“Less is More”: Responding to Student Writing
Which metaphor best describes achieving better student writing? The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Good student writing is the elusive goal towards which we must all strive. The road less traveled. All students are on a “good writing path”: some are closer to the start line; others are further along.
The trouble witha pot of gold • Too elusive • It’s either not raining, or not sunny, or the student writer is not in Ireland, but the pot of gold is never attainable. • Too far off in the future • Students believe that writing success is always beyond their energies & intelligence. • Too undefined • Students believe that profs’ ideas of “good writing” are idiosyncratic and personal.
Taking the road less traveled:Advantages to faculty • We stop seeing our writing enhancement task in life or death terms: • “Okay, kids, this is your final chance to learn how to write the kinds of papers you’ll need to succeed in college.” • What thus happens to kids who never see the rainbow, never mind find the pot of gold? • We realize that ours is 1 course among 32
Taking the road less traveled:More Advantages to faculty • We begin to see our writing enhancement task in terms of moving students along a path on which they’ve been walking since grade school and on which they must stay to succeed. • “Okay, kids, let’s contrast how much better these research findings, lab reports, summaries, response papers, etc. were than the first ones you wrote!” • Everyone moves a bit further along the road less traveled! • We are responsible for helping students improve their writing, not for making it perfect!
Faculty Comments on Susie Student’s essay: • From the the pot of gold school • All deviations from “goldness” must be noted for Susie Student to achieve the pot of gold • From the the road less traveledschool • Comments are only designed to lead Susie Student further along the road less traveledon her journey toward becoming a better writer.
Why then do “good” profs cover student writing with comments? We know so much more about good writing than they and want to share all of our knowledge at once!
Why else may “good” profs cover student writing with comments? We believe that the harder we work on a student’s writing, the more he/she will learn.
Another reason for “good” profs to cover student writing with comments. We must remedy thedefects of 13 years of K-12 instruction in 13 weeks of a TCNJ semester
What does our covering their work with comments tell our students? • Not that we know so much more and want to share that knowledge with them. • Not that our hard work will necessarily result in increased learning for them. • Not that their TCNJ faculty are hugely more competent than K-12 faculty. • But that we hate their writing and that they may as well give up!
Susie Student with her freshly graded essay • The comment reads: “unfocused thesis” • Susie thinks “I have no good ideas.” • The comment reads: “edit!” • Susie thinks: “I can’t spell; no one has taught me grammar since grade 6; and I never have known how to put page numbers in parentheses.” • The comment reads: “expand on this idea” • Susie thinks: “I don’t know what I’m taking about and he thinks I haven’t even read the text. • At this point, Susie has stopped reading any comments at all!
Will writing just a few comments shortchange my students? • No, it isn’t how much you write that’s important— • It’s how many comments they’ll read. • It’s how many comments they’ll process and understand. • It’s how many comments they’ll remember. • It’s how many comments they are able to act on in their next paper.
So, what should a prof do? • Start commenting with whatever is best about the paper—a positive! • Students want to improve their writing more if they believe that their writing has at least some strengths • Students put much more work into revising a paper they believe is “partially good” rather than “mostly bad.” • Examples of positives: • You clearly understand the article we read. • You’ve chosen good symbols as crucial to the poem.
So, what else should a prof do? • Limit yourself to (at most) 2 “areas of concern” per paper. For example, • In your revision, I’d like you to focus on the order in which you present your evidence and on having one piece of evidence per body ¶ rather than detailing them all in one long ¶” • Collect both the revision and that comment, and grade/respond to the revision in terms of that assigned task. • Use a rubric and simply circle or mark the descriptors of the paper.
Some techniques I’ve admired • Stack papers in piles according to “most serious flaws” and divide students into groups based on these flaws: • a group focusing on re-writing theses so that they are focused and specific enough for short papers • a group focusing on writing a conclusion ¶ that explains why the thesis is important instead of merely repeating the paper’s evidence • a group focusing on editing out sentence fragments • a group focusing on incorporating evidence that is not personal but is instead evidence derived from research
Another response that works to minimize prof’s comments • Realize that papers can be read with different “eyes.” • After collecting essays, announce that this set of papers will be read, commented on, and graded in terms of one single element— • the strength of the main claim / thesis • the evidence it chooses to cite • mechanical errors in the 3rd ¶ • its adherence to the norms of the field – MLA, CBE, etc. • The next essay will be read with different “eyes”
But what about grammar and mechanics? • What happens when profs edit mechanical & grammatical errors? • Instead of revising and rethinking, students simply fix surface errors. • But they’ll think their writing is error-free! • Just choose one ¶ and circle it's errors • Never mark errors in an early draft—students will simply fix the surface errors, turn in the “rewritten” paper, and confidently await an “A”
Expect resistance from students to abandoning the pot of gold metaphor • The pot of gold model puts responsibility on faculty to show students the process or map to the gold • Students describe themselves as “never having had a good English teacher” or as “never having been taught to write.” • To a student, all writing inadequacies are traced to a “comment deficiency” in which we never adequately explain what we want, and so we fail to teach them to write well.
The road less traveled metaphor puts responsibility for writing onto students. • Students are reminded that writing for our course is simply another step in their on-going development as writers. • Giving students specific revision tasks (or tasks to be attempted in their next essay) puts the onus for learning on them. • They are, after all, on their own road!
Some caveats: what can go wrong when a prof minimizes comments? • Students who feel that they have successfully accomplished the single revision task you give them believe that they all deserve an “A” • a detailed rubric can help prevent this • Focusing a student on his main “area of concern” necessarily handicaps him in working on another shortcomings. • a trade-off that I justify because I believe 1 course cannot be a cure-all or magic writing potion
More caveats: • Students feel that a relatively unmarked paper = an “A” paper; gallons of red ink = “D” or “F” • A paper not drowning in red ink that does not earn an “A” thus breaks this rule • None of this is made easier by students who feel that “A” is the only “good” grade. • Students may mistake minimal focused comments for the prof’s not really caring about the whole paper.
But on the positive side . . . Minimal marking: • allows profs to assign more writing b/c they have time to read it. • allows profs who do not feel mastery over every single aspect of the writing process to work with their students on those aspects most crucial to their discipline • encourages students to see writing tasks as discrete and manageable.