Murder, Madness, and Mayhem: A Role-Playing Game for First-Year Compostion

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Murder. Madness. Mayhem. What new horrors lurk in the minds of men and women? Real life is scarier and stranger than any fiction. But an intrepid group of investigators are working to make the world a safer, saner place. No matter how old the crime, no matter how elusive the evidence, no matter how powerful those involved, they will leave no stone unturned in their search for the truth. They have no magical weapons with which to assault the dark things of the world. They simply have their wit, courage, and analytical skills to help them do battle with the horrors they face.

This past week I worked on summarizing the results of my attempt to integrate role-play writing into my second-semester FYC class in an article that I plan to submit for the Fall edition of Virtual Education Journal. For me, reflecting on past classes inevitably leads to a desire to begin planning a new (and hopefully better) iteration. Thankfully, I asked the students to provide me with both anonymous constructive feedback on the class and to talk openly with me about how they would redesign the class if they were taking it a second time. Their feedback had two major themes:

  • While they liked Second Life, many students felt it was too clunky and wasn’t integrated into the class in an effective way
  • Many students expressed a desire to have more f2f role-play

As I began to mull over how best to address the two issues, I decided to focus on finding an alternative to Second Life. I was looking for something with a less daunting learning curve that would allow for more challenge and exploration-based interaction. While nothing really presented itself, I did stumble upon a website that changed the direction of my thinking: Epic Words.

Epic Words functions as a portal for an RPG campaign (an ongoing storyline or set of adventures). A GM (game master) can create a campaign for any RPG and add any registered players to the campaign. The site offers several tools in one central location: character blogs, a campaign wiki, a discussion forum, quest logs, a calendar, a page for awarding and tracking XP, and the ability to create loot that can either be awarded by the GM or purchased by the players from merchants. Intrigued, I began to research the concept of campaigns and the various ways that players use tools and sites outside of the game to continue, reinvent, and hack the game.

As  I browsed through the various campaigns on the site, I began to see just how similar the RPG I had designed for my Spring 2013 FYC II class had been to one of the most popular tabletop RPG’s, Call of CthulhuTaking my cue from the game, I have started to sketch out what I hope will be an engaging and immersive RPG experience for next semester’s FYC II class, remixing and hacking the traditional tabletop RPG as needed.

Roles

In Call of Cthulhu, characters are called investigators. Players select the occupation of their character and establish their attributes via dice rolls. Like my class, the nature of the game naturally lends itself to selecting characters who would normally investigate unusual events, such as detectives, psychologists, scholars, etc. I’ll limit my students to occupations that will work with the texts we have in our literature anthology, but will allow them to suggest modifications if they wish. Students will spend some time developing their character’s backstory, creating an avatar for them, and creating a profile for them on Epic Words.

Guilds

While students really enjoyed working in role-based guilds last Spring, many suggested more inter-role interaction in order to consult with experts on other aspects of their “cases.” So, this time around students will have two guilds: a home guild that will be role-based and an expert guild that will be comprised of representatives from all of the roles who will consult with one another as needed.

Quests

The quests will remain the same: students will read assigned “cases” from the literature anthology, discuss and analyze them with their home guild, and select one case to focus on investigating for each quest. They will present their selected case via a blog post, determining what format their character might choose to write about the case in (case notes, interview transcripts, a newspaper/journal article, etc.), and also read and comment (in-character) on other characters’ blog posts.

Boss Level

Last Spring, students selected 1-2 partners to work with to create a penultimate project on one of the term’s cases. While the projects they created were creative, engaging, and demonstrated a deep level of analysis, next term I plan to push the envelope even further and ask students to work in a craft guild to develop and write a piece of interactive fiction about a selected case in which the player has to take on one of the roles from the class game.

Feedback

There will be no grades in the class. For some of my Spring students, this was frustrating and many of them expressed a need to be able to measure their progress and have an idea of just how successfully they were playing the game (aside from the formative feedback they received from me and their peers). Epic Words provides me with several tools that I can use to provide feedback and progress reports to students.

One form of feedback I’ll use to indicate successful completion of quest-related tasks and puzzles is XP (experience points). This has been very successful this term with my FYC I classes. While this term I’ve had to rely on Blackboard’s grade book  to record XP and provide students with a means of measuring their progress via a leader board (more on this in a subsequent post), next term I can use Epic Words, which will allow students to view their XP on the campaign’s XP page.

