Monday, November 14, 2011

Professional Development Meeting Notes from November 8-9, 2011

1. Announcements

--If you are using FA 742 to meet with students, please let us know so that we can ensure that office space is being utilized for its intended purpose.

--We possibly may be piloting John Goshert's text Entering the Academic Conversation: Strategies for Research Writing for English 2010 and 2020 next semester. If you are interested in participating in the pilot, please let us know.

--The Faculty Center for Teaching Excellence have recently made some funds available to help adjunct faculty pay for travel expenses to give presentations at conferences. (NOTE: This does not apply if you are merely chairing a session.) These funds might not be available next year and they are probably only available on a first-come-first-serve basis so it's best to get your application in to the Faculty Center soon.

--In that same vein, if in the future the English Department offers lecturer positions, all adjuncts are eligible to apply. It will look especially good on your CV if you have recently read a paper at a conference.

--The English Department has added a new Writing Studies emphasis to the English major (in addition to the emphases on Literary Studies, Creative Writing, and English Education that are currently offered). This major will focus on rhetorical theory, preparation for grad school, etc. Please encourage any students in your classes who seem like good candidates to talk to an adviser and pick up brochures in the front office. As part of this new emphasis, next semester the Department be offering Intro to Writing Studies (which requires 1010 and 2010/2020 as a prerequisite).

2. Norming our Grading Criteria

For the remainder of the meeting, we participated in an activity that would help us engage in a discussion about how to evaluate student papers. Gae Lyn handed out a copy of the AACU's rubrics for Written Communication and Critical Thinking. We briefly skimmed through these rubrics. Then we each read 3 different papers: one that was an excellent paper, one that was an average paper, and one that was a poor paper (but we weren't told which was which right away). Working in groups, we discussed which papers were better than others, applying the AACU rubrics to the papers.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Professional Development Meeting Notes from October 12-13

1. Announcements

Please don't forget to submit your schedule preferences as soon as possible. It will probably take approximately a month to get the schedule ironed out.

2. Introduction to Portfolio Assessment

Gae Lyn began by explaining the history of the 2 year portfolio assessment that ran from 2009-2011. The University had pushed each department to assess how well they were meeting their program's Essential Learning Outcomes (ELOs) for all their courses, but especially their General Education courses. The English Department created the 1010/2010/2020 assessment program in response. 350 portfolios were selected at random from 1010/2010/2020 over the 2 year period and were evaluated by the WPAs to assess student's progress from the beginning of the classes to the end.

3. Overview of the Portfolio Assessment Criteria

John Goshert, the previous program administrator, joined us to discuss the criteria that was used to evaluate the portfolios. The criteria were adapted from the National Council of Writing Program Administrators' Outcomes for First Year-Composition. The portfolios were examined to determine how well they were able to engage in critical thinking (were they able to transition from uninformed opinions to looking at the topic from complex, multiple perspectives), did they use evidence to support and develop their ideas, did they pose research problems (rather than mere topics), did they engage in an academic conversation (did they use scholarly texts as source material), and could they produce mechanically sound writing.

4. Overview of the Findings from the Portfolio Assessment

The results for 1010 were quite positive. Students seemed to experience profound progress in terms of the program's basic writing expectations and intellectual growth. All of the students tended to perform above the average from what the WPAs had expected. Unfortunately, the results from 2010 were not quite as positive in terms of its added value. In some papers, the level of sophistication that the students exhibited toward their source material seemed to weaken in comparison to 1010. The students either tended to use more journalistic sources or, when they used scholarly sources, they only valued scholarly texts for their informational content alone (as opposed to engaging with them as arguments). Furthermore, students who started out in 2010 with weak skills tended to remain weak and students who started out with strong skills didn't seem to improve as much as had been hoped.

5. Discussion of the Assessment Findings

The discussion was then opened up to everyone to brainstorm how to keep the momentum going from 1010 into 2010. John felt that the course textbooks should be taken seriously by all instructors because they help to connect the assignment sequences with the scholarly mindset we want the students to develop. Gae Lyn mentioned that we have pretty high expectations for our students in comparison to other open enrollment colleges. At least one open-enrollment school that she knows of does not focus on the critical thinking component of first-year writing. Rather they focus only on helping students understand and summarize source material. We ask our students to do considerably more. Grant mentioned that the portfolio assessments possibly cannot account for the delay in timing between when students take 1010 and when they take 2010/2020.


Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions about the findings from the portfolio assessment in the comments to this blog.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Starter Activity for Problematizing a Topic Essay (Essay #1, 1010)

My students enjoyed this short activity to prep their heads for the concept of "problematizing."

1.  Take three volunteers and have them choose which side of the topic they will represent (pro, con, neutral) without telling them the topic.

2.  Have the volunteers come up to the board.  Give them the topic and two minutes to see who can generate the most examples/reasons for their side.

3.  Alternately, divide the class into the three groups (pro, con, neutral) and have them fire answers up to the their representative at the board.

4.  Possible topics:  Is graffiti art?  White lies.  Joining the military.  Road construction in Utah.

Stephenie Swindle

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Laptops in the Classroom?

The comments on this blog post are very interesting, regarding different ways of looking at laptop use in the classroom. What are your thoughts and policies on laptops?

Professional Development Meeting Notes from September 13-14

The following is my notes from our recent professional development meeting for the adjunct faculty. Feel free to make any corrections or additions in the comments to this blog.

1. Introductions - Everyone went around the room and gave their name and how long they'd been at UVU

2. Announcements
  • --Make sure you submit your syllabus to Meredith Bennie either via email or a hard copy as soon as you can. As a reminder, you will also need to send a copy of your gradebook (either electronically or a hard copy) at the end of the semester.
  • --In about a month or so, the Writing Program Administrators (WPAs) will send out the form to ask for your schedule preferences for the Spring 2012 semester. They will use this form to create the teaching schedule.
  • --There was a typo on the recommended guidelines for the Exploratory Essay. The guidelines are that the paper should be approximately 6-8 pages in length (not 4-5).
  • --This next semester, the WPAs will try to schedule a time to observe your class, especially if you're new to the faculty this year. This is a good opportunity to get some helpful feedback from the WPAs.
  • --We were lucky enough to get a room on campus that can be used by the adjunct faculty to meet with students. The room is FA 742 (the Faculty Annex---the stand-alone buildings located in the southeast parking lot). It is occasionally locked, but we'll try to encourage the custodians to leave it open at all times.
3. Discussion about how to make the blog more effective (e.g. what kind of content you want and what would inspire you to add posts to the blog)

4. Discussion of any questions or concerns that have come up in the beginning of the semester

5. Discussion of the pros and cons of using student papers as models in class
  • --How does peer review function to help students see examples of other students' writing?
  • --Why do some (of the best) teachers avoid using model papers?
  • --When teachers use models, how are they best employed?
  • --What is the Graff & Berkenstein rationale for their "template" approach to teaching writing?
  • --Can model papers constrain or limit students' creativity and thinking?
  • --How can we ethically use examples of student writing?
  • --Should students look at the best writers rather than at the writing of other students?
  • --How was imitation used in classical rhetoric?
  • --What are some of the best ways to use model papers in class?
Gae Lyn handed out the first two pages of an article discussing the value of imitation in teaching rhetoric by John Muckelbauer. The article was entitled "Imitation and Invention in Antiquity: An Historical-Theoretical Revision" from Rhetorica: A Journal of the History of Rhetoric 21.2 (Spring 2003): 61-88. You can view the full article online in JSTOR:

(NOTE: This link will require you to login with your UVLink ID and password.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Scientific Breakthroughs in Effective Teaching

Ya gotta love science and its way of replacing assumptions with facts about how things really work. A recent NY Times article describes several such points about teaching methods that we can implement to improve our teaching. Even if you don't take the time to revise your syllabus right now, just being aware of these tips can steer you toward greater effectiveness.

Click here to read the brief article, and I'll summarize the main points for those who don't have time.

1. Quality of homework matters more than quantity.
2. Neuroscientists, cognitive scientists and educational psychologists have made a series of remarkable discoveries about how the human brain learns.
3. Implementing these elements have caused test scores to rise between 13 and 50% (in the incidents mentioned in the article).
4. Technique 1: “Spaced repetition.” Exposing ourselves to information repeatedly over time fixes it more permanently in our minds, by strengthening the [associated] neural networks.
5. Technique 2: “Retrieval practice.” Being "tested" or calling information FROM our brains as opposed to reading, reviewing, making notes, and putting it INTO our brains again is far more effective at cementing that knowledge.
6. "Another common misconception about how we learn holds that if information feels easy to absorb, we’ve learned it well. In fact, the opposite is true." The harder we work at learning something, the better we learn it. Researchers have intentionally made things harder to study (small font, blurry characters, punctuation errors, etc.) with positive learning results.
7. Technique 3: "Interleaving." Rather than having three similar story problems in a row, interleave them with dissimilar ones. When the student doesn't know what to expect next, s/he has to think harder and will learn better.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Creating a Research Space

Last year at one of our meetings, I shared some information about how I use CARS (create a research space) to help teach students how to write an introduction to their Researched Argument papers.

