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The Path to Language Learning Independence

How one teacher’s research-based approach inspired students to find their own way using Turnitin Feedback Studio

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Discover how Emilia Illana-Mahiques uses PeerMark to foster original thinking in her courses.

Building a culture of ownership, empowerment & exploration

Professor Emilia Illana-Mahiques compares her students’ journeys in Spanish language learning to the Camino de Santiago in Spain. The Camino (as it’s known) is a cross-country network of pilgrimage routes that date back to the 9th century, studded with tiny signposts to keep travelers on the path.

“That’s my analogy that I always talk about at the start of my courses. And I think that’s my biggest inspiration and reward—showing them the path, and then for them to walk it.”

In essence, Professor Illana-Mahiques likens her role to those subtle signposts that keep her students on the path of their own development. She keeps a picture of the Camino de Santiago on her course page as a reminder of this metaphor not only to her students, but to herself as well.

Why and how working with others matters: a spotlight on Emilia’s peer review research

However, Professor Illana-Mahiques had to make a journey of her own to reach this insight, and learn how to serve as that subtle, yet all-important, guidance through the use of technology-enhanced learning.

Technology-enhanced learning is using the necessary tools and programs that help students learn. So, the technology is at the service of learning and not the other way around. I don’t want to use technology for the sake of using it, or because it's more modern, but because it actually helps to teach and learn.


Emilia Illana-Mahiques, Lecturer of Spanish Language, Cornell University

Through her research and experience with Turnitin Feedback Studio at the University of Iowa, she has both studied how peer review (using PeerMark) and bite-sized feedback (using QuickMarks) can serve as those signposts to gently guide her students’ learning.

Guided by research questions, her study:

  1. Describes and explains peer review in terms of the roles involved and how students construct and distribute their comments
  2. Examines the individual experiences and perspectives of the participants according to the role they assume as feedback givers
  3. Analyzes the links between students’ self-perceptions and how they perform in peer review.

Her research found that:

  1. There is a connection between the students’ self-perceived feedback-giving role and the types of feedback they give to their peers
  2. Students’ assumed feedback-giving role also affects the procedures they follow in peer reviewing and in giving specific types of comments to a peer’s text
  3. Peer reviewing should be approached from a broader understanding of the concept of feedback in which both reviewers and writers act as active learners seeking to enhance their own learning

You can find her full research paper here: Re-Thinking Peer Reviewing in the Virtual Context: The Roles of Giving and Receiving Online Feedback in L2 Spanish Classrooms

Mapping the path with Turnitin Feedback Studio—PeerMark

Professor Illana-Mahiques said PeerMark was a window for her students to see other people's work. Her goal was to put students in touch and allow them to give feedback to one another, however she needed to have a structured approach.

Her first challenge was reconciling the fact that it was difficult for an instructor to provide thorough and critical feedback for every student on every draft. She found that Turnitin Feedback Studio’s platform responded well to this challenge because it provided additional opportunities for students to receive feedback and improve their writing through peer review while not adding to the workload of the instructor.

To ensure that the feedback they were both giving and receiving was of high quality, Professor Illana-Mahiques designed a peer review module for students to hone their skills. It was during this training that she collected reviews and data from her students that informed her research on how she would conduct peer review exercises in her future classes.

PeerMark in Turnitin Feedback Studio

Learn how to create your own PeerMark assignment within Turnitin Feedback Studio, or check out this VidBit that covers best practices for engaging in peer review activities in remote settings and what resources are available to help.

She provided her students with both peer review training and technology training. One of her favorite dynamics was a peer review exercise in which every student received the same sample essay. Each student then provided feedback on that essay—strengths, areas for improvement, etc. Then Professor Illana-Mahiques opened up the feedback to everyone so that students could compare the length, quality, and depth of their comments against the rest of the class. This contrast-comparison exercise then opened up a dialogue around quality and best practices for providing peer feedback.

After the class collectively defined what feedback worked best and what didn’t, the peer review process then became an autonomous function of their assignments, performed at each stage of writing—outline → revision 1 → draft → revision 2 → final essay. Students received greater quality feedback from their classmates, and in turn gave deeper consideration to how their comments could apply to their own work, resulting in deeper introspection and improvements to their analytical skills and their ability to provide critical and effective feedback.

The results of her research that stemmed from these activities were that giving feedback was significantly correlated with final performance, while receiving was not. The three types of feedback that were most impactful were:

  1. Problem identification
  2. Being able to justify a perspective
  3. Explaining positive feedback to specify what was good and why

Aligning with the learning by reviewing hypothesis, Professor Illana-Mahiques emphasized that “giving is a good thing.” She elaborated that giving in these types of feedback loops comes back to them in forms of learning that impacts their own writing performance. Draft by draft, she saw the quality of her students’ writing improve, and become stronger and more original, self-guided work.

They are seeing how other people are writing. They are getting exposed to different perspectives and then they come back to their own writing and they change it. Sometimes they change it even before they receive feedback. And then they receive the feedback and they change it again.


Emilia Illana-Mahiques, Lecturer of Spanish Language, Cornell University

In essence, Professor Illana-Mahiques showed them the path, and now they were walking it themselves.

*Additional research on peer review: The impact of formative peer feedback on higher education students’ academic writing: a Meta-Analysis, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, Bart Huisman, Nadira Saab, Paul van den Broek & Jan van Driel (2019), 44:6, 863-880, DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2018.1545896

Signposting with Turnitin Feedback Studio—QuickMarks

Her students were now on the path to a more empowered way of learning language, but to keep them on the path Professor Illana-Mahiques recognized the need to offer subtle guidance in case they got lost. To do this, she leveraged QuickMarks within Turnitin Feedback Studio, calling the feature “the strongest thing Turnitin has for learning a foreign language.”

QuickMarks are bite-sized pieces of feedback that she could apply across their assignments to identify common missteps. To empower her students, Professor Illana-Mahiques stressed the importance of providing “just the right amount of information that they need to enhance their learning.” As such, she kept her QuickMarks very basic, which challenged her students to revisit the mistake and explore what went wrong. She also made sure that her QuickMarks were in the target language (in this case, Spanish), so that students remained in the Spanish mindset while writing.

Creating and designing this QuickMark tool that helps us to address both content and form is very easy, but very powerful as well and very precise on what the students need.


Emilia Illana-Mahiques, Lecturer of Spanish Language, Cornell University

A path of their own

For Professor Illana-Mahiques, the most rewarding part of her job is when she hears back from students who were inspired to discover their own, original paths. For instance, she was thrilled to hear a student come back to her and announce that she was applying to the Fulbright scholarship program because of her class. Or when she heard back from another student who was moved to study abroad in Argentina—a life-changing experience for them. It’s these moments—when the students feel confident and empowered—that take learning and living to the next level.

"​I want to inspire them and give them the tools so they can thrive and succeed wherever they want. Giving them the resources so they can be where they want to be. I’m just showing them the path. They have to walk it. I always tell them that.​"

— Emilia Illana-Mahiques

Leveraging the power of feedback to strengthen student success

Watch Emilia's session from the 2021 Americas Summit to understand what scaffolded assignments look like in your Turnitin solution while also exploring the importance of feedback in formative teaching approaches.

Explore all sessions