Sunday, January 30, 2011

If A Student Essay Falls In The Woods And No One Is There To Read It, Does Anyone Care?

They're B-A-A-A-a-a-ck!
A while back, I assigned two papers in one of my classes.  In the first, I gave a straightforward "assignment" that asked students to think more deeply about the reading they had done up to that point and use what they had learned to analyze a primary document.  In the scale of things, this is a standard history assignment. I gave the class three documents to choose from, and awaited the papers.  When I began to read them, one thought came to mind:


Now, let me emphasize:  they weren't bad papers.  Many of them were A-worthy; only a few received grades thought ought to have been worrisome to the recipients.  And yet, as I paged thorugh them, I dreaded grading them.  Why?  They were dull.

Subsequently, I did a little informal research among the students, and most of them admitted that they, had been uninspired and uncertain about the point of the paper.  Several things were at work, as it turned out.  Many students, especially those who were new to college, had become anxious because there was no "prompt."  It's took me years to figure out what they are talking about when they used this word, because I never assign a paper without some guidance or question, a significant difference from the practice of my own college and high school teachers.  I know this will seem strange, but back in the Stone Age, at Oligarch, professors would say that a paper was due, and you would have to figure out what to write about all by your lonesome.  We never expected to be told what to write about.  In retrospect, some people thrived and others suffered under this system.  I had one friend who, because s/he never did the reading, and was usually stoned in class, never knew what to write about either.  This made the whole semester quite a challenge, but it made picking a paper topic an impenetrable mystery.  If we were in the same class, I would eventually sort of drop a lifeline of sorts a few days before the paper was due:  "I was gonna write about this, but I decided to write about that instead."  Then we would chat about this for a while, and s/he would get by.  Not excel, but get by.

So anyway, I discovered this fall that the "prompt" is yet another product of a testing culture that strives to make all students nicely mediocre thinkers before they get to college.  When a high school teacher gives a "prompt" it means that students are supposed to answer a highly direct question, for which there is a right answer, that will demonstrate their mastery of what they have been taught.  Needless to say, not being directed towards a formulaic answer can cause the kind of anxiety that undoes our finest students, because the last thing someone educated in a testing culture should do is think critically or get creative.  What the anxiety produced in this case was a set of papers that were, to a greater or lesser degree, workman-like, safe, and all used the same f*#@king document.

Whose fault was this?  My fault, that's who.  I had given a highly conventional assignment that signaled to the students (correctly) that they were being tested (without being honest about saying so), and so the vast majority of them stayed in the right-hand lane and drove slightly under the speed limit (metaphorically speaking.)  Furthermore, I had failed for years to attend to this whole business of what students were talking about when they referred to a "prompt":  hence I had given one assignment, and they had essentially received a different one than I intended.  So the next time around, lest I should be tempted to drive a pencil into my ear while grading, I gave them complete and utter freedom.  I asked them to choose their own document and to choose it based on something they were passionate about now.  I asked them to compare their own enthusiasm for this topic to the enthusiasm expressed in the document, and to use the document to understand better how their own passion was rooted in a history of other people who cared about this thing too.  When students asked me if it was OK to write about something they didn't really care about, I said no.  Then I took the time to talk with them about what they did care about, and urged them to write about it.

This second set of papers was more or less spectacular.  They were interesting; they varied over a wide range of topics; they were far better written; and many of the papers themselves were preceded by interesting meetings in office hours during which students let me know something that helped me teach them better.

This experience prompted me to think (again) about how we actually assist in producing student work that we do not want to read through ordinary acts of pedagogy that we take for granted, and how it might be possible to change that.  Here are a few thoughts and questions as we move into the semester together:

How do you return papers?  Do you hand them out at the end of class or do you put them in a box outside your office door, where many of them sit, dolefully, for days, weeks or months?  I am very much against the latter practice, which many people I respect adhere to, for several reasons.  I think handing a paper to a student signals a two-way exchange. It is personal, and in a large class it helps me learn their names and how the people sitting in front of me actually think.  I think putting them out in the hall, on the floor, unintentionally signals:  "I am done with this.  It is trash."

I also think there is a serious problem with leaving student papers out where anyone can get to them:  it makes every student's grade available to every other student, which is a violation of privacy.  I also think that for a group of people that is always searching for new ways to police cheating, we are more or less clueless about the fact that many of those papers will be, shall we say, recycled, for other classes or other sections of the same class, in other years.

