Postmortems in the Composition Classroom

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt

I recently ran across an article on grading writing that began by quoting a tweet from a fellow Composition teacher that equated grading a final piece of writing with performing an autopsy on a dead body. I have desperately tried to find the article, but to no avail (if you know the article I’m thinking of or recognize the tweet being referenced, please let me know so that I may give the authors credit).  What puzzled me was that this analogy was meant to have a negative connotation (at least that’s how I read it). I by no means support a summative assessment-only form of grading. I, too, emphasize the process of writing and provide formative assessments that seek to help students to internalize the importance of thoughtful revision and careful proofreading before submitting a “final” version of a piece of writing. And, at one point, I too viewed that final version as a relic to be archived with all of the other finished pieces the student accumulated during the term. But several things have changed for me during the past few semesters: 1) I’ve switched to having students blog instead of submitting traditional word-processed essays; 2) I’ve switched to a portfolio system that allows students to select which pieces they wish to be formally graded, allowing them to revise and edit those pieces before adding them to their portfolio; and 3) I read Lauren Griffin’s “An Open Letter to Writing Instructors from a Motived Student,” which included the following eye-opening (for me) observation:

In many courses, I felt like an overworked employee at an essay factory, producing ten to twelve mediocre and forgettable papers — ones that teachers accepted as final drafts that were, in actuality, first drafts. . . . I wish that all of my instructors had challenged me to produce portfolios with five or six mind-blowing papers instead of valuing quantity over quality.

Griffen, in effect, sums up the kind of traditional method for organizing the First-Year Composition course that I had been told to use as an adjunct and everything wrong with that method: a focus on quantity over quality.

These three things have altered the way I view both the student’s writing process and their writing products, in that I now value both as equally important. For one thing, blogging allows students to view their writing as something alive; they see their readers respond to it and, often, realize that their own views of it change as a result.  Since their blog posts are living things, they can be revised and edited after they’ve been published; much like a garden, a blog needs regular maintenance, from pruning dead links to “growing” or expanding upon a previous post. Secondly, as Griffin argues, the portfolio system encourages writing students to make conscientious changes to pieces. As students read through their work in order to select which pieces to include, they often recognize weaknesses in earlier pieces because they see them in juxtaposition with later pieces. Hence, they begin to recognize their own growth and learning.

I have tried various methods for providing both formative and summative assessments of student writing, including utilizing both anonymous peer review for rough drafts and anonymous peer evaluation of finished products. This past semester, I had great success with having students submit a rough draft to me for feedback and then allowing them to evaluate each others’ finished product (these evaluations were not grade-based and had no impact on the student’s grade). The reason why I made this change was because I have realized that, especially for first-semester composition students, peer review is not as effective as I would like it to be. Even in anonymous, guided peer review, students have difficulty providing constructive criticism on someone else’s draft. Emotions are often involved, either on the reviewer’s end (“I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings”) or on the reviewee’s end (“One person said this and another said that, and I’m not sure whose advice to take”). While I think college students need to develop the ability to take criticism, writing is already emotionally fraught for them and the added emotions of peer review seem to make the writing process more, not less, difficult for many students. So, I decided to forego peer review and have students submit their drafts to me for review. While this did require quite a bit of time on my part, I think it paid off in dividends in the students’ final posts. I was able to direct their energies much more effectively than their peers could. I stuck with the minimal marking method and focused on asking questions about the students’ ideas and suggesting areas that needed further development or that seemed off-track. Students responded very enthusiastically to this method and, for the first time ever, I saw students really focusing on revising their writing (rather than the kind of minimalist adding on and editing that often passes for revision with most first-year composition students).