A second form of feedback Epic Words allows GM’s to create and award is loot, which has allowed a useful hack of Call of Cthulhu’s investigator attributes and skills. Rather than relying on dice roll to determine the attributes of an investigator, I can do so by awarding them loot for demonstrating mastery of various skills, such as research, analysis, creativity, etc. In addition to awarding them skills, I can also award them cash for participation and completing quests. The players can then use this cash to purchase investigative tools, such as flashlights, fingerprint kits, video recorders, and smartphones, from  a merchant (my merchant is called Doyle & Poe Investigative Merchants). Purchasing investigative tools will make their character more powerful. Again, all of a character’s loot can be tracked in Epic Words.

Endgame

How does completing quests and collecting XP and loot translate into a final grade in the course? In order to demonstrate the quality of their work and learning in the course, students will have to submit a portfolio of their game artifacts: their best blog posts; their XP; their skills, cash, and tools; and their forum and wiki contributions. They can then use this portfolio to advocate for the grade they feel they’ve earned in the course.

Design

Research has found that aesthetics can have a significant impact on motivation, immersion, and engagement among game players. I am planning to spend much more time on the visual design of the course than I did last term. Epic Words allows GM’s the add a background image and change the color scheme for campaign sites, as well as add images to pages. Being a fan of all (weird) things Victorian, including the neo-Victorian and steam punk movements, I think pulling design elements from these aesthetic styles will work well with the theme of the game.

Once I’ve finalized the components of the class and the campaign site, I’ll post updates here. I hope that this post inspires you to create your own RPG and/or try Epic Words as a tool for managing your games-based learning. I’d love to hear what you think of my ideas, how you’ve integrated RPG into your own classes, or how my post has inspired you to do so.

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Extreme Makeover: First-Year Composition Edition

 Some rights reserved by Pimthida
Some rights reserved by Pimthida

I have decided to do an extreme makeover of my First-Year Composition course. Some things are working quite well for the students–especially blogging as the main writing forum and the portfolio system for assessment–and I’ll keep those, though I’ll be tweaking them. But there are several things that I’ve been doing that are either failing to engage or substantively help the students or that I think I could be doing better–and that may even (gasp) be doing more harm than good.

There are three texts that have recently gotten under my skin and have influenced some of the changes I am thinking of making: “Roland Barthes, Reading, and Roleplay: Composition’s Misguided Rejection of Fragmentary Texts” by James Seitz, “Against Formulaic Writing” by Gabriele Lusser Rico, and Toward a Composition Made Whole by Jody Shipka. I really recommend that you read each them yourself, so I’m not going to spend time summarizing them here. Suffice it to say that each has inspired various aspects of what I plan/hope to do next term in FYC.

Here is an overview of how I’m thinking of structuring the course. Though I’ve outlined my ideas for the course in some detail, my main vision is one akin to free jazz–both in terms of what I do as a teacher and what I invite students to do as writers.

Students Be(com)ing Writers

Rather than having all students blog about a course theme, next term I plan to give students almost complete autonomy when it comes to their blogs. They’ll still have to have a theme for their blog, but that theme will be up to them. I will encourage them to select a theme directly related to their major or, alternatively, to a hobby/passion. They will still need to blog in a purposeful way, but what that purpose is and how they go about achieving that purpose will be something they will need to learn how to decide. Because experience has taught me that getting started is often the most difficult aspect of writing for students, I will encourage them to use their peers and myself as sounding-boards and we will spend quite a bit of class time discussing and practicing various invention techniques, as well as using the silent dialogue activity.

Rather than focusing primarily on formal, academic-style, strictly text-based expository and/or argumentative writing, I also plan to allow/encourage students to experiment with various mediums and genres, including alternative genres, such as comics, fiction, remixes/mashups, images, and videos, and multimodal pieces. I have found that, even when given the option of such non-traditional compositions, students are often reticent to try something so far outside their comfort zones or, in the case of a genre/medium they are familiar with and may already practice outside of the classroom, are uncertain of the appropriateness of such texts within the context of FYC. So next term, I plan to require students to select at least one alternative genre to use and to produce at least one multimodal composition. I plan to work closely with students to make sure these alternative texts are as purposeful as their more traditional compositions, maintaining a focus on exposition and/or persuasion.

Rather than the five reflective questions that I normally ask students to complete for each formal blog post, next term I plan to ask them to keep a writing journal, which will be more open-ended. I am hoping that the open-ended journal format will allow students to be more organically probative about their compositional practices.