Do you write comments on the paper?  Or just grade it? Do you make yourself available to discuss students' work with them after you hand the papers back?   I can't tell you how many of my advisees show up in my office hours with a paper in their hand that has no comments on it at all, just a grade, students who also can't get the professor to met with them.  Rarely do they express anger or resentment at the grade:  they want to do better and they don't know how.

Do you write lots and lots of marginal notes on the paper, spending hours correcting everything and re-diagramming their sentences?  The truth is, although you are trying to be the opposite of the teacher I describe above, this freaks students out.  Although you have spent maybe an hour on this, feeling like you are a really caring teacher, the student may see them as a blur, as grammatical correction collides with interpretive questions, typos, basic misunderstanding of the text and long-winded attempts not to utilize the first person or appear "biased."  If a paper is really muddled, it is a waste of your time to do this:  far better to sit down with the student, ask a couple questions about what s/he intended, and describe how s/he might have gone about writing such a paper.

One common grumble I hear from faculty is:  "I bet I spent more time grading it than s/he spent writing it!"  While that probably isn't technically so, it may well be so that the paper was written at the last minute, and that the student had not done the work necessary to write the paper of which s/he might be capable.  How much better would it be to find this out in the course of a conversation?  Better yet, to take the opportunity to underline in person that a better effort over the long term would produce better written work.  A fair number of students think they "want to work on [their] writing," as if writing were disconnected from the other work in the course.

Do you actually care what they think -- and do your paper assignments encourage them to tell you?  If writing papers is just about testing whether students have completed and understand the intellectual content of the course, why not just give quizzes instead?  We have come to fetishize college writing, organizing all activities around the idea that this is the litmus test of good teaching, when in fact it isn't always necessary to write an essay to demonstrate competence.  This study, forwarded to me by a colleague, argues that testing-taking, in and of itself, "actually helps people learn, and it works better than a number of other studying techniques."

Good paper assignments, in my view, ask students to  make an intellectual choice of some kind and commit to them.  But not all knowledge acquisition is about committing to intellectual choices:  a great deal of important work in a course is about basic mastery of a field of study that will given them a platform for creativity and/or critical analysis.  

Do you talk to students about your own writing, and testify to the ongoing vulnerability of putting your own writing out there to be criticized by others? One of the most effective things I ever did in a class was to hand out a couple pages of an article that had just been returned full of possible edits.  There were probably about twenty per page.  I then pointed out to the class that what they were reading was probably in its seventh or eight draft, had been commented on by three people already, and was still perceived by a peer as worthy of drastic improvement.  I did it on impulse, but you should have seen the shocked looks on their faces, and heard the many questions this provoked about how I learned to write, how I would respond to these criticisms, and well, how did this make me feel?  Numerous student evaluations pointed to this discussion as having made a huge impression.

Do you ask students to rewrite? OK, so it's not always possible to go through a stack of papers twice, but it is well known that the way anyone becomes a better writer is by redrafting, and rethinking, what s/he has already done.  Here's an effective trick:  have them bring papers to class.  Have them exchange papers with another student.  Give everyone ten minutes to mark up the paper s/he now has for typos, spelling errors and other grammatical errors and give it back to the writer.  Give everyone ten minutes to talk, but this time have each person tell the other person what s/he did or did not like about the paper s/he wrote and get advice on how to strengthen good parts and fix the less good parts.

Then tell them the paper is actually due in the next class and send them home to take another crack at it.

 Any other ideas out there?  Leave them in the comments section!


Comrade PhysioProf said...

When a high school teacher gives a "prompt" it means that students are supposed to answer a highly direct question, for which there is a right answer, that will demonstrate their mastery of what they have been taught.

That sounds horrifying. Are high-school teachers themselves being taught that this is a good thinge for them to be doinge?

I don't teach writing in a classroom setting, so I can't address your question directly. However, my trainees and I do a fucketonne of writing colaboratively together: grante applications, fellowshippe applications, research manuscripts, and review articles. While most of the editorial information flow is from me to them, as they directly generate most of the written work product of the labbe, for large-scale broad grante applications that I take primary responsibility for writing, I seek and receive substantial editorial input from them. The fact that I take their editorial input on my writing very seriously makes them more amenable to my input on theirs.

Matt L said...

a great post. I express my heartfelt admiration.

Oh, and I use a rubric to grade essays and never write more than three comments on the paper. One of them is usually a complement on something that the student did right with the paper: the other two comments identify specific, but recurring problems with suggestions for improvement. That way the students have both incentives to keep doing what went right and two concrete things that they can change. If they need more feedback, we can talk about it in office hours.

Brian W. Ogilvie said...

