Center for the Advancement of Innovative Teaching

Encouraging Writing

On April 5, 2012, Michael Potter, educational consultant at the Centre for Teaching and Learning, University of Windsor, Ontario, Canada, compiled the following information from response to a POD listserv inquiry about encouraging formative writing in college classes.

Tips

Dakin Burdick (Endicott College) provided several excellent tips, which I quote below:

  1. Assignments have to be read or viewed at least, otherwise they may be viewed as busy work and may cause bad feelings in the students.
  2. Light grading & light marking techniques can be used to speed up grading, as can rubrics. Remind the faculty that whoever is doing the work, is doing the learning.
  3. If rubrics are used, see if the faculty are comfortable sharing them with the students. Some worry that rubrics, like templates, restrain creativity. The type of rubrics used can influence this.
  4. Investigate in-class ungraded peer review of papers by fellow students (say, for 2nd drafts), especially if a rubric is used. Use a binary grade for completion of the assignment.
  5. Investigate computer evaluation of writing (I’ve never done anything with it, but it is probably getting better every year).
  6. Use just-in-time teaching (JiTT) and grade student writing before class, then customize class to student needs

I’d agree with all of this advice, with perhaps the exception of #3, to a point.  While it’s possible, in principle, that a rubric could restrain creativity, it’s a possibility that’s easy to ameliorate through rubric design (as Dakin indicates), and a brief discussion with the class.  A rubric that isn’t shared with the students beforehand, in my opinion, is an ambush.

For those unfamiliar with just-in-time teaching, I recommend the following web sites:
·        http://jittdl.physics.iupui.edu/jitt/
·        http://webphysics.iupui.edu/jitt/what.html
·        http://serc.carleton.edu/introgeo/justintime/what.html
·        http://www.pkal.org/keywords/JiTT.cfm
·        http://serc.carleton.edu/introgeo/justintime/

Ron Sheese (York University) cites Kellogg and Whiteford, who argue that the most important factor in the development of writing skills is ample opportunity for practice.  To deal with the immense problem of providing feedback (and grades) in large classes, they recommend facilitating high-quality peer feedback (which requires time for designing good rubrics and helping students learn how to use them, of course), and providing feedback now and then, rather than constantly.  See:   Kellogg, R. T., & Whiteford, A. P. (2009). Training advanced writing skills: The case for deliberate practice. Educational Psychologist, 44, 250-266.

Resource Recommendations
The Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) approach is widely recommended.  Though your campus may not, as a whole, endorse it, you can still learn a lot from the approaches generally included in WAC, and integrate them into your courses.  Roger Graves provided some useful links regarding what the University of Alberta is doing with WAC:

  • Roger’s personal web site.  It contains presentation materials that you mind find helpful.
  • The general WAC web site offers links to resources.

Ted Panitz (Cape Cod Community College) recommends cooperative learning approaches, which include a lot of what is recommended in WAC and in the online approaches mentioned below.  Ted recommends spending only 5 minutes or so per class on the exercises that he recommends.  Among his excellent recommendations:

-- “Stop a lecture at a key point (about 10-15 minutes into the lecture) and ask students to write a summary of the lecture. They may then exchange their summaries with a neighbor to see if what they wrote made any sense. This might be followed up by asking pairs of students to re-write their summaries into one final summary. This activity provides immediate feedback to the student and repetition of the concept being examined.”

-- One could adapt this activity to build on certain aspects of effective writing as well.    “If you wish to focus the student’s attention on specific ideas or concepts you can prepare a set of questions for them to answer. One or two would be fine if you do wish to spend a lot of time doing this exercise. It may be done a couple of times during a lecture or at the end to summarize the entire lecture.”

--This could also be handed in.  The students would be getting reinforcement of the concepts they are intended to learn, plus practice with their writing.  If it’s a very large class, you may not be able to examine and provide feedback on every response you receive, but you could skim to look for common errors, say 2-3 of each week, bring them up in class, talk about why they are errors and how they could be avoided, then tell them you expect they will avoid those errors this week, etc.

-- “You might ask the students to pre-write by trying to answer your questions before your lecture and then having them compare their second written answer to their first.”

-- Ted’s book on writing exercises for mathematics contains activities that can be adapted for large classes in many disciplines.  See his teaching and learning website.  You may also find some great ideas at Ted’s other web site.

Wayne Jacobson (University of Iowa) also provided a link to a useful resource page.  The first section, “Using Writing”, contains some good advice.

Eileen Herteis (Mount Allison University) recommended Learning through Writing, a compendium, of writing assignments that I seem to have multiple copies of, all of them good!  Several of the assignments in there could be used for large classes.
Back for more, Eileen also recommended a recent Faculty Focus report, Keys to Designing Effective Writing and Research Assignments.

The following books were recommended by several people:
·      Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001.  Gerald Nelms says that, though this book is expensive, it’s a worthwhile investment!
·      Walvoord, Barbara E. and Virginia Johnson Anderson. Effective Grading: A tool for Learning and Assessment in College. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.

Peer Review -- On-Line Tools and Approaches
Peer review emerged as the most recommended practice.  Dave Nelson (Purdue University) wrote, “the single best thing I ever did in my introductory writing courses was to institute peer review of student’s papers and drafts with a clearly codified rubric.  This not only improved writing and grading of that writing, but also saved IMMENSE numbers of hours in grading.”  He shared the rubric he uses, which comes from the University of California, Irvine (developed for an award-winning Humanities course).

