Gaming the First-Year Composition Course

In my last post, I addressed the idea of disrupting the First-Year Composition course. One of those disruptive pedagogies that I’ve been monitoring for some time is gamification. I don’t like jumping on any pedagogical bandwagon until I’ve had some time to observe it from afar for a while and reflect on how it fits within my own teaching philosophy and practices. I’ve been doing so with the concept of gamification for almost two years now and up until recently was still uncertain about how I felt about it and how it would benefit my FYC students, if at all. This post is my attempt to clarify some of my initial conclusions on how game theory might be used to help make the FYC experience more engaging for students.

[Disclaimer: This post will not seek to debate gamification’s merits and/or deficiencies. I have mixed feelings about the application of gaming to teaching, some of which I will address in this post. It’s also important to differentiate gamification from game-based learning–the direct use of games and game creation within the classroom. I’m more concerned with how we can use the philosophy of game design to guide our pedagogical practices.]

For me, my own ideas about how gaming philosophy can be integrated into the FYC course were solidified as I watched this TEDx Talk by Paul Anderson, in which he outlines why and how he gamified his science classes:

Recently, this same video was the focus of a post by Adam Renfro on the Getting Smart blog. The post does an excellent job of breaking down and explaining the elements of gamification and how they can be applied to any class. As I read the post, I became increasingly aware of how much I am already applying the principles of gamification to my FYC classes. But the post and video inspired me to consider other aspects of my course that could be gamified to create a more immersive and disruptive experience, so I sat down with pen and paper and, using the outline Renfro provides in his post, did some brainstorming. Here’s what I came up with:

The Story
For me, the story is always supplied by a course theme. One semester it was how education is used as political currency and the lengths that people will go to to get an education; another semester it was the freshman year experience; next semester it will be the purposes, strengths, and shortcomings of universities in the 21st century. I use the course theme to help me select the nonfiction books that we read together as a class and to provide a focus for the students’ self-selected reading, but the students write the “story” themselves, choosing which of the infinite plot lines within our theme they wish to pick up and develop in their writing (in much the same way that “choose your own adventure” books work).

Clear Goals
As Renfro points out, in gaming, goals are concise, specific, and clear (no behavioral objective jargon or Bloom’s taxonomy verbs to muddy up what needs to be done or why). While I’ll still have to use the course objectives provided by my department as written (for some esoteric and, more than likely, bureaucratic reason), I’ll spend some time explaining those goals in plainer language on the course website and I’ll certainly begin to utilize the kinds of clear goals used in gaming when designing the assignments and tasks for the course. [As a rather disturbing anecdote, one semester I asked my students to re-write the course objectives from the syllabus in their own words and explain what the objectives meant in terms of what they needed to learn to do; not a single student could do so, even after looking up all of the unfamiliar words in a dictionary.]

The most obvious challenges to establish in an FYC course are the writing assignments. For my students that means creating and maintaining a blog where they publish all of their writing for the class (the “story” they choose to tell about our theme) and reading and commenting on their peers’ blog posts. It will also mean using the skills they develop over the course of the term to solve a relevant problem for our university and its goal to become a 21st century learning environment (I’ve addressed this in a previous post).

Reading, as Anderson acknowledges in his TEDx Talk, is also a challenge for many students. Next term, my students will crowdsource the reading of our class book by collectively annotating it using Google Docs. This challenge works in tandem with two other challenges that I will establish: improving their digital literacy skills (they’ll be annotating Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart) and building a Collaborative Learning Network. Part of the students’ objective in annotating the book is to create their own challenges for integrating the skills discussed in the book into the class. This type of self-authored challenge opportunity is one aspect of gaming that is becoming more popular (my 9 year-old son, who is an avid Lego architect and gamer, revels in games that require him to build his own gaming environments).

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For me, this is one of more problematic aspects of game theory in terms of its pedagogical applications. I recognize that competition can be healthy, I’m just not convinced that the classroom is a context within which that is the case. If students decide, on their own, to compete with their peers to achieve a certain number of “likes,” “+1’s,” or shares, then that is fine, but I’m not comfortable creating forced competition.