Thanks for this great set of reflections and tips. Here's some of what I do:

I use a comment sheet with a rubric to give students feedback. Does the paper have a clear thesis? Does the introduction explain why the subject is worth writing about? Does it signal to the reader what to expect? Does the paper use sources effectively? Is each paragraph focused and coherent? Does the paper as a whole make a convincing argument? Does the conclusion sum up the paper and suggest its broader implications? Is the writing clear? Are grammar, punctuation, etc. correct?

On each of those points I check off whether the paper is strong, OK, or weak. I then write a few sentences on what the strongest point of the paper was, and a few sentences on the one or two things that are most in need of improvement.

On the paper itself, I try to limit myself to one or two comments on each page, written after I have gone through the whole paper. I also use checkmarks to indicate a particularly good point and question marks to indicate where I had trouble following the paper. (I explain these to the students.)

When I started teaching, my colleague Dan Gordon passed on some wise advice: most beginning college teachers write comments as if they're trying to point out everything that needs to be done to make a paper perfect. That just turns students off. It's much better to point out the two or three things that could be done to make a C paper into a B paper.

I have always handed students' papers back to them in person. Our administration now prohibits the box of papers on the floor, or in the main office, because of the potential FERPA violation.

And I encourage students to revise and resubmit their papers. My policy on revisions (a term I prefer to "rewrites") is that the revised paper must address the major substantive comments, not just marginal comments. I haven't shown students my edited writing, but I do explain that I and their other professors revise and resubmit all the time. I have students turn their papers in online, and I download them in PDF format; that way I can use Acrobat Professional to compare the revision with the original and find out how substantially the paper was revised.

As for prompts: I do usually give one or two questions that students can address. But I also allow them to write on something else if they really want to do so. In those cases, I ask them to send me a brief summary of what they want to write and to get my permission at least a week before the paper is due. That helps ensure that the topic is manageable and that our library has sufficient sources. Many of my students are approaching early modern history for the first time, even in my upper-level courses, so I find prompts are a useful way to help focus their thoughts on my learning objectives for the course.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I'm definitely an over-commenter. Need to knock that off.

As to "prompts" -- yeah, that word was gettin' flang all around curriculum meetings and I had no earthly idea. Finally figured it out. And I had occasion to reflect on the problem yesterday when I thought back to grad school comps, where I finally nailed it when I figured out that I not only had to answer the question the prof was asking, but also figure out what the question was that they weren't directly asking, and answer that one, too.

But back to your point: I've seen a notable deterioration in this area even over the last 10 years alone -- every year, they're more and more afraid of having their own ideas, or following their own intellectual curiosity. Last semester, my big experiment was to make one of the short papers a "Hey! I'll provide lots of references to great primary source collections, and you write on something that you're interested in!" They. Were. Lost.

Is it that they're not interested in anything? Or that they don't know that they're allowed to be?

Clarissa said...

" the "prompt" is yet another product of a testing culture that strives to make all students nicely mediocre thinkers before they get to college. When a high school teacher gives a "prompt" it means that students are supposed to answer a highly direct question, for which there is a right answer, that will demonstrate their mastery of what they have been taught. "

-I thought I'd heard of every insane practice that fostered my the test-driven culture of high schools, but this one is new to me. Now many things are becoming painfully clear.

One crazy habit students bring from high school is doing "projects." A project is this assignment where you get a topic, google it, and stick the information you have found through Google into a PowerPoint. And then present it to the class. What skills this is supposed to foster other than very fast copy-pasting is a mystery to me.

Every semester I have to disappoint a new group of freshmen by announcing to them that there will be no "projects" in our course.

missoularedhead said...

I once TA'd for a class in which the first paper prompt was actually longer than the paper they were expected to produce. That's just wrong.

I am very much a fan of the 'pick something that interests you and write about it'. I teach mainly surveys, and while I expect the mechanics, grammar, etc. to be there, I have, over the years, tweaked the formula. Rather than a 'paper', I call them 'response papers'. I tell students that I know what I think, I want to know what THEY think. And I allow the use of 'I' in these papers. I get things that are a lot more interesting to read, because, as you note, they're better written when students care about the subject.

I used to write all over their papers, but now I tend to do longer comments, rather than cover their entire paper in purple (its still bold, but not quite as negative as red, somehow). I can be a bit harsh, I suppose, when I simply write 'no' next to something, but I do try. Except on the last paper of the term, when I simply give it a grade. I do give it back to them in class (well, except any final term papers…they can pick those up from me if they wish) and I have a rule…you must wait 24 hours before speaking to me about your grade. That gives you time to read over my comments, and, in some cases, cool down. It saves everyone's nerves.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Is it that they're not interested in anything? Or that they don't know that they're allowed to be?

