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:
- What do you think is working well in this blog post?
- What do you think is not working well in this blog post?
- 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?
- How successful were you in addressing the weakness that you and/or I identified in you last blog post?
- 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.
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?