Unlike peer review, students seem particularly adept at evaluating final pieces. I am often amazed at how accurately their evaluations reflect the very things I would have pointed out in my own summative evaluation. I am not sure why this is the case and why they cannot do the same with peer review of rough drafts, but I decided to capitalize on it; since I was investing so much extra time and energy into reading and providing feedback on rough drafts, I completely handed summative assessments over to the students. I did perform a quick read-through of final posts in order to see how much effort the student had put into revising and editing the original draft and I did read through the summative feedback to ensure that student evaluations were accurate. Again, this system was very effective, as it removed the burden of summative assessment off of my shoulders (so that I could focus on helping with the writing process), it gave students multiple assessments of their final product, students were much more honest with each other about weaknesses in their writing, and they genuinely valued their peers’ evaluations and integrated them into their revisions and edits for their portfolio.

Next semester, I would like to add a few more layers of feedback to each piece of writing. I am considering, for example, adding a peer review session back into the process, after my own review of their drafts, to encourage a multiple-draft process. I am hoping that I can model effective feedback methods and encourage students to apply them to their own reviews. I would also like to focus more on the finished product and to integrate a postmortem of that product. I already have students write a reflection on each piece that takes their peers’ summative evaluations into consideration and establishes goals for the next piece of writing. But I would like to encourage students to autopsy their products in a much more explicit way after their emotional attachment to the piece has cooled a bit. While some may view the idea of an autopsy negatively, I see value in the process for FYC students.

Let us consider what, exactly, an autopsy is. It is, foremost, a thorough examination that seeks to determine the cause of death. But an autopsy often reveals much more than the cause of death, including diseases or injuries, both past and recent, that are not directly related to the death but that tell us more about the subject’s life and their relative health. But pathologists are not the only ones who perform autopsies. Game developers also perform postmortems. These postmortems seek to identify strengths and weaknesses in the game and to brainstorm how to improve it in future iterations. I think that having students work in groups to perform postmortems on the pieces they select for their portfolios would be an ideal way to encourage them to both value their final products and consider what they could do to add more life to each to make it an even stronger piece of writing. More than a pathologist, I’d like to encourage my students to become like Victor Frankenstein, seeking to collect the best pieces they can find in order to create something greater than the sum of its parts and imbuing it with life. But, rather than being afraid of and rejecting their creature like Frankenstein, I want them to thoroughly examine it and come to love it, both for its strengths and its faults.

 

Experience Points in the Classroom: Back to the Drawing Board

help_how_leveling_up

One aspect of gamification that I decided to try to integrate into my Fall classes is that of Experience Points (XP), which involves using the same kind of points system that games use to help players feel rewarded for completing certain tasks and to allow them to advance to different levels of experience, providing them with a goal to attain (the highest level) and a visual measurement of their progress toward that goal. I’ll be honest, I don’t think that I integrated XP into my classes very effectively. I will outline how I integrated XP, which aspects of that integration were mistakes, and how I plan to do it better next semester.

Method

First, I determined the maximum amount of XP that a student could earn simply for doing all of the required assignments in the course. Using this as my baseline, I assigned XP to each assignment, with the difficulty of the assignment determining how many XP it would be worth. I also determined which assignments would receive XP based upon completion and which would receive a variable amount of XP based upon quality of work and effort. I created a spreadsheet for students that listed each assignment and the number of XP that could be earned for completing them and included the possible XP earned on the instructions for each assignment.

Next, again using my max. XP as my baseline, I created five levels, with each level corresponding to a letter grade on the 4.0 grade point scale. I gave each level a name that related to our course theme and included a list of the levels and the XP needed to achieve each on the syllabus.

Since I needed an easy way to keep track of XP and to allow students to visually monitor their progress and current level, I decided to use Blackboard’s grade book tool, even though I loathe Blackboard. The most important determining factor for me for using Blackboard was the fact that a colleague who is also interested in games-based learning had created a leaderboard block that can be placed on the homepage of a class’s Blackboard course shell that is tied to the number of points a student has in their Total column in the grade book tool. 

I decided that I did not necessarily want to tie participation XP because I have found that by designating a certain number of comments to make on their peers’ bog posts, I encourage students to see participation and commenting as a hoop to jump through and they will resort to focusing on quantity rather than quality. So, I developed a holistic rubric for participation and made the participation grade 1/3 of a student’s final grade, with their level making up another 1/3, and their final portfolio finishing out their grade. 