I have become convinced that they don't know how to be interested in anything they aren't told to. That is, they don't even know how to identify the sensation of their own curiosity being piqued, because of the crushing burden of overprogramming. Those with educational privilege have been overprogrammed to "achieve goals", and those without have been overprogrammed to "take tests".

flask said...

bless you.

Susan said...

My analytical papers are fairly focused, because I want students to do a range of things. But, like Clarissa, I do "response papers". I've struggled with this form, alternating between more free form and more structured. I think this semester I have a good balance -- i ask them to identify a portion of the reading they want to talk about, and explain why it's important. It's one page, graded on a yes/no basis, so low stakes.
I'm trying to cure myself of copyediting their writing!

Janice said...

So that's what "prompt" means when it's getting thrown around on campus. Useful to know.

I've thought a lot in the past year about improving my teaching of historical essay writing. I try to build steps into classes, appropriate to their level of study.

So my first year students all read one short primary source which we discuss in class, then take one chapter of it to analyze how that relates to, reinforces or contradicts the dominant culture of the era. After they've done that, they're allowed free choice of any other primary source excerpted in the text to start upon a longer and more challenging source-based study.

I've used rubrics to a greater extent in my mid-level survey courses. I especially like them in classes where I have many short assignments: if there are 80 to 130 students all handing in five or six responses to a tutorial reading, say, it's helpful to use the rubric to show them that they should have used more examples or concrete references from the sources and that their thesis statement was a problem.

On longer papers, I encourage students to submit electronically. That makes it easy to use Word's comment and track changes features to correct. With seniors, we can even run peer review.

To give them an idea of how much more intensive it can be, I show them some of the editing trail from my most recent peer-reviewed chapter. I tell them that I wrote an initial draft, revised heavily, sent it off to a colleague for more review, incorporated those changes and sent it to the volume editor with whom it had two sets of revisions before we even got to copy editing.

Seeing those pages marked up in red all over? It's a real eye-opener to students who think that a writer is just "naturally" good. What I want to do is improve my own "mark-up" practices. I try to highlight excellent passages and stand-out arguments as well as catch mistakes or problems. But I need to find a way so that they're not overwhelmed by corrections so that they miss the kudos!

token undergrad said...

While I'm speaking out of pedagogic ignorance, I have to ask if the terrain is a bit different in classes geared to teaching writing/argumentation/composition. Would more guidance in the paper topic/guidelines be appropriate for students being taught to sustain analytical arguments for the first time? In these kinds of classes, where different material/skills are being evaluated, perhaps prompts would be less susceptible to turning into a test.

That said, I took a couple classes with one English professor whose standard policy was to ask students to write--and then answer--their own prompts. I liked this: it required us to be more focused than we might have been if we'd just been told to go off and write a paper, but allowed us to write in accordance with our inclinations (and come up with some interesting questions) as well. (Then again, it was an upper-division class, almost all majors with a few people like me in related fields, so we didn't need training wheels.)

Anonymous said...

My suggestion was also for a rubric, as mentioned by some other commenters.

I initially used to correct paragraphs of text (and wonder whether it was the result of a rushed assignment, a second language, or extremely poor high school teaching). Now I tend to comment on the use of language and how it has inhibited my appreciation of their learning, and invite them to discuss the paper with me. Much for fruitful.

Really enjoying your blog.

David Webster said...

First post here. TR, I've been reading your blog for a couple of years and loving it. And this is one of the handiest posts for how to give and grade assignments I've read. (I'm actually here procrastinating from marking a source document analysis, because I am dreading the mechanical, if competent, responses. So this had the ring of relevance for me....)

I've been finding students keep asking me what I am _really_ looking for in an assignment, even though it's been given to them in writing. Although no one's used the word "prompt," it sure sounds like this is what they're looking for. I tried reading the assignment to a class last week, almost word for word, and students told me they understood me telling them directly what they hadn't understood by reading it. Maybe that's the same personal connection as handing the essays back in person. (Does anyone really leave papers in a box in the hallway? That sounds appalling!) Thanks for the thought-provoking post, food for rethinking.

TooHotToTeach said...

Great post! I really loved reading it, and could go on and on for hours about my newly embraced pedagogical tactic for commenting on student papers. However, the part of the post that really sticks out to me is about high school prompts.

