Writing (Teaching) Tip: Metacognitive Comments, Anyone?

At the recent Writing Research Across Borders conference at George Mason University, I attended a presentation on “The Impact of Metacognitive Strategies within Writing in the Disciplines.”  In a nutshell, having students reflect about their rhetorical choices definitely improves their metacognitive thinking and may actually improve their writing.

Several University of Michigan faculty members presented preliminary results of a three-year research study involving 13 universities and funded by the Spencer and Teagle foundation.

In the first run of the experiment, UM asked students in disciplinary writing courses to engage in three metacognitive activities for each major paper:

  • a pre-survey that got students thinking about the assignment

(What skill does this assignment call for? What previous knowledge do you bring to the assignment?  How will this assignment help you think like a psychologist/political scientist/etc.?  What do you need to help you complete this assignment?)

    • self-monitoring comments with feedback

    (Students came up with 3-5 questions about their writing and posted them via Track Changes in the margins of a draft.  Instructors, or TAs, answered the questions and provided an explanation.    For example,   Q: “I’m not sure my reader would understand that this is a ‘key’ point and not just ‘a’ point.   A: “I missed that this was one of your main ideas because …”  )

      • a post survey

        Early findings suggest that metacognitive approaches raise student awareness of the writing process (planning, audience awareness, evaluation).

        After the first paper or two, the surveys become less useful as answers become somewhat rote.  But the monitoring comments have proved a big hit with both faculty and students. Faculty can note patterns of roadblocks.  Student evaluations of instructors using this method have soared (probably because in large courses this individualized feedback is unusual).

        It’s important to prepare students well to use self-reflective monitoring comments on drafts, the UM researchers say.  Here’s an excerpt from their instruction sheet:

        Use the “comment” function in Word to insert at least three questions or comments in the margins of the paper.  This is your opportunity to communicate with us and (eventually with your peer evaluators) “backstage” about the choices you’ve made, to make your thinking more explicit.  You might note places where:

        • you’ve made your primary argument–why that argument and why there?
        • you’ve drawn on key concepts from the course–why that concept, what does this concept help you do/understand/achieve in this paper?
        • you feel uncertain about whether you’ve gotten your point across (and why)
        • you are struggling with or confused about writing the kind of piece the assignment asks for (and why)
        • you are struggling with or confused about a particular concept (and why)
        • you have responded to or accommodated feedback you received on the first draft (this applies to the second draft only)

        In addition, UM instructors provide students with  models of comments in text.

        In the Q&A after the session, the UM folks conceded that they have not yet had time to process all the data they’ve been gathering.  In the future lies systematic assessment of the papers (gathered electronically).  And they do not have plans yet to assess whether this method works differently for L2 (ESL) writers.  But the survey responses and student and faculty evaluations suggest that they’re onto something with this highly structured but fairly simple intervention.

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        Writing (Teaching) Tip: Keep the Pen in the Hand of the Writer

        Keep the pen in the hand of the writer.

        That’s the trope and 1st commandment of writing centers–and SOP for writing tutors at the LRC.

        Every week I put in a couple of hours at the LRC, so I too keep my pen on the table.  It’s a challenging experience for anyone accustomed to the teacher’s or editor’s prerogative to mark up text.

        Last week I was working with an EN 101 student who confessed, “I’m a terrible writer.”  Her paper was indeed terribly written, an empty and borderline incoherent summary of an article about the MTV show Skins.

        (Skins, for enquiring minds, features comely teenagers without zits getting into trouble over sex, alcohol, and other adolescent diversions.)

        But as I read the paper aloud to her, tripping over missing words and pulling up short at the end of sentence fragments, I did come across a gem of an idea: she understood that the author of the article didn’t think Skins was as bad as parents make it out to be.  “Unlike a reality show, it’s scripted.”

        Alas, this student hadn’t explored that thought, so I asked her a lot of questions and fed her a lot of prompts and kept my hands in my lap.  She kept writing, and the paper improved.  It wasn’t that good.  It wasn’t the summary I would have written.  But it was hers.  It expressed her insight that Skins writers aspire to character development.

        I met the same student today, for another summary.  We read a Post column about the Super Bowl side by side.  Who the heck is this Jerry of Jerry World? I asked. We read on. Oh, Jerry Jones.  Look, there’s a hyperlink.  She clicked, and we found out he owns the Dallas Cowboys.  I hope she also clicked on the behavior I was modeling,  questioning the text.

        I did some more pushing and pulling.  I worried that I was being too directive.  I worried that I wasn’t being directive enough.  I worried that she was still vague and repetitive.  When I articulated a thought and she tried to transcribe it verbatim–what did you just say?–I pretended to forget.  But the two paragraphs she drafted came from her own hand.  On her own she’ll have to retype them; she might even revise them.  Whatever I said will vanish because I kept my pen off her paper.  But whatever she ends up with will be her own work.

        Pen-off feedback might seem like a luxury reserved for the leisurely interaction of tutors and writers, not the chop-chop exchange between faculty and students.  But you might give it a try.  What if you didn’t line edit?  Or even make margin comments?  What if you didn’t give directions for fixing the paper?  What if you just asked questions?  You might write them down.  Students might then write you back, folding their answers to your questions into the draft.

        Just a thought.