Students Be(com)ing Readers

“Blogging is best learned by blogging…and by reading other bloggers.” –George Siemens

As part of the blogging workshop that I’ve started integrating during the first two weeks of class in order to orient students to what blogs are and what can be done with them, I have students locate several blogs on a topic of choice, subscribe to them, and add them to their blog’s blogroll. While I encourage students to read these and as many other blogs as they can/wish, I’m not sure that they ever take me up on the offer. Since next term they will be challenged to build and maintain a blog on a topic that they are either already an expert on or wish to become an expert on, they will need to locate and curate a network of topic experts that they can draw inspiration from and use as resources for their blog posts. So, next term I’ll have students read the blogs related to their own topics listed on the Academic Blogs wiki, subscribe to those they like, and regularly read posts from these and other blogs on their topic that they locate throughout the term. But they’ll also need to do something after they’ve read the posts. What they do will mostly be up to the student–post a response on their blog, add a comment to the post, share it with their social networks with an explanation of why they’re sharing it, etc.–but the point is that they are both frequently reading texts related to their own area of academic or personal interest and using them in some way beyond checking them off of a to-read list.

I usually require students to read and comment on their peers’ blog posts. This has been problematic with some groups because their commenting tends toward the formulaic and superficial, even after I have them study comments on blogs and create a list of good commenting criteria. I am trying to seriously re-think how I integrate comments on peers’ posts, but this has honestly got me stymied, so I may ask the students themselves for guidance on this aspect of the course.

Writing Work/Shop

I’ve never really integrated the workshop method, but this is something I plan to do next term. In addition to peer reviews for each formal blog post, every student will have at least one draft workshopped by the whole class. I want to shift the course’s focus away from outside texts (the reader and two nonfiction books my department requires me to assign) and towards the students’ own texts. Almost every interaction will be focused on what the students are composing and how they are composing/have composed it. We’ll tackle the risks, challenges, and exigencies of both traditionally academic and alternative texts head-on in both a supportive and critical mode.

I’ll also use the workshop to introduce various compositional techniques and tools, but only those that feel relevant and significant at the moment. Since they are the focus and facilitators of the workshops, the students will be encouraged to introduce issues, questions, and techniques to be addressed during the workshops, rather than passively relying on me to decide on what needs to be addressed. My hopes for the workshop method is that it will both aid students in developing and embracing a writing identity (situated within a community of other writers, both within and without their classroom) and help them to experience first-hand the multi-stranded, multi-directional, recursive nature of writing.

Collaborative Assessment

The assessment aspect of the course has been the most difficult to re-consider. While I think that the portfolio system is the best one available at the moment, I have been unhappy with the various methods that I have tried in terms of outlining my expectations and how the final grade will be determined.

I have been very happy with the results of the anonymous peer assessment that I piloted this term and plan to make that an integral part of the assessment process in FYC next term. Taking a cue from Alex Halavais, I’ve also decided to set some very abstract standards for an A in the course: the student must inspire, surprise, teach, or wow us. This reinforces the open-ended, organic nature of the course. And notice the language here: us. Since students will be responsible for assessing each others’ compositions, they will also be responsible for helping me identify those writers who meet this standard. Students can “nominate” a composition for this honor in several ways: sharing the post, commenting on the post, or liking the post via Facebook or Google+ (since the class will be using Google+ as our LMS, a +1 will be required in order to indicate a nomination). A composition will need to receive multiple nominations in order to “make the grade” and a writer will need to have at least two compositions that meet the standard in order to earn an A in the course.

This kind of abstract, open-ended assessment necessitates a new way of having students complete their writing portfolio reflections at the end of the term. Rather than self-selecting pieces for inclusion in the final portfolio, they will need to look to their peers’ responses to their pieces (their assessment form feedback, comments, shares, and likes) in order to select those compositions that made the most impact on their readers and reflect on what aspects of each piece elicited and merited their readers’ attention.

 

I’m not sure how close this comes to capturing the essence of my vision of the course–one that involves an organicity and improvisational openness that pushes against the expectations of FYC. My hope is that I can encourage my students to embrace this openness and use it as a steppingstone (for the reticent) or springboard (for the more adventurous) into a new identity as a writer and thinker.

These things rarely turn out exactly as you see/plan them, but that is part of the beauty of teaching.

I welcome your thoughts on my ideas and I’ll keep you posted . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.]

Challenges
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).

Image courtesy of Technorati

Competition
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.

Equipment
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).

Scaffolding
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.

Badges
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.

Leader-boards
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.

Failing
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

The Role of Self-Assessment in Deliberate Practice

photo credit: dkuropatwa via photo pin cc

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.

photo credit: giulia.forsythe via photo pin cc

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?