I had some people ask me again about it this year, so I thought I'd share.

The CARS model was identified by John Swales (Swales, John M. "Genre Analysis: English in Academic and Research Settings". Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990.). He is a linguist focused on genre. He defined genre as a text type that is ultimately determined by the task and situation and is immediately defined by communicative purpose. He studies speech communities (a group who share the same linguistic identity).

In his study of the speech community of research articles, he noticed a pattern in the article introductions, which he has defined as follows (from page 141 in his book):

Move 1: Establishing a territory
Step 1: Claiming Centrality [the researcher can claim interest or important, can refer to the central, favorite, or classic character of the issue, or can claim that there are many active investigators in the field.]
Step 2: Making topic generalization(s) [express in general terms the current state of knowledge, of technique, etc.]
Step 3: Reviewing items of previous research [relate what has been found (or claimed) with who has found it (or claimed it).]
Move 2: Establishing a niche
Step 1A: Counter-claiming
Step 1B: Indicating a gap
Step 1C: Question-raising
Step 1D: Continuing a tradition [follow the rhetorically-established tradition. This usually means that the researcher takes what is there already and delves deeper (conducts a test with more subjects, compares studies, etc.)]
Move 3: Occupying the niche [this move offers to substantiate the counter-claim, fill the gap, answer the question, or continue the established tradition. Most research article introductions end with Move 3-Step 1. Move 3-Step 3, if it is included, is always at the end of the introduction.]
Step 1A: Outlining purposes
Step 1B: Announcing present research
Step 2: Announcing principle findings
Step 3: Indicating research article structure
According to Swales, the moves show the need for researchers to re-establish in the eyes of the discourse community the significance of the research field itself [this is also part of what we teach regarding academic writing as conversation and could help students understand it better]; situate the actual research in terms of that significance [I've found that students struggle with making their papers their own. The four steps of move 2 help to point out where they can focus their efforts]; and show how the niche will be occupied and defended [this is where I teach them about the role of the thesis statement and of guiding the reader using signposts].

Some examples
Claiming centrality:
Recently, there has been a spate of interest in how to ...
In recent years, applied researchers have been increasingly interested in .. .
The time development ... is a classic problem in fluid mechanics.
Many investigators have recently turned to ...
A central issue in ... is the validity of ...
Topic generalization:
There are many situations where ...
An elaborate system of ... is found in the ...
Reviewing previous research:
X was found by Sang et aI. (1972) to be impaired.
X was impaired (Sang et aI., 1972).
Continuing a tradition:
It is desirable to perform test calculations ...
It is of interest to compare ...
Application for English 2010/2010 (perhaps 1010?)
I use this to help students get an idea for how to start their final paper. We talk about why all those articles that Swales studied would have used the same general organization unconsciously. This could be a good lead-in for determining whether something is an academic source, but I haven't explored that since I usually teach this toward the end of the semester.

I also take the opportunity to focus in on Move 2 and how they need to decide what their purpose is and how they will give a new, different, or unique perspective on the topic.

I also have them bring some of their sources to class and then have them pick out the moves and steps in the introductions. Then, I have them do the same with their introduction (that I had them write and bring to class). Then we work on making those introductions even better.

Finally, I am including here a scan of a page from Swales' book that shows how the moves and steps work in an actual article.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Orientation: Reflective Writing and Portfolios

Hello to all our new and returning faculty,

As a follow-up to my Orientation breakout session, I'm posting here links to the websites that I'll be showing regarding ePortfolios and reflective writing. The portfolio is a requirement; our program portfolio guidelines are posted on the writing program website. Using an ePortfolio is NOT a requirement, but instructors may be interested in exploring ePortfolios as an option in their classes. We encourage all instructors to emphasize reflective writing throughout the semester to build the final portfolio.

UVU does not have a general education portfolio requirement at the current time, but is moving in that direction. You may want to look at what Salt Lake Community College is doing with their General Education ePortfolio:

A national organization for ePortfolios is The Association for Authentic, Experiential and Evidence-Based Learning:

Also you may want to look at the site for Electronic Portfolio Action and Communication (EPAC)

The ePortfolio movement is growing nationally and internationally. Because as writing teachers we know the value of reflective writing, we may want to study this technology and move towards incorporating it into our pedagogy.

