“Yes, I use smiley faces in my formative feedback.” 😊

by Siriol Lewis
English for Academic Study, School of Modern Languages and Culture, University of Glasgow

My colleague’s bemused expression prompted me to question whether I had crossed some invisible Rubicon from skilled educator to amateurish ‘frienducator’? 

I was teaching on an optional postgraduate speaking course, designed to encourage student participation in business school seminars.  Discussions centred around academic texts with input lessons focusing on interactive language and pragmatics. Students were also required to write weekly online reflections to which tutors responded.  The reflective writing rubric comprised three sections designed to assist students to take control of their learning by reflecting on preparation, participation, and action points for future seminars. Probably the most intimidating section is the second aspect, that of participation or ‘reflection in the midst of action’ (Boud, 2001, p.13). The participant notices and then consciously intervenes, dependent on circumstances at the time, and this causes simultaneous reflection, resulting in post-event contemplation.   However, as Boud (2001) notes, the notion of an audience can constrain the writer from revealing her/his true feelings, and the more intimate those feelings are, the greater the obstacle to writing truly reflectively. He also comments that ‘there is a tension between assessment and reflection that must be addressed in all courses where it may arise’ (2001, p.16).  Although two reflections were formally assessed, these were submitted separately from the weekly reflections.  However, irrespective of whether the reflective writing is assessed or not, it still can cause students to self-assess their vulnerability. The fear of intimacy and exposure can be overwhelming.

Higgins et al. (2010) also note that tutors must examine their own beliefs and practices regarding assessment. This can be widened to include feedback of any nature, formative as well as summative. The role of second language teaching in a HE environment can be quite opaque as the post-graduate students are already established within a reputable business school and have a high level of academic literacies but may lack confidence in L2 speaking. Indeed, the course was constructed in response to feedback from faculty requesting assistance with their students’ seminar participation skills.  Communicative language teaching in a small class, plus the formative aspect of most of the classes should facilitate a more ambient atmosphere for students to speak without fear of endangering their grades in their master’s degrees.  However, the core texts used in seminars from their degree courses were often lexically dense and quite abstract. Consequently, students were sometimes reluctant to engage in critical discussion, inhibited by lack of vocabulary and insufficient processing time to absorb ideas and offer detailed responses.  Reflections frequently mentioned anxiety, and a sense of not being as good as peers. Students were often concerned about loss of face and expressed concern that their grammar was inadequate. Tutor feedback centred around the use of vocabulary, application of theory from the core texts and the development of interactive skills. However, inevitably, due to the content of the writing, feedback was heavily personalised. This was the only 1:1 mode of communication on this course, and feedback itself is ‘a process of communication’ (Higgins et al., 2010, p.270).  In addition, the complex relationship between power dynamics and emotion must be acknowledged (Layder, 1997, cited in Higgins et al., 2010, p.273). Tutor feedback can be motivating, unsatisfying or demoralising, for example. If authentic reflection potentially includes an element of risk and feedback is tailored in response to the student’s writing, then are emoticons appropriate?

Krohn (2004) concluded that use of emoticons in emails was generation dependent.  Most of my students are Generation Z digital natives, using emoticons as semiotic tools to both save time and to convey emotions. The onus is on instructors to change and adapt to the times, otherwise they will be ‘disregarded as dinosaurs’ (Krohn, 2004, p.326). Since 2004, emoticon usage has become significantly more widespread, particularly through social media usage.  However, while teaching staff are expected to embrace technology as part of the pedagogical toolkit, there has been less emphasis on the new digital literacy language in the HE context. In this context we must ask, ‘who is the feedback for?’ If it is for the students rather than the faculty’s benefit, then every effort should be made to write appropriately for the audience. Is this not what we teach our students? In a recent study conducted by Marder et al. (2019), the results suggest that the students surveyed perceived the use of emoticons by instructors as signifying warmth, which may be appropriate in the case of reflective writing. They conclude that overall, the use of positive emoticons is beneficial and appropriate in HE, particularly considering the need to engage with a generation raised using computer mediated communication.  However, the researchers also mention two caveats: only smiley emoticons were investigated, and research was conducted in western HE institutions.  Marder et al. (2019, p.11) note that ‘culturally hierarchical situations are softer’ in such universities.  This may cause a mild cognitive dissonance for the majority of students on this course who are from non-EU backgrounds.