Where I went wrong

Firstly, I believe it was a mistake to allow students to see how many XP each assignment was worth. In reality, a player doesn’t begin a game with a spreadsheet of actions and how many points they’ll earn for completing them. A player doesn’t know how many XP they will earn for completing a task or puzzle until it’s completed; this increases the element of uncertainty that, according to Tom Chatfield, is one of the ways in which games reward the brain. This uncertainty motivates players to complete as many tasks and puzzles as they can because they never know what kinds of rewards each will provide. 

Also, while students responded very positively to the leaderboard and found it to be a motivating factor, the fact that their XP were recorded in Blackboard’s grade book meant that, rather then receiving 50 XP for an assignment, for example, a student would receive 50/70 (or whatever amount the maximum number of XP available and earned), transforming XP into a grade. Rather than feeling rewarded for earning 50 XP on an assignment, students began to focus on the fact that they didn’t earn the maximum amount of XP and would often want to talk with me about their “grade” on an assignment. Because XP were situated within a context that students identify as relating to grades and because Blackboard required me to enter a total number of possible points for each assignment, thereby redirecting students’ focus towards the points they didn’t earn, by the middle of the semester the novelty of XP and the leaderboard had quickly worn off and students saw themselves as being at the mercy of their XP rather than seeing themselves as on a quest to earn as many XP as possible.

I believe that this feeling was reinforced by the fact that I had aligned levels with a letter grade, which may have devalued the game for those students who began to fall behind in XP. I cannot be certain that these students gave up because they viewed all of their effort as directly related to a certain grade or if they were already among those students who, statistically, are predetermined to disengage and/or disappear. 

What I’ll do differently next time

For one, I will not advertise the number of XP that can/will be earned for completing assignments and tasks. While I will keep the method I used for determining XP and levels, I will increase the uncertainty for students by keeping that information a secret that will need to be discovered through effort. Levels will remain aligned with XP, but will not aligned with a letter grade.

I will also not use Blackboard to track XP and levels. Instead, I will use Google Drive’s spreadsheet tool to create a system for tracking each student’s XP and create a leaderboard chart based on the column for their total XP. Because XP and levels will no longer be tied to grades, I can give students access to the chart and embed the leaderboard on the class website (I will have students create an alias in order to maintain anonymity). 

I also plan to hide more Easter eggs throughout the game in the form of bonus XP as a way of rewarding desired behavior, such as using the Writing Clinic and significantly revising and/or editing their drafts before publishing them. I’ll let students know that these opportunities exist, but they’ll have to work to figure out which behaviors they’ll be rewarded for.

Because their XP and level will no longer be aligned with a grade, I will need some way to determine how these aspects of a student’s gameplay impact their final grade in the course. I’ve decided that rather than imposing a weighted system for each major component of student behavior, I will use the portfolios that students complete at the end of the semester as a way for students to summarize and evaluate their gameplay, looking at XP and level, participation, and their progress as a writer in order to determine what character class they feel they fall into. Each character class will represent certain attributes and will be aligned with a level of gameplay. While I won’t explicitly link their character class to a grade, I will ask students to argue for the grade that they feel they deserve in the course based on the evidence they use to assign themselves to a character class.

Gamification involves trial and error, just as any instructional method does. While I am dissatisfied with the fact that my FYC students began to focus on grades to an extent that I have been able to avoid for the past few years with a switch to a portfolio assessment system, I still believe that using XP and levels can have a positive impact on student motivation. It is especially helpful to those students who have difficulty transitioning away from a focus on grades and who need a way to visualize their progress and standing in the course. I hope that by integrating the changes outlined above, I can use XP and levels more effectively.

Have you had success integrating XP and levels into your classes? If so, I’d appreciate you sharing your experiences and/or techniques with me and my readers.

What Games Teach Our Students That We Can’t

I had planned this blog post to be a continuation of my discussion of how I have gamified my FYC class this semester, but I’ve decided to instead share an interchange that occurred between my son and me this week. I think it illustrates the impact that games and gaming can have on our students in a way much more powerful than anything I’ve read or observed so far.