I teach college writing and work at a high school writing center. As such, I'm in a unique position to see students as they enter and leave high school, as well as embark upon their college journey. It seems to me that high school and college are at a divide. It is my experience that "college-ready" writing is not a conversation that is being had between high school teachers and college teachers. Every teacher, every school, every college has a different opinion about what makes a good "prompt." I've seen high school teachers write direct, single-answer prompts, but I've seen college teachers do it too.

My big push is to get the dialogue going! Get teachers from high school talking with college instructors. The two shouldn't be so divided...

Brian W. Ogilvie said...

@missoularedhead: "pick something that interests you and write about it" can work well if the instructor teaches students how to write an interesting paper rather than merely a data dump. One reason I give prompts is to indicate the kind of questions a paper should raise and the kinds of argument that it should make. Students aren't born knowing either of those things, and some of them learn it better from specific examples than they do from a discussion of general principles.

I also go over Wayne Booth, Greg Colomb, and Joe Williams's distinction between topics, questions, and problems, which can help.

@token undergrad: I like the idea of asking students to write a prompt and then write a paper answering it. It reminds me of the exam prompt I once heard about that asked students to write a final exam question for the course and then to explain why it is a good question.

JoVE said...

My teaching experience was in the UK where it is common to set essay questions. It is possible to set questions that do not elicit fact based regurgitation and setting questions the provoke the kind of thinking and analysis that you want can sometimes work. That said, test focused students still want to know what the right answer is so you still have to impress upon them that you are looking for evidence that they can use the analytical tools of the sociologist/historian/whoever to make sense of whatever it is. And that there is more than one possible "right" answer.

One thing we did in the intro course was to set a compulsory final exam question that we told them about right from teh beginning "Write a sociological analysis of an event that happened to you this year." Freaked them out, but the marking was definitely not boring. The good students could really excel and even the mediocre ones often wrote something interesting.

We also set questions asking them to consider some of the sociology of the city we'd been learning in relation to a specific city they were familiar with (encouraging them to use this assignment to think about the city they were studying in). Again, the best students did some amazing things. And even the B students wrote interesting papers.

Anonymous said...

My #1 rule with comments: Don't vent. Only write a comment if learning can occur from it.

When I grade is I read the paper first without commenting at all. I take a pencil and lightly underline as I am reading. If the prose is particularly strong, I press the pencil to emphasize that. If the writing is unclear, I make a light "squiggle" underneath. I tell students this at the outset. So already, before any comments, they have an idea of how clearly written the paper is.

One student once triumphantly said "not one squiggle! Woot!" So they catch on pretty quick.

Then when I do comment I make 3-5 directive statements on what went right, and what can be improved, and how. And of course, I also use a rubric.

Oh..I have one other rule. evaluate and comment. Do *not* edit. Fixing every grammar error or awkward sentence is not productive. I would fix two or three sentences to give them an example, but not the whole paper.

Prof. Robin Morris said...

I will follow your prompts, as they are:
1. I hand them back at the end of class when I am through talking. I have to look each in the eye (this also helps me learn names with the first paper hand-back).

2. & 3. I type a response that I staple to the back. I try to start with what they did well and then move on to the problems. I try to explain my rationale for the grade and give them enough info so that they know what to do next time. I do make some comments in the margins, but the big stuff goes in the typed comments. This also gives me a chance to remind myself what I thought of the paper if/when a student emails me or meets with me later about the paper. I learned this strategy as a TA when the kiddos preferred going over me to the professor and I liked having the comments to jog my memory. Turns out, I still like having a short little paragraph to jog my memory. And yes, I will meet with students but I have the 24-hour rule-- they have to wait 24 hours after they get the paper back before they come see me. Hopefully, they take that time to read the comments and consider them. At the least, it tends to decrease the pleading and tears in my office.

4. I care that they know how to think about history. I hope my assignments say that. But this semester, I told them that I don't give a rat's ass about whether or not they thought the book was boring. I've been clearer-- what is the argument? How does he/she support it? What evidence? Are you convinced? I guess that is my prompt. But not saying that yielded papers with the thesis, "I hated this book because it was boring."

5. Yes, I talk to my students about writing. Partly because they are a captive audience that I can rant to when I feel so, so alone. And partly so that they see that whatever they are struggling with means that they are, indeed, real historians. I don't dwell, but I do try to use it as a reference for good and bad examples. I also find it helps them understand why their papers aren't back to them in the next class period.

6. God no! No rewrites. Did I mention I have my own writing to get done?

Prof. Robin Morris said...