Reflective writing encourages the students to expose their inner selves and consider their seminar preparation, performance and goals.  However, I have also observed that for many students, this can be a rather mechanical process.  Those who scrutinize criteria quickly recognise what constitutes a strong reflection and produce writing that ticks the box, but what of those students who do choose to reflect with sincerity and reveal their fears?  In a ‘real’ conversation in a consultation, I would instinctively try to bolster the student’s confidence, aiming for reassurance and boosting motivation. Therefore, it may be that we both use this channel as a substitute for a face-to-face consultation.

In view of the role of reflective writing, its use as a conduit to express anxiety, and the formative aspect, feedback language should be relevant and tailored to the situation.  I argue that given the above conditions, the use of emoticons is not only appropriate, it may even be desirable. Constructing a response designed to support and motivate anxious students in an online mode must be clear and unambiguous. However, as Alshenqeeti (2016, cited in Venter, 2019, p.3) points out, emoticons may still cause confusion because the recipient is obliged to decode the symbol depending on the context and the writer/recipient relationship. My emoticon use has been restricted to J with the intention that this be interpreted as friendly, encouraging and supportive.  However, it may be that I have made an assumption based on my own beliefs rather than considering a cross-cultural, cross-generational boundary infused by power dynamics. Skovholt et al. (2014) observed that although the smiley emoticon usage itself has shifted from its original purpose to signify jokes and is now more often used as a softener and as an indicator of personal involvement, it was uncertain whether the smiley face would have universal interpretation. There is a risk that use of smiley faces could be construed as trivialising the reflection.  Here, I am relying on my relationship with my students, trusting that they judge me to have a genuine interest and concern in their progress and well-being.  I think that international students probably do not misinterpret the emoticon; however, there are still several considerations.  Did the use of emoticons change my professional relationship with the students and their perceptions of me?  What did this mean for those students who may have been equally concerned but did not feel able to express their anxieties in online reflective writing? Do students appreciate it?  Certainly, some students appeared to be reassured, but this has not been the focus of any rigorous research.  This causes a dilemma. Research may provide useful data on students’ beliefs concerning the use of emoticons, but it could interfere with the discreet and personal nature of the online reflective writing.  Students would also have a further reflective task: reflecting on the use or non-use of emoticons by their tutors that their own reflections had initiated.  This could result in more anxiety or a more anodyne ‘safe’ response, thus further negating any benefits from the reflective writing process. This 1:1 communication is therefore dependent on the personalities of both the writer and the tutor. Each reflection should be regarded as a unique interaction and responses should be bespoke, as appropriate.  This may or may not include the use of emoticons; however, if anxieties need to be allayed, then smiley faces may convey warmth and encouragement.

Address for correspondence:

Boud, D.  2001. Using journal writing to enhance reflective practice. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education. 90, pp.9-17.

Higgins, R., Hartley, P. and Skelton, A. 2001. Getting the message across: The problem of communicating assessment feedback. Teaching in Higher Education. 6(2), pp.269-274.

Krohn, F. B. 2004. A generational approach to using emoticons as nonverbal communication. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication. 34(4), pp.321-328.

Marder, B., Houghton, D., Erz, A., Harris, L. and Javornik, A. 2019. Smile(y) – and your students will smile with you? The effects of emoticons on impressions, evaluations, and behaviour in staff-to-student communication. Studies in Higher Education [Accessed 10 June 2019]. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2019.1602760

Skovholt, K., Grønning, A., and Kankaanranta, A.  2014. The communicative functions of emoticons in workplace e-mails: :-)∗. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. 19, pp.780–797.

Venter, E. 2019. Challenges for meaningful interpersonal communication in a digital era. HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies. 75(1), [no pagination].