This past week was 9 weeks exam time at my son’s school. Like me, my son is not a very good test-taker: he experiences test anxiety, both emotionally and physically (suffering with Irritable Bowel Syndrome flare-ups on test days) and does not perform as well under timed conditions as he does under conditions in which he can work at his own pace. Normally, I don’t push him to do schoolwork if he does not have assigned homework, but this past week his free time was replaced with reviewing and practicing for his 9 weeks exams. As usual, he knew his stuff. Until, that is, it was time to review for his History exam. To my dismay, he did not know any of the information on the study guide. This was so shocking because he is such a history buff; his preferred genre is nonfiction dealing with military history and he loves attending anything that includes historical re-enactments or handicrafts. I’m not sure why he was so unfamiliar with the information on the study guide, since his daily grades do not reflect that he is in any way struggling with the material; in fact, he has an A in the class. But the mystery of why the information seemed like foreign material to him was one that would have to wait to be solved; more importantly, I needed to get him familiar enough with the material to pass the exam the next day.

It was a difficult task, to say the least. Because he was not familiar with the context of the information, it became an issue of him memorizing the definitions to vocabulary words and the answers to questions that seemed to have been randomly pulled from the chapters of his history textbook (one example: What thing is true of both the Adena and Hopewell indians?). I tried as best I could to teach him about the context and importance of the terms and questions in the time that we had, but it’s nearly impossible to make up for 9 weeks of context in 3-4 hours. He especially struggled with understanding the concepts of scarcity and specialization. This is understandable considering that he has never experienced scarcity (at least not to a degree significant enough to harm him or make his life difficult) and does not live in a society in which individuals/families have to manufacture goods based on the resources immediately available to them.

Suddenly, in the middle of a fifth or sixth attempt to help him understand the concept of scarcity, he had a lightbulb moment. He looked at me with that look that comes over a student’s face when they finally understand something in a way that makes it both relatable and relevant.

It’s like in Minecraft! If you need to make something out of wood, a stick will only give you so many planks of wood. And if you’re hungry and all you can find is a baby pig, if you kill a baby pig, you don’t get any meat to eat.

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Because he lives in a post-industrial society, my son lives in an age in which the currency is knowledge (as illustrated by his school’s reliance on periodic standardized tests that require the memorization of facts and terms). He could memorize the definition of scarcity, but that does not help him to understand what scarcity really is and how it impacts someone’s life, much less what it’s like to actually experience scarcity, which is probably the only way to truly understand it. Of course we don’t want our children to experience scarcity of food or other basic needs (although far, far too many of our children do experience scarcity on a daily basis). But we do want them to understand scarcity so they can empathize with those who are experiencing it and will have a desire to figure out ways to address scarcity to prevent the suffering that it entails.

I’m not arguing that playing Minecraft will make my son a more empathetic person or teach him how to solve scarcity issues in the world. But because of Minecraft, he is better able to understand what scarcity is and understanding is the first step towards empathy and action. Games allow our students to experience concepts first-hand in ways that reading a textbook and memorizing information cannot; they provide a safe environment for them to gain an understanding of other people’s viewpoints, whether it’s someone who faces the task of locating enough food to help them survive one more day, as in Minecraft, or someone who faces the task of restructuring their daily lives amid a global oil crisis, as in World Without Oil. It’s not so much the rewards systems and motivational factor of games that we should be focusing on, but the opportunity for our students to learn via concrete experiences rather than abstract concepts.

 

Embracing the Messiness: Lessons from a 21st Century Classroom

This past Friday, I had the pleasure of presenting at a workshop for regional 7-12th grade teachers. The workshop was sponsored by CoRE, which stands for Collaborative Regional Education, a program my university is developing that will create a partnership between it and regional P-12 schools, other universities, and national organizations and businesses (including Apple) with the goal of improving students’ college- and work-readiness. I was asked to share my experiences with integrating Challenge-Based Learning into my classes.