Defining the Roles
Since my FYC classes are hybrid, I require that students create an avatar to use in all of our virtual learning environments. I’ve streamlined this as much as possible by using all Google apps for our virtual class work. Students create a Google account during the first week of class and complete a Google profile page with an image of their choosing. They use Blogger for their blogs, Google+ for virtual interaction, and Google Docs for collaborative writing, so their interactions are automatically associated with their avatar. For their first blog post they select a skill or passion to share with their peers as way of introduction. This assignment usually reveals some gurus and go-to’s for various aspects of the course (this term, for instance, I had a tech geek, a journalism major, and a cheerleader, all skills highly valued in an FYC course for various reasons). I encourage students to seek out peers who posses the domain skills that they are in need of if I’m not available or skilled enough to help them, and I encourage students to use their individual skills and personality traits to build and support a collaborative community in both the physical and virtual learning environments.

Rather than relying solely on a writing handbook, I’ve begun compiling videos, handouts, and web pages that I can direct students to when they need additional guidance. Last term I experimented with not using a handbook at all and, instead, created a wiki of writing resources. For each writing concept, I tried to provide as many different varieties of resources as possible: at least one video; a concise overview or outline of the concept; a longer, more detailed web page; at least one source that provided examples; and a PDF handout or graphic that they could print out and keep handy. Many students responded enthusiastically to this method and the resources themselves and I received overwhelmingly positive feedback regarding the wiki when I polled students on the most effective aspects of the course. This term, I plan to organize these materials into different lessons on Mentor Mob and invite students to add to them (as Renfro points out, the challenge is increased for the students when you allow them to create and use their own equipment).

Renfro warns that giving all course materials out at once is confusing for some students. This, of course, runs counter to what many consider “best practice” in hybrid and online teaching, which holds that everything should be front-loaded so that your expectations and the course requirements are clear and students have access to the materials so that they can work ahead if they wish. In my experience this has had two results: for weaker students, it is overwhelming and they tend to take an “if I ignore it, it will go away” approach to accessing and reading materials; for stronger students with type-A personalities, this creates anxiety as they constantly try to stay ahead of the game and often miss out on what’s happening in the moment. Next term, rather than uploading all of the writing assignments to a static page on the class’s WordPress site, I plan to post assignments to the blog as I feel they need to be on students’ radars; this has the added advantage of providing a central location for students to post questions and comments on the assignment and for me to answer them.

Right now, I’m still observing and reflecting on the badge system. Students are already familiar with social media’s voting systems, so I will encourage them to use the existing systems to promote and reward each others’ work.

Level Up
I already provide a kind of leveling up system via students’ self-assessments of their work and the formative feedback that I provide on these assessments (see my post on deliberate practice). I ask students to identify the weaknesses in a piece of writing and to work on improving those areas in their subsequent pieces. Once the student feels that they have developed those areas sufficiently, then they must identify new areas to address, essentially leveling up to a new set of criteria. At this point I haven’t established a hierarchy of levels because I am mainly concerned with getting students engaged with the act of writing and I don’t want to discourage their own assessment of their writing by imposing my own rules about which weaknesses to tackle first. While I might value sentence construction more than paragraph organization, for example, the student might find it less daunting to better their paragraph organization than their sentence constructions. (I’ve found that students generally know their weaknesses and have a good sense of which ones can easily be corrected with some resources and a little more effort and which ones will require intensive, and likely frustratingly difficult, work). I’m not sure if I want to enforce a hierarchy of levels or continue allowing the student to determine at what level they wish to work at any given time. The ability to select different levels of difficulty may be a more important gaming principle to apply to the FYC course than scaffolding of skills.

Because this aspect of gaming is directly tied to competition, it’s problematic for me and I’m not willing to advocate it.