Oh, and on research papers, they come up with their own question-- but it is an entire semester process of coming up with a question, finding 2 sources to answer it, revising the question, etc. etc. etc. This is also where my own writing comes up because students tend to hate revising. So I tell them what my initial question was five years ago and then how I have narrowed it. Then I say, "And I have 300 pages to answer that in. You have 10. Focus the question."

Susan said...

Oh, another thing on handing back papers: we're required to hand them back in person; leaving them in a box outside our offices is, according to local interpretation, a violation of FERPA. The Registrar swings by every now and then to make sure we are in compliance....

Historiann said...

It looks like there's some spam directly above my comment.

I just wanted to say thanks--this is helpful. I've noticed the same trends the rest of you have over the past 10 years, and it's NCLB children all grown up and gone to college. It seems like the jurassic era when professors just said "write something about this play and turn it in," but that's my memory of college. I don't remember too much direction--or really, ANY direction, and somehow learning happened.

(I think my learning might have been enhanced by a bit more faculty direction than I got, IMHO. I don't mean to wax nostalgic--there were problems with that pedagogy back in the day.)

Essay for College said...

Wow, this is a really great article. I guess I never realized what a teacher thought when they were grading a paper, or the feedback they were giving in the process. This was very enlightening.

rustonite said...

you summed up a whole bunch of thoughts I've been having, and better than I could have done.

Northern Barbarian said...

When students use the word "prompt" to me I correct them: this is a QUESTION that asks you to ANALYZE the material. I try not to get too visibly grumpy. The word drives me nuts, though, and it's good to get a sense of where it comes from.

I favor questions that push students to synthesize a mix of primary and secondary sources; this also cuts down on cut-and-paste plagiarizing.

For grading I went paperless, and will never go back. Students upload their papers into our course management system and I make comments using track changes in Word, which lets me make more comments in less time, and the kids can even read them! Then I return them electronically, so no FERPA worries. Also no more lugging around papers that get coffee or paw prints on them.

Shane in Utah said...

How do you return papers?

For the last several semesters, I've posted my grade rubric to Blackboard, the same way they submit their papers. More recently, I've been in the practice of submitting ONLY the rubric, grade, and global comments, without their original essay. This absolves me of the temptation to mark every typo and grammatical error, and ensures that the students focus only on the most important issues in their paper, as diagnosed in my global comments.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for an interesting post. I never realized what a "prompt" was either until a few years ago when I taught a FROSH seminar. Like TR, I learned that my students expected one.

I write assignments that can have different kinds of answers depending on how students marshal "evidence." A new word for many of the students in my FROSH seminar. They were puzzled that there was no one right answer, hence, their query about my "prompts." Clearly, NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND has permanently scarred their thinking...

I now take care to explain that there is no one right answer, but that some answers are better than others because they provide "evidence" to support it. Then I give lots of examples from reading to demonstrate what I mean by "evidence." This seems to help a great deal. It is also nice because I don't get 35 papers with exactly the same argument. It makes grading a bit more interesting too. And, I learn a lot about how different students reason and make arguments.

Still, many find this difficult, and some lament in their evaluations that there is no "right" answer to my "prompts."

Again, I see this as a remnant of NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND policies. In the corporate academy with its new emphasis on "student learning outcomes," I fear that we have entered a new collegiate level version of the same.

BTW -- For a great critical discussion of "student learning outcomes," see Gaye Tuchman's book, WANNABE U: Inside the Corporate Univerity (Chicago, 2009).

Jonathan Rees said...

This really is a very useful post, but skimming through everything from beginning to down here at the bottom, it appears that nobody has mentioned required drafts. If you're worried about students going into shock when they see their papers covered in red marks, why not do it before they actually count? I do it via e-mail using comments on Word and I can get a lot done very quickly. Sometimes I'll go back and forth with a student two or three times before the paper is actually due.

Science Lurker said...

First from teaching frosh, and now from watching a high school junior under my own roof, I have to say that THE A.P. SYTEM IS TOXIC TO LEARNING AND WRITING. Students who started out bright and creative learn to memorize and regurgitate as fast as possible, and write in a formulaic style designed for rapid grading by hired help paid by the hour. To excel in college, they have to unlearn these skills, and hope the creativity underneath has not died of starvation.

Some quick marks I make:
-underline core arguments.
- "?" = I don't follow
- "!" = good point, well put
- "awk" = writing here is so awkward it interferes with following your point
- I keep the phone number of the writing center on my wall, so I can suggest certain students call them, to make an investment that will amortize over future semesters and a lifetime. (Encouraging them to see strengthening their writing from an economic standpoint, as opposed to a measure of one's soul.)