Because my audience was teachers from all disciplines, all secondary grades, and school systems that run the socioeconomic gamut, I chose to focus on some of the core (pardon the pun) lessons I learned from my experiences, rather than trying to preach or push any one particular method or technology. You can view the presentation slideshow with my notes at HaikuDeck.

 

It doesn’t do too much good to learn something if we then don’t apply it. Here’s a few ways I’m integrating the lessons I highlighted in my talk into my classes this semester:

Trust your students

This semester, my FYC I students have taken over the responsibility of providing both formative feedback and summative assessments for each others’ work. I’m also allowing them free reign when it comes to their blogs, both in terms of subject matter and genres/modes.

My FYC II students are currently busy roleplaying in Second Life (sometimes with me there, sometimes not) and writing the course’s secondary textbook–a guide to roleplaying the roles they are taking on.

My Survey of English Literature students are responsible for teaching each other (and me) about the texts and authors we’re studying this term. They’re also collaboratively writing the final exam.

I’ve pretty much made all of my classes student-centered and given them the responsibility to both guide the entire class’s learning and their own.

De-stigmatize failure

This term, all of my classes are using contract grading. The criteria for each potential grade are directly tied to how much the student wishes to participate and how hard they are willing to work. Want to go full tilt and then some? Contract for an A. Determined to do everything I ask? Contract for a B. Want to pick and choose between learning opportunities? Contract for a C. Both of my composition classes and my speech and debate classes are all using portfolios to demonstrate their work, rather than letter grades on individual performances. The only failure students experience is their failure to live up to the responsibilities and goals they decide to take on.

Peer models

I’m putting extra emphasis on having students identify peers whom they can use as models and indicate  exemplary work using social media (by giving the work a +1, liking it on Facebook, or sharing it with others via Twitter or other sm) and, more explicitly, through nominating them for an A in the course.

Students as co-teachers

As I mentioned, my English literature students are serving as experts on the texts and authors we’re studying this semester. The history major is doing an excellent job of filling us in on the political, cultural, and socioeconomic events that took place and how they might bear on what we’re reading. The women’s studies student is giving us insight into women’s issues of the times and how various texts were responding to them. Others have shared connections between our readings and current texts (such as music by Sublime and Regina Spektor) and issues (such as women in the military).

And it seems like every day a student or two will school me on technology or a new interpretation of a short story I’ve read a hundred times or what the world is like for them and how different their lives and college experiences are from my own. But rather than making me feel even more ignorant of or alienated from them, it brings me closer to understanding and sympathizing with them. And makes it easier to communicate with and guide them. And teach them.

Goodbye, Hello: In Which I Look Backwards Before Going Forwards

photo credit: Avard Woolaver via photopin cc
photo credit: Avard Woolaver via photopin cc

The Fall semester has come to an end and the Spring term is about to begin. Each new term brings with it heightened anticipation as we feverishly map journeys of discovery for our students and blueprint what we hope will be engaging and challenging learning environments. It is a strange season of flux as we look forward with one eye and backward with the other, reflecting on what worked and what failed before so that we know what to recycle, repurpose, and reconsider and what to chalk up to experience. We share much with gardeners, who spend the fallow season plotting and planning, first allowing space for the necessary and the reliable, then squeezing in some untried novelties, deciding what needs to be rotated to revitalize the soil, prepping the ground, sowing the seeds, then waiting patiently for the fruits to flower, tending, weeding, brooding, second-guessing, nurturing, assessing.

Before finalizing my Spring classes, I wanted to reflect, in writing, on some of my more experimental practices from the Fall, especially those about which I promised to post follow-ups.

In “Flips, Cartwheels, and 360’s? Oh my?” I posed the question: “What if I asked my hybrid FYC students to help design a 21st century university?” I wondered if they would be willing or able to accept my challenge. I’m happy to report that they accepted it wholeheartedly and did not disappoint me or the 21st Century Classroom Initiative Committee members who attended their presentations (more on those in a bit). I handed the class a real and intensely relevant problem to solve with no conditions or requirements attached (other than the fact that they had to be able to explain their work in 15 minutes or less). Some of the solutions that students developed were phenomenally outstanding. You can see a sampling of what they came up with at Storify.

