Teaching Tip #12 Situational despair: The end of semester paper

So, you gave a written assignment, with some directions and maybe even a rubric.  Now you’re sitting in your favorite grading spot and reading your students’ work.   The MIA thesis, the failing logic, the absent evidence, the atrocious editing – where did it all go so wrong?  Unfortunately it’s probably too late for this semester’s batch but how can you avoid repeating this experience?

First of all, realize that you’re not alone; I’ve experienced it and my conversations with faculty suggest that most of them have too.  I think that most of our despair stems from a common set of assumptions that many of us learned when we were students.  They go something like this:  Professor assigns paper with due date at the end of the semester and basic instructions.  No other communication is necessary.  Student hands in final paper; professor makes pithy and insightful comments.  Student internalizes said comments and applies them to papers at the end of the next semester, never making the same mistakes again.   Writing improves in a steady upward spiral. Grateful students send their donations and their children to the University.

So what’s wrong with this picture?  Quite a lot, as it turns out.  Research on transfer of learning from course to course shows that it does not happen easily or automatically.  Many students who are told to provide more supporting evidence in History 211 are unlikely to provide it in Marketing 301.  They may not even provide it in History 212 without a reminder.  Students need your help understanding the requirements of the discipline and the requirements of your particular assignment before they can meet them.  Passing EN 101-102 is not sufficient preparation for writing papers in every other course.

Students benefit most from feedback that is provided BEFORE the final paper is turned in.  This is a form of “just-in-time” teaching i.e. providing instruction at the moment it is most relevant and helpful.  Requiring drafts and revision allows you to catch errors before students get too far afield, and you also can direct students who need extra help to the LRC before it’s too late.  If you do this up front, the final papers will have fewer problems and you’ll probably be able to grade them faster.  In addition, plagiarism becomes much more difficult when drafts are required, which minimizes another end-of-semester nightmare.  If you’re allowing drafts but not requiring them, you are probably noticing that the students who need the most feedback don’t submit.  That’s why I strongly suggest requiring them.

When it comes to encouraging students to use what they learned in their earlier classes, start by asking/reminding them about what they already know.  Then encourage them to think about how they can apply what they know to THIS assignment, and what they will need to do differently.  Students do not know automatically that the passive voice they’ve been hunting down and killing in English class is required for science writing.  As an added benefit, when you model the transfer of knowledge and skills between courses, students may learn to do it themselves.  **Promotion alert**   If you’d like to improve your quality of (grading) life by helping your students write better, consider attending a Writing Intensive workshop.  You’ll learn lots of helpful strategies that can be used in any class, not just WI.  Contact Sylvia Whitman for details at Sylvia.whitman@marymount.edu.

Now, you may wondering —  what has happened to students today?  After all, you WERE able to transfer information and you DID improve your writing with relatively little feedback and without what some would characterize as “hand-holding”.    And we all have at least a couple of students in each class who DO get it; who think critically, write well and make us feel so much better about our teaching.  Why can’t they all be like that?

As many of you have heard me say, our students are not us.  I sometimes think back to my own undergraduate years (yes, it’s increasingly difficult).  I would have been horrified to turn in poorly written work, but I wonder how many of my classmates were that picky.  For the most part, we who stayed in academia WERE those few students who did the outstanding work.  What was everyone else doing?  I have a feeling that many of them were like the majority of our students now, stumbling along but in need of much more support than they got.  Those students did not have the benefit of what we have learned about teaching and learning over the last 30 years.  Our students can get the benefit of that knowledge, if we are brave enough to try something different, and willing to meet them where they are and not where we think they should be or wish they were.

As a follow up to last week’s post about  final exams,  I couldn’t possibly write a better entry than this one from the Center for Teaching and Learning at Brigham Young University:


As always, looking forward to your thoughts.  Procrastinate on that grading and post a few!


2 Responses

  1. I needed to read this.

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