Flipping for Individualization
Like gamification, flipping the classroom is a hotly debated pedagogical disruption right now. I’m not so much interested in debating it here as thinking about what aspects of it make sense and can be used effectively. English teachers have basically been flipping our classes since time began, so it’s a moot point for FYC, as far as I’m concerned. The aspects of the flipped class that I think teachers of writing need to pay attention to is how it allows students to work at their own pace and how it allows us to individualize their instructional needs. I’ve already discussed how I encourage students to work at self-selected levels by assessing their writing, setting goals for improvement, then monitoring their progress with the help of my formative feedback. When this type of self-paced goal-setting is combined with access to a variety of resources that you have gathered or created and made available using a wiki or a tool like Mentor Mob, this gives the student the power to shape the course to meet their individual learning needs. Students don’t waste time on skills they already posses, they don’t have to spend a week on a skill if they only need a day, and they can spend two weeks (or three or four) on a skill that they couldn’t master in one.

I’ve already addressed failure in a previous post. I truly believe that one of the most effective ways to eliminate students’ fear of failure is by doing away with grades. Until then, the portfolio system is the next best thing in terms of removing both anxieties surrounding individual assignments and the overarching stigma of failure. For each piece of formal writing, my students receive formative feedback from me but no grade. I encourage them to view each piece of writing as deliberate writing practice, the same kind of practice that gamers are free to enjoy without anxiety or stigma if they fail to level up. At the end of the term, the students select which pieces of writing they want me to use to determine their grade for the course and provide me with detailed input on why they selected each piece and what they think it demonstrates about their writing abilities. If at any point a student is uncertain of where they stand in terms of their progress in the course, I will discuss their concerns, but try to steer clear of situating the discussion within the context of grades or points.

Walkthroughs and Cheat Codes
Two aspects of gaming not mentioned by Renfro are walkthroughs and cheat codes. Walkthroughs demonstrate step-by-step instructions for navigating a game environment, while cheat codes are glitches that allow players to cheat the game by accessing hidden objects, shortcuts, or locked characters. Both are deployed to make the game easier or to give the player an advantage over the game. One way that I’ve been experimenting with walkthroughs this term is by using one of the students’ pieces as a model for effective writing, then conducting a paragraph-by-paragraph walkthrough of the piece with me recording our discussion and marking up the text using the Show Me iPad app; once I post the link to the video of our walkthrough, students can revisit and watch it if they feel the need to do so. Another possible way of encouraging the use of walkthroughs and cheat codes in the FYC course is the use of peer instruction. As outlined in the Harvard Magazine article “Twilight of the Lecture” and demonstrated in this video, peer instruction harnesses the collective brainpower of small groups:

By identifying muddy points and misconceptions, then allowing students to discuss and work them out in small groups, peer instruction applies the same methods used by gamers as they crowdsource to share tactics and problem-solve how to game the game.

These are some ways that I think gamification can be applied to the FYC course. Below are a few resources that have helped me to better understand gamification and the pedagogical implications it holds. I’ve tried to provide a balance between the pros and cons of gamification; however, this is by no means an exhaustive list and I welcome any additions you can make to it or any thoughts/experiences that you wish to share about how the principles of game design should or should not be applied to the FYC classroom.

“What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning” by Jessie Chuang

“How to Hack into the Joy of Gaming” by Susan Lucille Davis

“Gamification in Education: What, How, Why Bother?” by Joey J. Lee & Jessica Hammer

