…and April Is Especially Cruel for Those Who Assign Papers

Those of you who’ve taken the WI workshop series have heard our spiel about how to save time when dealing with papers.

Although it’s likely too late to redesign assignments, you might

  • Consider separating commenting from grading.  Research shows that students usually don’t carry writing feedback from the end of one class into the next semester.  Ever write comments on a paper due the last day of class–and find that many of your students don’t pick them up?  Sigh.

If you give students feedback on a paper in progress, however, they’re more likely to engage with it in the hope of improving their grade (or their learning–yes, we have those students, too).

  • Consider commenting early on a chunk.  If you have a paper due at the end of the semester, you might give some feedback on the thesis or introduction or give some feedback on a specific issue, such as organization.  You might collect a paragraph and note all the grammar errors that you expect to be eliminated throughout the final draft.
  • Consider making comments on the final paper only if students express interest.  Some professors ask for a self-addressed stamped envelope as a commitment.  Others schedule conferences (if you explain that there’s no penalty in just wanting a grade, a lot of students won’t sign up) and hand back the paper then or just comment orally.

You still have to grade, but at least you won’t feel as if you’re wasting your time casting pearls of wisdom that no one will bother to pick up.

Teaching Tip: Just Ask

What’s one of the best, quickest things you can do to improve your teaching?  Get formative feedback from your students BEFORE the semester is over.  I know that you already will be encouraging students to complete end-of-semester ratings forms, but those forms frequently don’t tell you what you want to know for several reasons.  Students may not complete them thoughtfully (or at all), they may interpret the items differently and the items themselves may be unclear.   If students don’t feel that your feedback helps them learn, what are they looking for that they aren’t getting?  The best way to find out is to ask your students for feedback now, while there’s still time to change things.

There are lots of ways to do this, from simple to complex.  The easiest way is to ask simple, open-ended questions.  But do NOT ask students what they liked and did not like about the course so far.  That’s an invitation for comments on everything from your clothing to the heat in the classroom.  Ask them what helped them learn the most and the least.  One approach I like is to ask students three questions:  1) what aspects of the course would you keep exactly as it is; 2) what would you keep but improve;  3) what would you toss?

A mid-semester evaluation doesn’t have to be that broad.  Perhaps you’d really like to know what students think of a particular assignment or reading or maybe you’ d like their feedback on a broad issue like class participation, group work  or the attendance policy.  Create a series of questions that will give you more in-depth understanding of just that aspect of your course.  You may also want to ask students to honestly (and anonymously) tell you how often they do the reading or how much time they spend out of class studying.  This information can help you better understand the rest of the feedback and it also may give you some insights into overall issues in the class.

In her book Inspired College Teaching, Maryellen Weimer points out that student end-of-course evaluations don’t really help students themselves – maybe future students will benefit, but not those filling out the forms right now. This fact, coupled with limited evidence that their evaluations actually result in change, makes students less motivated to complete evaluation forms.  But mid-semester assessment means that there’s still a chance for students to make a difference in ways that directly impact them.  If students are concerned about confidentiality, you can have the assessments administered by a student worker or colleague and collated by the office (the CTE can help with this if needed).  Or you can devise a survey that doesn’t require handwritten responses.

What do you do with the feedback once you get it?  Share it with students!  If they are dissatisfied with something that you cannot or will not change, you can at least explain why.  If you can make a change, students get to see that their opinions are valued, and the class develops a sense of collaboration.   According to Weimer, students also learn when you share and reflect on their feedback in class.  For example, if you get vague feedback (“that reading was bad”),   you can reflect out loud about how difficult it is to improve without more specific information – what made it bad?  Was it too long? Too difficult?  Students see the need to be more detailed and constructive.  Learning to give constructive criticism is like most other skills; it needs practice and feedback.  And if students know you are going to heed it, they will be more likely to deliver helpful responses.

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.

        Writing (Teaching) Tip–Acknowledging that Criticism Hurts

        English playwright John Osborne once said, “Asking a writer what he thinks about criticism is like asking a lamppost what it feels about dogs.”

        That makes you, in the eyes of most students, a dog.  They write; you criticize.

        In an earlier blog, I wrote about genuine praise, or “appreciative inquiry,” as a feedback tool.  That’s one way to avoid feeling like a dog: avoid criticism.

        Yet most writing feedback contains some kind of critique.  Students lock onto it like heat-seeking missiles.  They read it, they hide it, they quote it, and sometimes they even trade it in a kind of perverse one-upmanship.  But do they heed it?

        Maybe one reason that students ignore good advice is that it hurts too much to acknowledge it fully.  It means fessing up to poor work habits and scraping half-baked ideas into the trash.  How can we help students get beyond the pain to productive revision?

        One tack might be to distance your criticism from a student’s self-esteem.  Descriptive language–this paper summarizes instead of compares–can deliver a precise message without the collateral damage that evaluative language–this paper fails to compare–sometimes inflicts.  Rather than address the writer, make the paper the target for your arrows of insight.  The assignment [not the instructor!] challenges students to compare theory X and theory Y, but this paper [not the student!] summarizes X… In a one-on-one conference, you can physically position the paper so that you and the student are sitting side by side, a team, looking together at this text and what it is trying to communicate.