Gae Lyn

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

One Documentation System to Rule Them All

This morning a student in my English 2020 class was complaining to me about how difficult it had been for him to learn APA this semester. He said he had liked MLA much better when he had learned it in 1010. He asked me: "Why can't there just be one documentation system that is used by all the academic disciplines so that we don't have to constantly learn new systems?"

I gave him my standard answer: "Well, that's like asking why don't we all speak Esperanto? It makes a whole lot of sense to have a universal language that is easy to learn and understand. It's completely logical. But to think of a language as just a system for conveying information is to miss the point. Each of the world's languages were developed independently by groups of people in similar geo-political regions. As such, each language contains that culture's history, their values, their political beliefs, and their most cherished traditions."

I explained to him that most of these documentation systems have a long history dating back to the late 1800s (or sometimes even earlier). The history of these documentation systems is very closely tied to the history of the academic disciplines from which they emerged. In that same vein, these documentation systems can tell you a lot about what is valued by that discipline.

For example, APA wants you to indicate the year that something was published in the body of your text because having current, up-to-date evidence is extremely important in their field of inquiry. Current research is important, but not quite as vital in the humanities and so MLA doesn't stress it as much.

Furthermore, MLA seems to have embraced the realities of doing research in the age of the Internet, whereas APA represents the old guard. Websites are volatile, meaning that their content can change rapidly. Because APA values resources that are static and reproducible, APA discourages using websites as a resource. They do this fairly subtly---by not offering a specific section about how to cite websites in their 6th edition, for example.

When you learn to use your discipline's system correctly, you show the peers in your discipline that you understand their values and practices. I personally prefer MLA over APA quite a bit. But that could be because MLA is what I was "born and raised with" academically and so it's become second nature to me. I've learned to "think in MLA," if you will. It's been much more difficult for me to grasp the internal logic of APA this semester. (Because it's like learning a new language in many respects.)

So I told him that to suggest that we use a universal system of documentation is a politically charged statement. It would be like someone from the United Nations coming in and telling us that our country's official language will be Esperanto now and we're going to all learn it in school. It's not very likely to happen. No matter how logical it may be.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

My Course Objective Statement

I was rather inspired by the UVU Presidential Lecture given by Martha Nussbaum recently. It was entitled: Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. I'm toying with the possibility of having future 2010/2020 students write their rhetorical analyses about her book by the same title.

At any rate, her lecture nicely expressed a lot of the ideas I want to communicate to my students throughout my course. With that in mind, I have updated my Course Objectives statement in my syllabus. Here's my new statement:

Overview and Objectives
This course is intended to prepare you for future college courses, for your future profession, and for your participation as a citizen in a democratic society. Academic institutions, workplaces, and democracies have a strong need for you to become an individual who is capable of: 1) independent thought, 2) developing respect and empathy for people who are different from you and who may disagree with you, and 3) recognizing that nearly every issue is more complex than you initially thought it was before you began to examine it in more depth. Thoughtful, well-researched dialogue (which we refer to as “argumentation” in academia) is generally considered the best means to this end. It can be a messy, even uncontrollable process at times---but it is always educational. Once individuals and societies have gone through the crucible of argumentation, they are nearly always better for it.

To prepare you to be a more effective participant in the argumentation process, this course emphasizes: critical thinking, library research, and academic writing. With that in mind, here are the specific objectives this course ought to accomplish. By the end of the semester, you should be more prepared to join your academic, professional, and social community by:

--Making the transition from learning to write into writing to learn.

--Knowing how to form effective rhetorical arguments that are backed by sound logic and evidence.

--Evaluating the rhetorical arguments presented by others.

--Developing effective research and writing strategies.

--Becoming familiar with the library and learning how to quickly find the resources that are of the highest credibility.

--Learning how to correctly use and cite the resources in your papers using an appropriate documentation system.

--Understanding the most effective way to incorporate research into your own writing.

--Developing a willingness to recognize and wrestle with the complexities of the topics you choose to think and write about on a deeper, more critical and scholarly level.


What do you currently have in your syllabus for your Course Objectives?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Response to "Death to High School English"

Yesterday one of our colleagues shared a link to a very thought-provoking article in Slate by Kim Brooks called "Death to High School English." I've had many similar sentiments about my own students' lack of preparation for college writing. And since I have also been a high school English teacher at one point in my life, I decided to write my initial response to the article.