“Jury Out on Zamzee, Other Forms of ‘Gamification'” by James Temple

“Kathy Sierra on Gamification in Education” by Larry Ferlazzo

“My Practical Criticism of Gamification: Why Not Do Better?” by Ishai Barnoy

“Gamification: Bring Game Mechanics into Non-Gaming Environments” by Adam Renfro

Building a Learning Skatepark, Part 2: Zen and the Art of Failure

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In a Chronicle of Higher Education post I read last week, “The Benefits of Making It Harder to Learn,” James M. Lang summarizes a recent study that found that creating cognitive disfluency helps students learn more deeply. In other words, the easier we make things for our students, the less they will learn. This is not really news to me. I’ve been trying for several years now to create cognitive dissonance in my students by asking them to do things they’ve never done before–to read, think, and write critically and analytically; to use software and tools that are unfamiliar and have, in some cases, steep learning curves; to question, debate, and disagree with me and each other; to not be satisfied with good enough or mediocre thinking or writing. These are hard things to ask students to do, especially freshman, because making learning hard is not the norm in our current educational system. In fact, I would argue that we’ve made things too easy on students. I used to be one of the worst offenders. I coddled and spoon fed my freshman because I bought into the idea that they weren’t smart enough or mature enough or didn’t want to do the kind of work that I really thought college students should do. While I inwardly cringed whenever a colleague would remark upon the need to “dumb down” the curriculum, I nonetheless contributed to the process out of fear.

But fear of what?

Failure. I didn’t want my students to fail. If my students failed, I thought, then somehow I also failed as a teacher. And, like my students, I was afraid of failure.

I, too, am a product of the factory system of education. Failure was never an option for me as a student. Failure was scary and to be avoided at all costs. Failure was bad.

Schooling has made us all fear failure, the teachers just as much as the students. But, as Dr. Tae points out in “Can Skateboarding Save Our Schools?”, in skateboarding, failure is normal. Not only is it normal, but it’s expected. When failure is expected, then it’s no longer stigmatized. Everyone who skateboards fails, so they know what failure feels and looks like and they know that failure is a necessary part of the process of learning. This is just the opposite of what students experience during traditional schooling, when it should be the norm. What happens when failure is not the norm–when it is stigmatized–is that students become so uncomfortable with failure that they’ll do anything to not fail, including avoidance and dishonesty, which, ironically, are behaviors that will lead to certain failure in college. I experience the most push-back–in the form of everything from anger to tears to plagiarism to tuning out–when I ask students to step out of their comfort zones and into cognitive disfluency. They barrage me with verbal maneuvering: “This is too hard.” “I don’t know how to do this.” “I can’t do this, can’t you let me do something else?” “I don’t understand this.” They put an inordinate amount of effort into avoiding the possibility of failure.

So, how do we make failure the norm and remove the stigmatism?

First, I think that we have to model what we expect from our students. We have to overcome our own fears about failure. As I’ve stepped out of my own teaching comfort zone, I’ve become much more comfortable with failure. In fact, I’ve learned to not only admit my teaching failures, but to share them via my blog. I also purposely place myself in the same situations that I place my students in. Last term, for example, I began using Google spreadsheets to gather data from students in some of my classes. I’m comfortable with Excel, but Excel does not do what Google Docs can do in terms of open, collaborative access and real-time updating. I had already created a draft of the course schedule in Excel (within a matter of minutes), but decided to finish it in Google Docs. What followed was a laborious process as I learned how to format codes for hyperlinks. Each time I failed to code the link correctly, I would have to meticulously examine my coding to locate my mistakes and then correct them. My cognitive disfluency was at a maximum, but if I had stuck with Excel, then I never would have learned how to use Google spreadsheets.

Secondly, I think that we have to be open with students about failure–our own and theirs. We need to talk about failure with our students and let them know that it’s okay to fail–that failure is, in fact, expected. When it became painfully obvious that my hybrid FYC course was a failure, I openly discussed it with my students and asked them to stop and assess the course so that we could figure out what had went wrong and how we could fix it. Failure is not the end of the world, as some students believe. In fact, sometimes it’s just the beginning.

Thirdly, I think that we need to make students responsible for thinking about and assessing their own learning. We need to teach them how to be more “meta.” I try to do this via regular student self-assessments within the context of deliberate practice and by using portfolios for summative assessments. Today, a student pointed out that there was a disconnect between my assessment of their writing and their own. Whereas they had thought their early writings were much better than I had, they saw their recent writings as less effective than I did. The explanation was simple: the student had learned how to recognize their own failings as a writer and was now much harder on themselves. My early feedback seemed harsh because at the time they saw their writing through rose-colored glasses; they hadn’t yet learned how to practice deliberately . But now, they’ve achieved “meta:” instead of wanting to not fail at writing, they want to be better at writing (and there is a distinct difference).