        Another tack is to acknowledge that criticism can be bruising, but productive writers deal with it and move on.  Quoting Osborne and other literary greats in her online article “Painful Prose: The Difficulty of Writing,” University of Oregon law professor Suzanne Rowe reminds legal writers that pain is an inevitable part of the process.  Anyone who writes confronts critics, internal as well as external, so you might share a story or two with students about how you manage to soldier on. No matter what you think of Bill Clinton, I feel your pain was one of his most effective debate lines.

        Finally, you might invite (assign) students to respond to your feedback in writing.  This response not only checks that students have 1) read and 2) understood your comments, but it also gets them thinking about revision immediately.  One guide is “Handling Criticism,” a handout from Utah State University’s academic resource center that has nothing to do with writing but offers sensible advice for acknowledging, disarming, and probing criticism.  After you comment on a draft, you might ask students to send you an e-mail along these lines:

        1. Which of my comments struck you as the most valid?  Where do you see room for improvement in your paper?
        2. Did I miss something in your paper?  Tell me where I misread your work or overlooked an important point.
        3. Ask me two questions that will help you shape your next draft.

        You will be helping students develop a writerly mindset as they consider audience response and edit their own work.

        Less Happy New Year? Responding to Student Writing

        Carolyn provided the inspiration.  I’m providing the reality check.

        A lot of your work this semester is going to be a waste of your time–especially when you’re responding to student writing.

        • Some students will not read your comments, or read all of them.
        • Some students will not understand your comments, or understand all of them.
        • Some students will read and understand your comments and still blow them off.  Revision is not for the lazy or faint of heart.

        BUT, and this is a big “but” (almost as big as my guinea pig’s butt), some of your feedback will matter enormously to some students.  Think of conception.  Think of war.  You have to fire off a lot of … whatever to hit a few targets.

        First, some sobering thoughts.  A lot of common practices–yes, even the ones we’ve belabored in WI workshops–fizzle.  Give some students a rubric and they will rise to expectations.  Give others the same rubric and they will write to the grid.  As education critic Alfie Kohn notes in “The Trouble with Rubrics,” “just as standardizing assessment for teachers may compromise the quality of teaching, so standardizing assessment for learners may compromise the learning.”

        One size of feedback does not fit all student writers, agrees Texas A&M emeritus professor Richard Haswell. In “The Complexities of Responding to Student Writing; or, Looking for Shortcuts via the Road of Excess,” an exhaustive survey of literature about commenting on student writing, Haswell searches for an answer to the efficiency question:  can a rubric or checksheet achieve the same (or better) effect as time-consuming paragraphs of prose?

        Haswell has a vested interest in the topic since he long championed his own “minimal marking” strategy. (In a nutshell, put an X by a line with a mistake and challenge the student to figure out what’s wrong and how to improve it.) Yet over time he found students correcting mistakes badly and even correcting nonmistakes, leaving the text in worse shape.

        Is anyone doing any better?

        Haswell has fun characterizing “responding types,” among them

        • the sharp-eyed editor, who catches every little grammar mistake,
        • the supportive parent, who pats arms during repeated hallway chats,
        • the real reader, who reads aloud and gives an off-the-cuff response,
        • the involved co-creator, who writes half the paper through e-mail back and forth, and
        • the judicious lawgiver, who cites precedents for grades.

        No one type emerges a clear winner, however.  Students want lots of feedback, but they often misinterpret it.  Professor labor, like professor warmth, does not directly translate into student learning.

        Yet Haswell finds wisdom in the “smaller task-specific, problem-specific, and learner-specific method” of “craft wise responders.”  Instead of enumerating all the faults in a piece of writing, they “hone in on the main problem” and suggest improvements within the student’s reach.  Less–but not too little–is more.  While easy to consume, such feedback is hard to produce, but the time it demands is more conceptual than mechanical.

        In the end, Hasswell remarks, instructors have to go with what works for them.  But they should keep checking in with their students, he says, asking for response to their responses.

        One Way to Save Time Grading: Outsource

        Too busy to comment on student papers?  Master’s students in India stand ready to take on the job, according to the Chronicle of Higher Ed

        Cost for giving feedback to 20 students on six assignments: $1,440.

        What’s Your Paper-Grading Practice?

        Hofstra University fine arts professor Laurie Fendrich outlines how she tackles a stack of student essays in “4 days, 40 papers.” Team-teaching a large lecture course, Fendrich assigned one small essay, wrote all over it (too much IMHO), asked for a revision, and then awarded checks with plus or minus.  This assignment, however, she’s grading. It’s a 2-3 page essay.

        In brief, she skims first, mostly intros and conclusions.  Then she reads a few papers carefully.

        She reads 10 essays a day, three at a time before a break.  She allots 10 minutes per page for reading and commenting.  She puts them in piles: best, middle, worst.  She vets best and worst again, then divides the huge middle pile into its own best/middle/worst based most only her comments.

        Finally, she assigns grades by pile.

        How does her process compare to yours?