First of all, I completely agree with Brooks that large class sizes and high volumes of students are one of the main reasons why writing is not the primary focus of high school English. I think that I learned how to write in college (as opposed to high school) because I wrote a lot of papers for my degree and I consequently received a lot of feedback from each of my professors on those papers. For that reason, I think that students best learn to write both by practicing a lot and by being mentored one-on-one by a more advanced writer. I try to give my students this same experience by meeting with them individually to discuss their papers. This helps me to show them how the general principles we discussed in class can apply to their papers specifically. I have found that this is one of the best things I can do as a teacher. However, the very nature of high school English works against the mentorship model, as was eloquently expressed in this essay. Providing one-on-one feedback to my students is hard enough teaching 23-69 students here at UVU, let alone the 130-200 high school students that an average high school teacher has here in Utah.

Brooks also mentioned that she is doubtful that reading classical literature is an effective way to develop critical thinking skills. She writes:

They read these works and then they talked about them in class discussions or small groups, and then they composed an essay on the subject, received a grade, and moved on to the next masterpiece. Did their exposure to a few of the great works challenge or change them, did it spur them to read more widely or more critically, or did it make them better writers? Occasionally, I guess. Mostly, they seem to recall struggling with comprehension of these classics, feeling as though they just didn't "get it," and for those students who know they will not major in English, does it really matter, they wonder.

When I was a high school English teacher, I saw the beginning of a trend among my fellow teachers to de-emphasize classical literature in favor of using adolescent literature instead. Their hope was that if they used literature that was more accessible and fun, the students would learn to enjoy reading more and would naturally develop analytical skills because they would read more frequently. While I see a lot of value in this approach, I am beginning to question the merits of a curriculum that myopically focuses on fiction alone.

I think fiction has the potential to teach our kids empathy, to give them exposure to different life experiences and perspectives, and to stimulate their imaginations and creativity. But if we ignore non-fiction texts (especially texts that forward an argument using research and evidence), we do so at our student's peril. It is largely through engaging with argumentative texts that we learn how to critically analyze an argument and form intelligent responses to them that are backed by sound logic and reasoning. When we regularly read and respond to high-quality arguments, we learn how to form more effective arguments of our own. The ability to argue meaningfully is incredibly valuable in college, in the workplace, and in a democratic society---and it is absolutely essential to being a successful college writer. But perhaps the lack of student engagement with argumentative texts has to do with attitudes about non-fiction texts being the "vegetables"---something good for you but not enjoyable. Personally, I think this notion is misguided. For me, argumentative texts offer a different kind of pleasure. They expand my understanding of the world I live in and they cause me to introspectively reflect on how I should think or act in light of new evidence. And there's something fun about engaging in a dialogue with other people about ideas that matter. It just takes a teacher with the right kind of passion and a careful selection of engaging non-fiction texts to help students see that level of enjoyment as well.

Perhaps one might argue that students get enough non-fiction material in their other classes in the form of textbooks. That is only partially true. Although all textbooks contain arguments (for example, a history textbook makes a value judgment on what aspects of history are worthy of study as "history" or not---never mind the spin that a textbook may put on a particular historical event), they are not presented as something that one can reasonably disagree with. Rather, they are presented as something to be passively consumed as "fact" or "truth" or "reality." In other words, textbooks do not present themselves straightforwardly as an argument. Because textbook arguments are too subtle, it is difficult for students to learn to how to parse out the arguments that are being presented in them. It takes a higher level of reading comprehension (and life experience) to draw out an argument from an average textbook and so it is better to begin with texts that present themselves as an argument more straightforwardly.

Another reason students don't learn how to write effective arguments is that they write in a vacuum. In the real world, we write because we are motivated by some important circumstance that demands our commentary. In school, the circumstances for writing are often created artificially by the teacher. Unless students can see how the topic is intuitively interesting or important to them, they may feel demotivated or adopt an attitude that the assignment is a hoop they need to jump through to pass the class. Also, in a school setting we write for an audience of one: the teacher (who only reads our papers because he or she is contractually obligated to). In the real world, we write for larger audiences who may or may not agree with what we have to say---and who will give us feedback whether or not we want them to. This kind of real-world feedback is very important in learning to write because the more perspectives you can get on your writing, the better. The unfortunate disconnect between writing in the real world and writing for school is not always productive to creating good writers and good thinkers.