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The problem with creating cognitive disfluency, as I’ve pointed out, is that there’s a zen-like balance that we, as teachers, have to achieve between challenging our students and motivating them. Lang identifies the same dilemma:

But, of course, if we push them too hard toward disfluency, we may end up discouraging them and shutting off their learning altogether. . .

The challenge that we face, then, is to create what psychologists call “desirable difficulties”: enough cognitive disfluency to promote deeper learning, and not so much that we reduce the motivation of our students.

This is the part of pedagogy that poses the most difficulty for me and that I am struggling with at the moment. I don’t automatically know the correct formula. Which means that I’m going to have to play with it, which means that, more than likely, I’m going to fail at it before I get it right (if I ever get it right). But I’m okay with that.

In the meantime, the question that keeps harshing my mellow is how do I address the even bigger challenge of teaching my students to be okay with the discomfort of cognitive disfluency?

The Role of Self-Assessment in Deliberate Practice

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In my last post, I discussed the need for students to engage in deliberate practice. I think that this is especially true in First-Year Composition courses. For one thing, I’m not sure that we can really teach students how to write. I think we can give them some best practices to follow and show them models of good writing, but writing is one of those skills that you can only learn by doing. And writing, especially academic writing, is a complex skill that takes years to develop. And I only have 14 weeks ( or in the case of my current Summer short-term class, eight weeks).

The other problem that we face in the FYC classroom is the fact that our students come to us with such varied abilities and backgrounds in writing instruction. Some have had little instruction in writing or, if they have, it was poor instruction because they struggle to write coherent sentences and put them together in a logically-organized paragraph. Some have had intense instruction in a very structured form of writing (the old five paragraph, 5-7 sentences per paragraph, keyhole style of essay) that works well on standardized exams but does not allow for the varied disciplinary styles that they will be asked to tackle in college. Some have had their heads filled with a lot of bullshit do’s and don’ts: don’t start a sentence with and or but; don’t use the first-person pronoun; always start your essay with a catchy hook, preferably something that sounds cosmically philosophical; always place your thesis at the very end of your introductory paragraph. I always have my FYC students read a chapter from Surviving Freshman Composition by Scott Edelstein called “The Truth about Freshman Composition” because it does an excellent job of explaining the differences between the kind of writing instruction they received in high school and the kind that they will (hopefully) receive in college and it also dispels a lot of the writing myths that they almost certainly have been taught. Students are always surprised and sometimes even angry that so much of what they were taught in high school has not prepared them for writing in college and, in some cases, was just plain wrong. So I spend quite a bit of time forcing students to unlearn bad writing habits and learn new ones, only the new ones I ask them to learn deal less with how to write and more with how to think about what they’re writing and how to assess how well it accomplishes their purposes. I provide them with lots and lots of chances to deliberately practice writing an academic essay, and with each practice, I ask them to assess what went well and what didn’t go so well and what they need to focus on improving on in their next practice. Here’s my method for doing so.

Even though my students will eventually publish their essays on their blogs, I have them type them up in Word or Open Office first. For one thing, Word will catch some of the more blatant typos and grammar errors that wouldn’t be caught if they were composing within the Blogger dashboard. And if I happen to be using peer review that semester (some semesters I do, some I don’t), I always have them do so from hard copies, which are much easier to print out and read from Word. Some of the newer versions of Word even have a blogging template that will allow students to easily type their posts up in Word and then publish them to their blog.