First rule, learned from an English Comp instructor: NEVER REGRADE IN THE PRESENCE OF THE STUDENT. Very hard to be objective that way.
For science exams, the standard policy is that regrade requests must be submitted in writing within a week, whether an adding error or a deeper issue -- that way, the student must think through and articulate why they deserve more credit, and the instructor can go through the pile all at once, with a key to how credit was originally allocated in front of them. Discussing why a given answer is right or wrong is fine in person, that's the way they learn. Just not asking for rescoring.

It was not until I wrote my PhD thesis that I understood why I had hated to write until then. Twelve years of trying to write assignments to be graded by people who knew more about the subject than I did was stifling -- how could I hope to say anything new or interesting under those circumstances? No wonder everything I wrote felt strained. For my PhD thesis, and lectures and writings since, I have known more about the subject than my audience, and had to focus on how to best get across the information I wanted to get them to understand. Still not easy, but much more worthwhile and magnificently liberating. Is there a way to set assignments that would activate that feeling of explaining something new, instead of rehashing the same old, same old?

Belle said...

Great post, and great comments. I tend to over-edit; now I do maybe one page on the copy-edit, and the rest is "what does this mean?" "vague; be specific and precise" - and I'll suggest alternative organizations if appropriate. I do use a rubric, and am very happy to go over papers & comments. That said, I do very few written assignments anymore (that's coming back in next year).

I've been doing in-class analysis, synthesis & eval for a couple of years, and students tell me that's it's helped them in classes across campus. Too often they're taught factoids and tested on synthesis/eval, with no clear articulation of what those mean.

Unknown said...

At the same time, one of the best courses I ever took was English 201, which (as TR assuredly knows but others assuredly don't) is (was?) the gateway to the English major at Zenith, is taught by many if not all members of the department at some point, and features highly structured close reading assignments: do a comparison of these two Ben Jonson poems based on metric scansion, analyze this poem based on what the OED says specific words meant at the time it was written, etc. Finding ways to make those papers moderately interesting was some of the most creative and exacting writing I think I've ever done.

That semester began with a paper assignment that was graded but didn't count toward our course grades. We were to write about a piece of literature we valued. Returning the graded papers, the professor said something along the lines of "you got a B by explaining why you valued the piece you chose; you got an A by interrogating the concept of value."

Which is to say, while the culture of the prompt is bullshit, I do think it's valuable to push students to take structured assignments and make them their own.

HistoryMaven said...

Oops! I'm HistoryMaven and I was an over-grader.

When I taught the large US History survey courses I needed to create grading rubrics for/with my teaching assistants. But I couldn't count on my TA's to tackle consistently issues of style, spelling, punctuation, etc. (As a former editor, that sort of evaluation is second nature to me.) So, borrowing an idea from the great historian Linda Kerber, I require that students keep a "personal style sheet" (PSS) on which they list the errors we marked on their papers. Linda asks graduate students to use PSS's to think about their writing.

I adapted it to the undergraduate classroom. The PSS is a grid that lists categories (spelling, punctuation, etc., but also historical and unique terms) as well definitions of different types of essays.

I had a liberal revision policy, and if students wished to revise they needed to submit the papers with the PSS. It reminded them and taught them how to proofread, and a fair number of students began to use PSS's for all their courses.

In some courses I created a Course Style Sheet (CSS), noting from all the papers in an assignment (and sometimes a quiz or test) common errors. The students then had to create their own style sheets, working through their papers against the CSS.

I have kept every set of course notes, writing assignments, quizzes, and tests from my undergraduate and graduate years, and I have pulled from that archive examples of my own efforts--useful in upper-division courses. (I lost my sense of embarrassment a long time ago.) I've also used the first draft of a dissertation chapter and the polished published version in those courses and graduate courses.

I returned papers directly to the students, but I still remember the litany of students' emailed complaints about my policy of not giving papers to their friends in class. Ya gotta attend class or visit in office hours or make an appointment to get your paper!

Rose said...

Thanks for enlightening me about what a "prompt" is. My students use the term, but I didn't bother to look into its meaning. How depressing. When I hear "prompt," it conjures up an image of a flashing cursor waiting for something. I plan NEVER to use the term for anything I ask students to write. Thanks for a thoughtful post.

wini said...

I've been under the impression that prompts can be used in assignments structured to prevent plagiarism.

