A few months ago, Kate Makaryeva described the rationale and implementation of using error diaries with her learners. I read her post with great interest, knowing that error correction is extremely important yet something I don’t do nearly as much as I want to. Her idea stuck around in my head, and I was thrilled that she wrote some follow-up Q&A posts (1, 2) about error diaries. I learned a lot from her posts and decided to find a way to try them myself.
The rationale is that students make errors, and feedback is an effective way at addressing and ameliorating these errors. While delayed feedback is useful, immediate feedback is even more useful (according to research). What’s not useful is commenting on feedback and having it never thought of again. Recording errors down (somewhat) solves the problem, provides opportunities for noticing (which is important in language learning) and gives students something tangible they can think about.
There is some worry that writing these errors down may solidify them in students’ minds, but I don’t think working with errors can have any negative effects, especially since you are not only working with errors, but corrections. So long as the corrections are salient, there is little need to worry. Some have also stated that this may be a humiliating or psychologically negative experience for students. But, I feel that as long as students know this is being done to help them, not shame them, there is little to worry about. However, this likely depends on the level of maturity of the students, and the tone taken when discussion errors.
In Kate’s error diaries, she gave students feedback at the end of class on common mistakes, had the students figure out the mistakes, make corrections, and record these errors in her diary. She then used the diaries first, as a resource for herself to keep track of commonly occurring errors, and second, as a source of revision activities for her students. She explains this is much greater detail in her three posts. Whereas she did this in what I assume were conversation classes, I saw an opportunity to use them in my writing class.
We had already written several assignments, each of which had gone through one or two drafts before being assessed with my final feedback. I had my students go back and look at the errors they had made. I explained the rationale behind this, and they all seemed to agree it was a good idea. I then gave them an error diary worksheet that had four columns:
- Error – students part of or the whole sentence where the error occured
- Reason/Notes – students wrote an explanation of why the error occured. I encouraged them to write this in their native language, as it would be easier for them to understand.
- Correction – students wrote the correct form of the sentence
- Label – students gave a label to the error, such as “SV” for a subject-verb agreement error, or “NF” for a noun-form error. They basically used my proofreading codes as labels.
As students worked, I assisted them in understanding the errors and helped them fill out their diaries. I encouraged them to consult their diaries during their next writing assignment to help them spot the common errors.
Did this work? It’s difficult to say this without a controlled experiment (note to self: idea!), but I know that students are paying more attention to their writing. I also know I had fewer noun form mistakes and subject-verb disagreements after error diaries than before. Unfortunately, I can’t say with any certainty that they are effective…yet.
What did the students think? I gave a very informal survey using Google Forms (click here to see the results). I was surprised to find that most students (n = 12) found it useful and thought we should use it after every assignment. Confusingly, however, the class was divided on whether it was a waste of time or not. Nevertheless, their brief responses show me that this is something I need to develop and implement more in the future.
So, here’s my idea. After each writing assignment has had its final assessment, I will require students to complete a “Writing Reflection Diary” in which they look for common errors they made and include them in an Error Diary section. In addition, I’ll have them look at my comments on their content (not just grammar) and get them to write down their successes and areas they need to improve in next time. While drafting their next assignments, I’ll have them refer to their diaries in order to refresh their memories on what they discovered after their last journals.
What do you think?