Another pro of having students initially type their blog posts in Word is that I can have the students highlight and annotate their essays using Word’s commenting tool (I’ve tried Google Docs, but the commenting tool does not allow for the kind of detail that I need when providing my own annotations). I ask students to highlight and comment on any parts of the essay that they have questions/concerns about and to use the commenting tool to communicate their questions/concerns to me so that I can address them. Students rarely take me up on this offer, but some do, so I continue to encourage them to do so. But the real purpose of the Word version of their post is provide them the space to answer five questions that require them to assess the essay. The questions vary from semester to semester, depending on if I’m using peer review or if I’m focusing more on writing process or revision, but they always have the same goal: to encourage the student to reflect on their writing using their own judgement and valuation, rather than waiting for me to pass judgement on the piece’s value. Here’s the five questions I had students answer last semester:

  1. What do you think is working well in this blog post?
  2. What do you think is not working well in this blog post?
  3. What challenged you the most about this blog post and how did you overcome the challenge? If you didn’t overcome it, how will you deal with this challenge the next time?
  4. How successful were you in addressing the weakness that you and/or I identified in you last blog post?
  5. Do you have any questions for me?

The three questions that, to me, are the most essential are 1 (because I think it’s just as important that they be able to recognize strengths as weaknesses), 2, and 4.

After reading and annotating the student’s essay using Richard Haswell’s minimal marking method, I then focus my feedback on their answers to these questions. Sometimes, in the case of a student who is not adept at assessing their own writing, my feedback focuses on correcting their misconceptions about their writing. This past semester, for example, I had a student who was extremely resistant to self-assessment and refused to admit that there were weaknesses in her writing, so I spent my initial feedback efforts in trying to convince her of the necessity of taking an honest look at her writing; eventually, my frustration with her resistance got the better of me and I dedicated all of my feedback to listing all of the weaknesses in her essay (needless to say, her response was less than positive; she complained to the Department Chair about how mean and uncaring I was because I was constantly criticizing her writing). For those students who are more open to self-assessment and are, consequently, much better at honestly evaluating their writing, my feedback efforts are focused on providing tips and links to resources that will help them address their weaknesses. When one student expressed a dissatisfaction with her rough drafts, I suggested that she read Anne Lemott’s “Shitty First Drafts.” On the next self-assessment, the student thanked me for suggesting that she read it and said that it helped her out tremendously. She then suggested it to another student in her comments on a blog post in which they expressed frustration with the invention stage of the writing process.

Not all students act on my recommendations and even fewer pass them along to their peers, but at least their self-assessments provide a dialogue that is not encouraged in traditional, instructor-centered summative assessment models. And this dialogue continues throughout the semester, as students use their previous self-assessments and my feedback on them to answer the next. This dialogue culminates in the writing portfolio that students submit at the end of the term. In putting together their portfolios, students have a semester’s worth of assessments that provide a narrative map of their progress as writers. They can use these narratives to select representative pieces of writing and write their final self-assessment. But it’s only final in terms of that particular class. For the portfolio, I ask them to identify aspects of their writing that they still see as weaknesses and to discuss how they plan to continue to deliberately practice at eliminating those weaknesses from their writing.

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Because they have been conditioned by their K12 education to see the teacher as the sole authority in evaluating and valuing their learning, some students need guidance in assessing their own writing and a small minority will be resistant to doing so. But for those students who are willing to learn how to do so, self-assessment can mean much more productive practice and, based on my observations, results in more meaningful learning than that experienced by students who depend solely on their instructor’s summative evaluations. This past semester, I asked my two FYC classes to anonymously respond to a midterm course evaluation. One of the questions asked them what aspect of the course had helped them to improve their writing the most, and the majority of students indicated that the self-assessments had been one of the most helpful aspects of the course (second only to blogging). Here’s a few examples of students’ feedback on the self-assessments:

  • Having to specifically address issues in our writing through our [self-assessments] has helped me out immensely.
  • The instructor commenting on my writing and telling me how I can improve. FEEDBACK from the instructor helps a lot.
  • I really like how helpful you have been. I really like the [self-assessments] we get back each week.
  • I love the [self-assessments]. They help me. ALOT.

As an instructor who often struggles with doubts about the impact I am having on my students’ writing, that ALOT, though misspelled, really means A LOT.