Anyway, I've found that the best thing to do for me is to structure the class around 2-3 different writing assignments. The first one uses a template, focused on how to dialogue with sources in order to formulate your own ideas. (This semester I'm giving them a choice of 3 papers and then requiring the final paper to have an additional source that supports their half of the dialogue.)

Then, a paper with a prompt.

Then, a "chose a basketweaving topic related to this course. Research it. Make sure to include one of these as relevant."

Lisa Moore said...

Hello Radical:

Apropos of your ice-storm emergency story, but really related to these issues about teaching: a few years ago a fire drill cleared our building. Various faculty who are ordinarily separated by floors mingled. I found myself making conversation with a recently hired member of the Rhetoric department. When I told him I had been in the middle of grading papers, he looked at me with disbelief. "You still do that?" He proceeded to enlighten me as to the well-established research that shows that students learn virtually nothing from what we write on their papers. Most students are not as you and I were, Radical, parsing the Talmudic scribblings of our revered professors for clues as to how to become like them. Most students, in fact, do not even pick up their graded papers, as you observe. Anyway, Mark told me that the most effective way to give students feedback on writing assignments was to talk to them face to face. Now, I schedule 10-15 minute appointments with each student (a luxury afforded me by my 2/2 load, I know) the week after papers are due. Before the appointments begin, I read all the papers and assign grades, BUT I DO NOT MARK ON THEM except to circle or underline parts of the paper I want to discuss with the student. Then, we discuss. It is immeasurably more pleasurable for all concerned, and for the first time in my teaching career of 20 years, I am not guiltily handing papers back two weeks late. I get to know the students, the students get to know what I expect from their writing, and I can give them some actual advice. It does not take any more time than the old slog-through-the-pile method, but it is much sounder in pedagogical and human terms.

Your fan,

Dr. Cynicism said...

Great post! The title alone had me in a fit of laughter. As mentioned above, I also believe in the power of the rubric. Glad I found your blog - will be frequenting it :-)

Alex said...

I'm typing this on a mobile device so I apologize if this comes off as terse. I very much enjoyed this post but there's one issue yet unidentified: writing for a teacher is boring. Your work only ever reaches ones person (who, if they don't comment, might as well not have read it), so it is tailored to the perceived biases and interests of that person rather than to the writer's strengths and passion.

Two good friend at Rutgers - Richard Miller and Paul Hammond - have been using tools such as Google Docs in the classroom, more or less forcing students to write for each other. This changes the dynamic of the classroom completely. Whether you're trying to show up the know-it-all in the first row, impress a cute classmate, or put together a thought you couldn't articulate in class, you now have an audience.

The possibility of peer-to-peer readership beyond the broken "peer editing" model is significantly more transformative that any revision of how you assign essays.

Anonymous said...

This is not addressed in your post, but as a Zenith alum, it made a huge difference in my learning whether papers were to be collected in class or at some other time (4pm in a box, for example). My own class attendance on paper due dates was abysmal when said papers had to be brought to class, but substantially better and more engaged when I didn't have to worry about that.

Anonymous said...

As a Zenith student who has never been in any of your classes, I must say you make unbelievably great points here. First and foremost, it is very comforting to know that you as a professor care so much about grading student work! I can't count the number of times I submit work and simply think to myself "whatever, ze really doesn't care anyway." Feeling that there is no real readership is a huge detriment to quality.
The "prompt" dilemma is a very real one. I have more or less always had a prompt, and continue to do so much of the time even in college. I think that maybe you should try teaching an FYI or contributing to the discussion of what FYIs should do if you're interested in this. The fact is that K-12 education is not as provocative and stimulating as you may recall-or merely wish- it to be. It's always testing to see if we have mastered a set of facts, rather than encouraging the creativity you're looking for. As an instructor, you must convey that you're looking for this sort of creativity and involvement with the work if you're looking for it. Students at Zenith are quite capable, but you must (for the benefit of the students, yourself, and your peer professors) guide them to the light.
In grading papers, you should give students the option of getting back highly detailed corrections if they so want it. I would really like to see a professor sit right next to me in their office and go through a paper with me in depth - correcting everything from content to grammar to my title. This doesn't have to happen for every paper, but it would be an insanely rich educational experience. It would be best, with handing out papers, if students HAD to come to your office and take their graded papers from you in person, where they could be encouraged to talk to you about their papers on the spot.
Making the vulnerability of your own writing apparent is a great tool. As students, we're constantly surrounded by amazing work from amazing scholars. It's easy to lose confidence in your abilities in this setting even if you're the best of students.
Rewriting is wonderful also.

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