In a subsequent post, “This Is What a Final Exam Should Look Like,” I shared my discovery of the research slam–part poster session, part poetry slam–and pondered the questions: “What if final exams looked more like [research slams]? What if students shared their learning with one another in the kind of interactive, experiential, small-group method encouraged by the research slam? . . . How powerful would that be?” Pretty powerful, I thought. And it was. Students arrived early and set up their presentations: a collage of tri-folds, laptops, brochures, and scale models. Small groups of students moved from display to display, as the presenters gave a 15 minutes or less overview of their project and answered questions from the audience. Members of the 21st Century Classroom Initiative were also in attendance, asking questions, jotting down student email addresses, asking for links to presentation materials. I wandered from station to station, filming snippets of presentations and conversations. The room was saturated with voices–discussing, questioning, responding, laughing, debating, critiquing. After such a heady experience, I don’t know that I could ever go back to the traditional final exam–those bent heads; those cramped fingers; those flat, stale pieces of paper; that deathly silence.

In “I’m Bringing Paper Back (‘Cause It’s Still Sexy),” I discussed my plans to strike a balance between the digital and the physical in my classes. I had students digitally and collaboratively annotate one of the texts we read, but I provided hardcopies of their annotations in class and had students use them to develop discussion questions. We also practiced blogging on paper first and students responded so favorably that I plan to have next semester’s classes perform peer review on paper versions of every blog post. I’m slowly falling back in love with paper, especially after reading Jody Shipka’s Toward a Composition Made Whole (which I’ve blogged about a lot recently), and I think it will be making an even bigger comeback next term.

In “Hacking Assessment: Redesigning the Numbers Game,” I continued reflecting on my ongoing battle with assessment. I considered two kinds of assessment, in particular, this past term: peer assessment and contract grading. As I reported in a subsequent post, I ended up giving peer assessment a try in my Basic English Skills class with great success, so much so that it is the primary form of formative assessment in both of my FYC courses next term. Contract grading was less of a success, though that had more to do with my lack of clear communication than anything else. Despite providing exhaustive guidelines, on the end-of-term course assessments several students expressed discomfort with not knowing whether or not each criteria was being met as the semester progressed. On the plus side, I’ve only had two grade complaints so far. I plan to improve my communication with students regarding their progress on grade-level criteria and will provide them with assignment checklists so they can have a visual representation of what they have and have not completed.

In “Remediating Remedial Composition,” I expressed trepidation with some of the radical ideas I had for my Basic English Skills class. Overall, I think the class was a success. Quite a few students disappeared (as is unfortunately typical of remedial classes), but only 4 of the 18 students who finished the class did not receive credit for it. I had to drop the VoiceThread assignment (it was technically too overwhelming in an already tech-heavy class), but the blogs turned out to be very interesting (though not mechanically superior) and I discovered another awesomely invigorating collaborative writing method in the silent dialogues I had students complete in Google Docs (another novelty that will be added to my tried-and-true writing practices).

Overall, I would rate the Fall 2012 semester a success for me, but more so for my students. There were those stellar presentations in my FYC classes giving voice to college students facing a radically revolutionized socioeconomic future and needing a radically revolutionized learning environment to prepare them for it. My Basic English Skills students made great strides in pushing themselves beyond their comfort zones and relying on one another for writing support and nurturance. And my Oral Communication students went above and beyond my expectations as they created public service campaigns that not only raised awareness of important issues but provided a means to act on those issues in positive and impactful ways. I think I’m a little closer to a system of assessment that I believe to be both meaningful and fair. I’ve discovered some awesome techniques to integrate into my composition classes and am especially excited by those that foster collaborative writing practices. And from now on I’ll actually look forward to my final exams rather than dreading and rueing them.

And so it’s time to begin a new semester and a new adventure with a whole new set of experiments and discoveries to anticipate.

“Hoe while it is spring, and enjoy the best anticipations.” ~Charles Dudley Warner