100
       Fair acquaintance 0 0
       Excellent knowledge 0 0
Knowledge of Foreign Languages other than English    
       Yes 8 23.52
       No 42 76.48

Instruments

This research utilized a triangulation of instruments that helped in collecting data that can be analyzed to answer the research questions. Since this research aims at studying the impact of synchronous and asynchronous computer mediated feedback on learners’ writing skill, writing tasks, semi-structured interviews, as well as feedback questionnaire were the cornerstone of the data collection method.

Writing Tasks.

A pre-test, a post-test as well as four in-class writing tasks were conducted throughout the semester to explore the impact and effectiveness of the synchronous and asynchronous e-feedback on the writing skills of students. The objective behind the writing tasks was producing four different kinds of paragraphs. The paragraph topics were: descriptive, narrative, cause/effect, and compare/contrast, which were part of the curriculum for the students enrolled in this course. For every writing task, learners had to write a paragraph of at least 250 words.

Questionnaire.

A survey was administered at the end of the experiment to elicit learners’ perceptions and attitudes towards the effectiveness of synchronous and asynchronous computer-mediated feedback on their language skill in general and their writing skill in particular. All the questions in the questionnaire were Likert-type items. The questionnaire was divided into two sections: one section targeting synchronous feedback and the other section targeting asynchronous feedback. This instrument aided in the collection of numeric data and thus resulted in quantitative feedback. It was essential to measure learners’ attitude about e-feedback, given synchronously and asynchronously, as this would have an implication on what they view are drawbacks and obstacles as well as pros in support of the approaches used. A pilot study was conducted with the questionnaire by 4 randomly chosen learners to ensure that each item was fully comprehended. Participants of the study were informed that their feedback on the questionnaire will not be assessed and has no effect on their performance and grade in the course. Since the questionnaire was filled out by learners during class time, there was a 100% return rate The Cronbach’s alpha coefficient was calculated for the Likert scale measuring learners’ attitude toward the approaches applied and it measured 0.85, indicating a reliable scale (De Vaus 2002).

Semi-structured Interviews.

The aim of the interviews was to provide more in-depth explanation and context for the data collected with the survey. Eight students resembling four students from the asynchronous e-feedback group and four students from the asynchronous e-feedback group volunteered to take part in the interview stage, and each was interviewed individually. The fact that interviews provide “an opportunity for detailed investigation of people’s personal perspectives, for in-depth understanding of the personal context within which the research phenomena are located, are for very detailed subject coverage” (Ritchie & Lewis 2003, p. 6) makes them the most widely used data gathering method for qualitative research. During the interview, learners were asked to be specific and detailed about how they perceive the e-feedback approach, the cons and pros of this approach, as well as the easiness and difficulties they faced upon using it as a means to receive feedback.

Approach

With the beginning of the Fall Semester of 2019, students enrolled in the Intensive English Program at a private university in Lebanon were informed about the study. Since all students were eligible for this intensive course, and already did not meet the Language Placement Test requirements, this cancelled the need for administering another language placement test.

The writing course adopted a process approach where learners were taught how to brainstorm, set an outline, develop their paragraphs, submit draft one, get feedback, apply modifications, and finally submit draft two. Four graded writing tasks were administered along the semester. To ensure complete understanding of the writing skill and the rhetoric pattern taught, the instructor introduced and explained, to all the participants of the study, items such as the structure of the paragraph, approaches to develop a good topic sentence, kinds of supporting details, ways for writing a concluding statement as well as transitional signals. After exploring the structure of the paragraph and the conventional language of the rhetorical pattern, participants had to write the assigned task in the computer lab.

All groups we administered the same writing task at the same time. Participants of experimental group A had to post their paragraph on Moodle Blogs, receive feedback from their assigned peer within a period of two days, apply the modifications, and then send the final draft to the instructor by email. Participants of experimental group B had to use the e-software Grammarly while in the computer lab, correct the errors detected and highlighted by the software at the same time they write the task, and send the final draft it to the teacher via email.

Scoring Procedure.