By the way, if you’re wondering about why I needed to change the wording on the feedback, I don’t call the question sets self-assessments. I call them process memos or revision memos (again, depending on the focus of the course and the questions I’m asking them to answer). So, my students may not even realize that they’re engaging in the grading process (I don’t like the term grade, but that’s their only frame of reference and that’s what I’m ultimately required to do to their writing). And I’m not sure that it would be a good idea to muddy the water by telling them this. I don’t want them to start saying things like “I’d rate this essay at a B,” like their writing is an egg that met certain interior and exterior qualities at the time it was packaged.

My student self-assessment system is, as is everything I do as an instructor, a work in progress. There may be better questions that I can ask. And I’m not sure I’m very good at  teaching students how to evaluate their own writing. I’m interested in how others ask their students to assess their own learning and how they guide them in doing so. Please share your tips and experiences. How can we encourage students to assess themselves and be less dependent upon us as arbiters of their learning?

Creating a Learning Skatepark, Step 1: Deliberate Practice

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In my last post, I shared a video that compared learning to skateboarding; while this video has had a major positive impact on my teaching philosophy, I mentioned the negative impact that it has had on the control that I feel I have over the learning that takes place in my classroom:

I think that everything Dr. Tae says is true about learning. And it’s kind of scary because it means that there’s even less that I can do about my students’ learning than I thought. They all learn at their own pace, learning is not always fun for them (and if we think that we can make it fun all the time, then we’re deluding ourselves and setting ourselves up for failure), and failure is guaranteed (at least at first).

I thought that I would write a series of posts that address how I have remixed my classroom as a result of these realities. I now see myself less as a sage on the stage or even a guide on the side, and more of an architect. As Albert Einstein said, “I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” The first thing that is necessary for creating conditions for learning is allowing students the freedom, space, and time to practice (and failure needs to be both expected and acceptable, but that’s a topic for another post). It does no good to create the conditions for learning–a skatepark, to use Dr. Tae’s analogy–and then try to tell your students what they need to do and how to do it. And then tell them they get one chance to try it and if they fail then, not only will they be penalized with a bad grade that stays with them for the rest of their time at the skatepark, but they won’t get any further opportunities to try to master the trick (unless it’s by re-taking the class again next term) and they’ll have to move on to the next trick on the list of tricks they must learn, whether they’ve mastered the first trick or not. And guess what? The next trick is even harder and requires mastery of the first trick. This is no more of an effective way of helping students learn as it is to put your kid on a bicycle with no training wheels, tell them they’ve got one chance to get it right, and then give them a big push.

But just any old practice is not going to do. One of the characteristics of learning to skateboard is working at a skill or trick until you get it right, not half-way or almost there, but right. This requires a type of practice called deliberate practice, which requires both a focused and concerted effort on mastery of a skill and reflection on what worked and what didn’t work during each practice session. I often have my students read this article from Time on the role of deliberate practice in becoming a great musician and we discuss the similarities between learning to play an instrument (or learning to perform a skateboard trick) and writing. What the studies on deliberate practice make clear is that the most important thing about practice is not how long or how much you practice; it’s about being able to recognize what you did wrong and making a commitment to figuring out how to do it right.

And this is what I require my students to do with each of their writing assignments (which I now call opportunities because, at the skatepark, every session is an opportunity to practice with and learn from other skaters). Firstly, I use a portfolio system. This allows students some freedom from the pressures of being graded on each writing performance. It also means that I’ve removed the sticks and carrots from my classroom. If students do anything in my classroom, they have to do it because they want to. I refuse to bribe them into being there and doing anything they don’t truly want to do. Only hardcore skaters are allowed at my park. And, yes, that means that some students drop or opt out. That’s their choice.

The second way I have integrated deliberate practice into my writing classes is by requiring students to self-assess each of their writing “practice sessions.” I’ll discuss my method in depth in a future post, but basically each student has to answer a set of questions about their final draft that addresses what they think is working and not working in the piece. They also have to set goals for themselves for their next “practice session,” selecting at least one weakness in the current piece they will work at weeding out of their next draft (and, if necessary, the next one and the next one, etc.). I then focus my feedback around their assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of their writing and where they need to focus their deliberate practice efforts.