To help students learn how to give effective peer evaluations, Dave recommends an exercise that will be familiar to those who have taught faculty and graduate students about effective essay evaluation: present students with a mock essay on a topic that will be familiar to them, have them evaluate it using the rubric, then in discussion compare the grades they gave with the grade you would have given.  Through a brief discussion of the differences you can pinpoint biases, differences in emphasis, etc., then try again.  This helps students learn what to focus on, sets expectations, and creates an opportunity to learn about evaluation “from the other side”.

Dave also recommends small reflective writing assignments.  He writes, “Small writing assignments can be graded without any feedback, and a model can be provided after the assignment is returned.  Students are then required to write a brief response to how their written work differed from the model, and what they will change for the next assignment.  The reflection need not be graded beyond an +, /, - scale, and the quick grading of initial assignment can be done without time-intensive individual feedback.”

Terry McCurdy (McMaster University) recommended two profs at her university who recently presented on their work with an online peer review tool.  Here’s their abstract:
Formative evaluation of writing skills in large science classes by means of web-based peer reviews
Dr. Kim Dej & Lori Goff

Are you interested in having your students get involved in a peer-review process for a written assignment, but haven't found the technology to allow you to do so with limited resources? We have found a way to use electronic and anonymous peer-reviews in both small and large classes! In this presentation, we will showcase the Calibrated Peer Review (CPR)T web-based program that enables students to peer-review written assignments in an anonymous fashion. We will describe how we have been able to use this program in a formative nature with the goal of improving the writing skills of second-year students in biology and life sciences classes. We introduced this program as a pilot project in July 2009 in a class of 40 students and have expanded its use to two larger classes (with enrollments greater than 300 students) in October/November 2009. We will present our preliminary findings from class discussions, surveys, and focus groups, along with suggestions on how the CPR program can be used in other courses.

Kim Dej is an Assistant Professor (Teaching) in The Department of Biology and Director of the Life Sciences Program. Educational research interests focus upon conceptual inventories in the Life Sciences.

Lori Goff is an Instructional Assistant in The Department of Biology.  She has recently completed a Master's degree in Education with a focus on program evaluation.  

The University of Windsor has been using an online peer review system for its first-year double course, Foundations of Academic Writing, which is mandatory for first year students in the faculties of Arts and Social Sciences and Engineering.  Students are given two passes at writing assignments.  The first pass is peer-reviewed using the online system, and they receive grades on the quality of their peer reviews rather than  the quality of their written assignment.  The second time around they are graded on the quality of their assignment, which is supposed to have taken into account the feedback received in the first round.  The online system is sued due to the sheer enormity of the course (over 2,000 students).  About 57 teaching assistants handle the grading, supervised by the course instructors.  The creator and coordinator of the course is Jill Singleton-Jackson, who can be contacted at jjackson@uwindsor.ca, if you’d like to learn more.

Parting Thoughts
On a somewhat less practical (though perhaps, in the end, more important) note, Alan Bender (Indiana University, Bloomington), suggests an analogy between learning a discipline and learning a foreign language.  He urges us to keep in mind, “how much of a foreign language people tend to remember after having studied the language for different lengths of time”.  I quote Alan at length:

In the framework of "learning is languaging" (as Biology professor Bob Leamnson liked to say), the following questions come to mind:

  1. What would it mean to be language-proficient in a life sciences sub-discipline?  What sorts of conversing should someone be able to do?  With whom, in what contexts, about what?  What sorts of reading of what sorts of literature?  What sorts of writing?  What sorts of drawing/diagramming?
  2. Should gaining language proficiency even be a main goal?  Or, should a main goal be more along the lines of simply being introduced to lots of words and symbols, so that one would have some familiarity with them in case one ever wanted or needed to learn them at some point in the future?
  3. How would we assess how language-proficient someone is?
  4. How would we promote language proficiency?  [We'd at least want for students to do lots of writing and conversing (and diagramming?), wouldn't we?]

"Learning is languaging" wouldn't mean that learning amounts to memorizing a bunch of definitions.  Instead, it would include being able to use terms and symbols in relationships (e.g., in sentences and diagrams) and being able to do so at increasing levels of sophistication, in ways that allow one to become more aware of, make sense of, analyze, and communicate about increasingly complex and subtle matters.

To me, developing language proficiency in a discipline would include discovering different possible meanings of a given term or symbol, including learning different ways in which a given term or symbol might be interpreted.  This would include discovering misconceptions and mistaken assumptions that underlie certain usages of various terms and symbols.

Thanks to Alan Bender (Indiana University, Bloomington), Justina Brown (Western Washington University), Dakin Burdick (Endicott College), John Collins (University of British Columbia), Michael Dabney (Hawaii Pacific University), Roger Graves (University of Alberta), Eileen Herteis (Mount Allison University), Wayne Jacobson (University of Iowa), Kevin M. Johnson (Michigan State University), Terry McCurdy (McMaster University), Gerald Nelms (The Ohio State University), Dave Nelson (Purdue University), Ed Nuhfer (California State University, Channel Islands), Ted Panitz (Cape Cod Community College), Ron Sheese (York University).