Four EFL teachers, who are language instructors at the private university where the experiment was conducted, helped in scoring the writing tasks of participants. After the submission of each writing task, the instructors met for correction, evaluation and feedback. An evaluation rubric sheet was provided for the output of every student on all four writing tasks. The evaluation rubric was centered on errors that include vocabulary, grammar, language, sentence structure, organization, content and style. A copy of the final draft for each writing task of every student was photocopied and given to the instructors. When correcting the writing output of the learners, instructors followed the procedure below:

Data Analysis and Results

To answer the research questions highlighted in this study, data was collected through a triangulation of instruments: Questionnaire, writing tasks, and semi-structured interview. The SPSS Pack 20.0 for Windows Software was used to organize the raw data and conduct statistical analysis.

Pre-test and Post-test results.

Paired sample T-Test method was used to compare the pre-test and post-test scores within each group and find out whether there is any significant difference between them. The findings are demonstrated in Table 2 below:

Table 2 :Pre-test and Post-test Inferential Statistics

Group N Mean Std. Deviation Std. Error Mean      Sig. (2-tailed)  
Pre-test A 17 5.23 2.3 0.42        0.807
B 17 5.10 1.9 0.35
Post-test A 17 6.45 1.98 0.36        0.013
B 17 5.16 1.91 0.35

In the pre-test, a T-test was conducted to detect any differences between the two groups. The statistical significance was 0.807, which is bigger than 0.05. This indicates that there is no statistical difference in the pre-test output of the two groups. Hence, this validates that learners of both groups who participated in this study have the same level of English language proficiency. Moreover, the means of both groups during the pre-test phase were 5.10 and 5.23; the difference between the means matches 0.13, which is not considered a significant difference. This also confirms that the difference in the proficiency level of learners was insignificant.

In the post-test, the T-test revealed a difference of 0.013, which is less than 0.05 and is accordingly considered a significant difference. The results of group A were different from the results of group B, and the difference was significant. In addition, upon comparing the means of the two groups in the post-test, it is revealed that the means differed by 1.29, which indicated that that learners who received asynchronous e-feedback improved in their scores by 25% compared to the group which received synchronous e-feedback.

Questionnaire results.

The analysis of the results of the survey highlights that both e-feedback tools were favored by learners. The two experimental groups showed interest in using such tools to get feedback as they perceive that e-feedback better develops their writing skills in terms of word choice, vocabulary, grammar, and sentence structure.

Table 3- Asynchronous e-feedback Questionnaire results

Asynchronous e-feedback (Moodle Blogs) Mean Result Std. Deviation Median Mode
Q1- My peer’s comments help me in using accurate grammar structures 3.26 Agree 0.83 3 3
Q2- My peer’s comments help me enrich my vocabulary bank 3.12 Agree 1.7 3 3
Q3- My peer’s comments were misguiding as I did not understand them 2.37 Disagree 1.47 2 1
Q4- Having e-feedback from my peer can help me improve my writing as a whole 4.27 Strongly Agree 1.01 5 5
Q5- Peer feedback using Moodle blogs should be implemented in a writing class 4.53 Strongly Agree 1.03 5 5
Q6- I felt confusion when reading comments provided by my peer on Moodle Blog 2.24 Disagree 1.23 2 1
Q7- Using Moodle blogs is user-friendly in completing all stages of a writing task 3.97 Agree 1.19 4 4

 

Table 4- synchronous e-feedback Questionnaire results

Synchronous e-feedback (Grammarly) Mean Result Std. Deviation Median Mode
Q1- The functions provided by Grammarly is useful when completing a writing task 4.4 Strongly Agree 0.72 5 5
Q2- It is difficult to use Grammarly when completing a writing task because it is a complicated platform 3.3 Neutral 1.44 3 5
Q3- Although Grammarly detects my errors, I do not know how to correct them due to my limited English ability 3.13 Neutral 1.17 3 3
Q4- Using Grammarly is convenient for correcting my errors 3.97 Agree 1.19 4 4
Q5- Comments provided by Grammarly are difficult to understand 2.04 Disagree 1.24 2 2
Q6- Comments provided by Grammarly help me enrich my vocabulary bank 2.37 Disagree 1.34 2 1
Q7- Grammarly should be used in writing classes 3.6 Neutral 1.6 3 3