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But what I really wanted to focus on in this post is allowing my writing students to have some deliberate practice with engaging in the academic conversation–the type of dialogue that I want them to have with the sources that they are integrating into their blog posts. By far the most effective method for teaching students the type of summary and response that all academic writing engages in that I’ve used is Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s “The say/I say/So what?” method. But even with providing them with the templates from the book, my freshmen still struggle with how to effectively agree with someone (and disagreeing they won’t touch with a thirty-nine and half foot pole). So I designed a couple of different spaces  that allow them some deliberate practice with agreeing and disagreeing with their peers in preparation for agreeing and disagreeing with their sources.

We begin with a safe zone–the physical classroom–and a buddy system–peer groups–for testing the academic conversation waters. Students are grouped from the very first class meeting with 3-4 peers with whom they will stay for the whole term (I’ve considered the idea of rotating group members, as some instructors do, but once students become comfortable with each other, I think fear of failure decreases dramatically, so right now I’m opting for building a layer of protection with the peer groups). Their groups are where they will test out their ideas, bounce around arguments, and receive feedback during the entire process of brainstorming, drafting, revising, and publishing a piece of writing. I’ve spent quite a few semesters eavesdropping on the conversations that go on during these group sessions and am always surprised at how honest students will be with a small group of peers, especially once they have connected with each other and realize that everyone else is just as lost as they are when it comes to this academic writing thing.

Once students are pretty secure about their ideas and how best to communicate them, they publish their piece on their blog. I won’t spend time here discussing the benefits of having students blog. There are pros and cons and I have weighed them both and tried various methods and have had overwhelming success with public student blogs, both in terms of the quality of the students’ ideas and their writing and in terms of the feedback from the students on the positive impact of blogging on their feelings about writing. Among the many reasons why I require my students to blog, one is the dialogue that it creates around the students’ own writing. That’s the whole purpose of a public blog–to generate a discussion about an issue or topic. How much more exciting do you think students find it that their writing will be read and discussed by their peers rather than unceremoniously tossed in the trash after a cursory once-over by their profs? Just ask your students this question and see what happens. And if it doesn’t excite them, then you need to find something that does and that may not involve blogging (but that’s okay, there’s other ways to skin a cat).

The point of publishing their writing on their blog is so that the entire class has an opportunity to read what they have to say and respond to it in some way. So I require students to read and respond to at least three peers’ blog posts each week (I’m currently trying out a system of rotating students between the roles of bloggers and readers/commenters; I’ll let you know how that turns out and whether I’ll make it a regular practice or not). I give them some guidelines on how to comment on a blog post using a handout on commenting in online discussions that I found online and remixed to focus on blog comments. And then I let them practice–deliberatively. And I model effective blog commenting by commenting myself (more on the importance of role models in the skatepark later). One thing I’m trying out this summer is having students use Storify to create annotated bibliographies for their research, embed their “stories” in their blog, and then read and comment on each others’ bibliographies. So far, I think it’s working. Here’s a snippet from the comments on a student’s annotated bibliography post:

There are a couple of things going on here (all good, I think). Students are practicing agreeing and disagreeing with each other and they are providing feedback on the reliability and relevancy of research sources. The hope is that they will internalize these assessment skills and learn to apply them to their own research and writing practice.

That’s my hope, anyway. I don’t expect these kinds of comments from every student with every blog post. Some will get it faster than others. Some will not get it until the very end. Some may never get it (but hopefully will down the road if they get another instructor who’s willing to provide them the chance to try). And that’s okay. I’ve provided them with the space to practice in, some guidelines on how to know when they’ve got it right, and the freedom to try and fail as many times as they need to to get it right. If they learn anything, I hope it’s that it’s okay to suck at something when you try it the first time and that it doesn’t mean you can’t get better at it, and maybe even great at it, with a little deliberate practice.

I’m interested in how others are integrating deliberate practice into their classrooms and which methods you’ve found effective and ineffective. So, please share your ideas, stories, and questions. After all, students aren’t the only ones who benefit from deliberate practice.