The tables above (Table 3 and Table 4) exhibit the learners’ answers to the set of questions they completed after completing the experiment. In the table displaying learners’ feedback towards the asynchronous e-feedback tool used, all answers had a mean greater than 3. This implies that learners had definite and clear feedback about the tool. In their replies to questions 1 and 2, the mean was 3. This reflects that more than 50% of the learners agreed that feedback received from peers on Moodle Blogs helped them in using correct grammar structures and in enriching their vocabulary bank. Moreover, questions 3 and 6 had a mean of 2.37 and 2.24 respectively. This implies that learners clearly chose that the peer e-feedback was clear, and they did not feel any confusion in interpreting comments. Questions 4, 5, and 7 had a mean of more than 4 or close to it, and this shows that learners perceive e-feedback via Moodle blogs to be user-friendly and hence should be implemented in writing classes as it improves their writing skill. These findings are in line with the findings of the study conducted by Tuzi (2004), which reveal that many students expressed that receiving e-feedback from peers made them focus on the strong and weak points of their writings, which directly encouraged them to re-read their writings and revise them. Moreover, these findings are in line with the findings of other studies which state that asynchronous e-feedback received from peers provides non-threatening environment and reduces anxiety, and is regarded to be fairer (Weirick & Lawson, 2017).

In contrast, replies of learners pertaining to the use of Grammarly as e-feedback tool varied (Table 3). In question 1, the median value, which is 5, implies a strongly confirmed agreement of learners that Grammarly proved to be useful when completing their writing tasks. However, in questions 2 and 3, the mean value of less than 4 revealed that students couldn’t decide whether the e-feedback software was difficult to use, nor if they could correct the errors highlighted by the software and if such software shall be used in writing classes. It can be noted that learners were hesitant in assessing these features related to Grammarly. In question 4, students had a clear confirmation that using Grammarly was convenient for correcting their errors. As for questions 5 and 6, the mean value was lower than 3, hence reflecting that learns couldn’t benefit from Grammarly to improve their word choices and vocabulary bank. Finally, question 7 had a mean value of 3.6, which is close to 4, thus implying that Grammarly shall be used in writing classes. These findings are in line with the findings of the study conducted by Shintani et al. (2014) who reported that the direct e-feedback was not preferable by learners as they were unable to correct their errors due to their lack of proficiency on the foreign language, which triggers a feeling of anxiety when completing the writing task.

Interview results.

The results of the interview revealed that learners who used asynchronous e-feedback felt more engaged when writing the task, and they were interested in receiving e-feedback, specially that it is coming from their peers; however, learners who received synchronous e-feedback declared that this tool made them feel frustrated at certain instances as they felt mixed-up on how to correct certain errors. Moreover, they experienced time pressure for they had to write and correct at the same time. Both experimental groups favored e-feedback approach compared to conventional teachers’ feedback, for the latter form of feedback does not make them feel engaged in the correction process.

These findings are in harmony with the findings of Harper et al. (2015) and Thompson and Lee (2014) who stated that synchronous and asynchronous modes of providing e-feedback enable innovative ways of providing rich and meaningful feedback on English language writing and other assignments. Moreover, these findings match with the finding of the study conducted by Shang (2007) who highlighted that more motivation and interest is shown on behalf of students who received e-feedback.

Analysis and discussion

In answer to the two research questions explored in this study, the following discussion presents the implications of the impacts of the synchronous and asynchronous e-feedback tools. Moreover, it highlights learners’ attitudes towards these two approaches. The results of the instruments utilized in this study can be categorized under four main themes: comprehensibility and correctness; clarity and explanations; engagement and motivation; and time.

Comprehensibility and correctness.

Learners who received asynchronous e-feedback from their peers using Moodle Blogs perceived that the feedback they received was easy to understand. The notes offered by their peers made it easy for them to infer the error in their writing compared to conventional hand-written notes that include incomprehensible symbols provided by the instructor. On the other hand, learners who received synchronous e-feedback using Grammarly stated that each error type was explained and a rule in the form of a tip was presented which made it easier to substitute errors with correct forms despite the fact that in some instances they did not have the knowledge to infer the type of error highlighted.

Based on the definition provided by Hattie and Timperley (2007), a feedback is said to be effective when it helps students progress and “feed-forward”, which results in students understanding what and how to improve; however, when students do not infer the feedback provided to them, then they might ignore such feedback and resent from engaging with the task and developing (Goldstein, 2004; Harper et al., 2015; Hartshorn & Evans, 2015). This problem is potentially acute in EFL contexts, since students are already struggling with the feedback language itself. Therefore, instructors who find clearly communicating feedback challenging may benefit by adopting any of the synchronous or asynchronous e-feedback approaches.

Clarity and explanations.

Learners who received asynchronous e-feedback through Moodle Blogs stated that their peers provided detailed commentary and explanation which they could learn from and apply. However, learners who received synchronous e-feedback using Grammarly mentioned that in certain instances, the error was new to them and they could not comprehend what they were supposed to fix or adjust. Moreover, they shared that there was excessive feedback provided by Grammarly which was perceived as a load on them and inhibited them from feeling motivated when writing.

Engagement and motivation.

Learners of both groups reported that they felt engaged in receiving e-feedback. They stressed that having technology integrated in providing feedback for their writing output was very interesting. Besides, learners who received asynchronous e-feedback reported that they perceived draft 2 as a stress-free assignment. They waited anxiously for such assignments to interact with their friends and exchange comments of Moodle Blogs. As for learners who received synchronous e-feedback, they declared that receiving e-feedback on the spot was motivating as this gives them the chance to have their errors corrected.

Time.

Learners who received asynchronous e-feedback reported that such feedback was helpful due to time flexibility. They stated that in some instances they referred back to their peers for further discussion about a comment or an error as they had a time frame of 2 days to receive the error and correct it. They did not feel any time pressure neither when offering feedback nor when correcting errors. On the other hand, learners who received same-time feedback using Grammarly reported that they felt high time pressure. Receiving on-the-spot feedback made them distracted from focusing on content and from streaming their ideas. They felt that they had to stop and correct as they write, which was a source of distraction for them.

Answering Research Questions

The research questions can be answered as follows:

  1. What effect does the use of asynchronous e-feedback tools have on the writing outcomes of EFL learners compared to the?

Asynchronous e-feedback tools improve the writing skills of learners. Learners exhibited stronger writing ability; their output had better content, developed syntactic complexity, accurate word choice, and good use of language and grammar rules. Accordingly, learners of this group scored more on their writing tasks. Such approach in providing feedback makes learners more interested in writing classes and more engaged. Learners feel more relaxed when receiving asynchronous e-feedback.

  1. What effect does the use of synchronous e-feedback tools have on the writing outcomes of EFL learners?

Synchronous e-feedback tools have a positive effect on the writing output of learners. Upon receiving synchronous e-feedback, students learn grammatical rules and exhibit critical thinking skills. However, such tools can be a source of pressure for students when completing writing tasks, thus hindering their progress which is reflected by their slight improvement in their scores.

  1. What are the attitudes of EFL learners toward asynchronous and synchronous e-feedback tools?

EFL learners have positive attitude towards e-feedback, whether provided synchronously or asynchronously. Such tools make them feel motivated and eager to write compared to receiving feedback via conventional methods from instructors.

Conclusion

This study explored using synchronous and asynchronous e-tools as an e-feedback approach for EFL learners’ writing at a private university in Lebanon. It fills a gap in literature associated with effectiveness of e-feedback approaches in writing classes at university level in Lebanon. After conducting a pre-test, four writing tasks, and semi-structured interviews, a post-test was administered to trace any change in learners’ writing output. The findings reveal learners who received asynchronous e-feedback from their peers had better writing outcomes in terms of word choice, sentence length, structure and grammaticality compared to their counterparts who received synchronous e-feedback. Moreover, both e-feedback approaches, synchronous and asynchronous, promoted learners’ engagement by catering for their feedback preferences.

As this was a classroom case study, further work with larger sample size is recommended to investigate the effectiveness of the asynchronous and synchronous e-feedback approaches on EFL learners’ writing.

Limitations and Future Research

The current study was conducted on a relatively small sample size; hence its findings are limited to it and cannot be generalized. Studies with larger samples could yield sufficient data for drawing more general conclusions. Moreover, the study was conducted on learners who have less than intermediate level of English, and this in turn could have affected their attitude towards language use in the experiment. Hence, the study could be conducted on learners of different EFL levels. Moreover, future research could test the results yielded from an approach that combines both synchronous and asynchronous e-feedback tools compare to conventional teacher-centered feedback.

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