The final reason why I think our high school students are not learning how to argue/write effectively is because it's perceived as a potential threat to the institutional structure of the school. The current school system rewards students who obediently do their work without making any waves. Students who learn how to argue will ask questions and possibly challenge their teachers. They might begin to question whether what they are being taught is really the truth about the way things work in the real world rather than just accepting what authority figures (teachers, principals, and parents) tell them is true. It could feel to some teachers like opening Pandora's Box. I can empathize with that to a certain extent. I, too, get tired of the student who challenges every single grade I give him/her or every statement I make in class. It can be exhausting and demotivating.

But at the end of the day, I think that having students who can think for themselves is a necessary price to pay for a little loss of control. I'd rather have students who are capable of making an effective argument backed by sound logic and research---even if that means they will turn the tables and use that knowledge against me. I may resent it at first, but if they can make a good argument, it will lead me to make necessary changes to my curriculum that benefit everyone in the end.

Well, that's my two cents on the piece. What was your response?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Summer 2011 Schedule Requests

Hi all,

As I mentioned in our meeting Tuesday evening, we've had to postpone fall 2011 scheduling until the first week of April or so. In the meantime, please go ahead and let me know if you're interested in summer teaching. Please include in your request your interest in:

A, B, or either block

1010, 2010, and/or 2020

available times (most, if not all courses will be MWF)

available locations (most, if not all courses will be on the main campus)

Unless you responded on or after FRIDAY MARCH 11, I did not file your earlier requests, since this is the first call for people to express their interest in summer teaching. Please get your requests (email response is fine) by Monday March 21, and I expect that Gae Lyn, Grant and I will turn the schedule around rather quickly.

Administrative Changes, Program Evaluations Requested

For those of you who missed last Tuesday's meeting, at the end of this academic year I'll be stepping down as writing program administrator and leaving the program in the capable hands of Gae Lyn Henderson, who will be equally capably assisted by Grant Moss and Joy Santee. Just as a reminder (and copying from last month's followup email), since your observations and opinions are important to us, some time before the end of the spring term, I'd like to ask each of you to spend a few minutes reflecting on and evaluating the past three years including:

1. the direction the writing program has taken;

2. effectiveness and/or weaknesses of course texts, assignment sequences, pedagogical advice, and so on;

3. your experiences with administration (support on disciplinary matters, plagiarism, student complaints, etc.)

Of course if you've been with us for less than three years, we want your observations as well!

Also, please take a few minutes to anticipate future directions for the program:

1. how you would like to spend time during annual orientation and monthly meetings;

2. new directions for course texts, outcomes, assignments, pedagogy, etc.

If you would, please write up your reflections, evaluations, and anticipations in a short letter submitted to the department (you can place it in my box or the department chair's). That way, your observations and advice may be shared with various stakeholders and used to help guide the program in the coming months and years.

Thanks for your work, support, and contributions over the past three years. As always, see you in the halls...

My Grading Philosophy

My youngest sister is currently taking English 2010 at the University of Utah and I'm feeling quite frustrated with her instructor these days. She received a B+ on her first graded paper (I would have given it an A-). I figured he was just a tougher grader than I was, so I promised her I would help her to get her second graded essay up to a higher standard. As she was preparing to submit her second essay (which was an Analysis/Synthesis paper), I made her re-read the two essays she was responding to several times until I felt satisfied that she had fully comprehended their arguments. I also made her substantially re-write her rough draft nearly five times until I felt satisfied she had created a solid paper. I would estimate that I conferenced with her for approximately 7 hours helping her to improve her paper.

The results? Although I thought the paper was a solid A, she received a B. According to her instructor, she got a B because her thesis statement was "unclear," she misused commas a few times, she needed to discuss the first essay's analogy in more depth, and he felt she needed to discuss the essays "against each other" in the same paragraph (rather than in two separate paragraphs). He probably has a good point about some of those criticisms, but I hardly feel that those minor foibles justified a B grade. When my sister shared her instructor's comments with me, my inner mother hen started to cluck loudly that his grading style was arbitrary and unfair. In my opinion, her comprehension of the two essays was superb, she made good points about how the two essays differed in their approach on the topic, and the argument she made in response to the essays was intriguing and well-reasoned. I respect that her instructor and I might have different grading criteria, but it's difficult to tell since he never clearly articulated what that criteria was.

And so this incident has inspired me to articulate my own grading system and philosophy. Fundamentally, I feel that the grade he assigned her was unfair because 1) he didn't provide a grading rubric to his students, 2) he didn't provide clear instruction or examples of what he considered "good" writing to be and 3) he didn't allow for a rough draft option. (He did have a peer-reviewed rough draft option, but not an instructor-reviewed one, which is crucial to fairness.) In my opinion, these are three very important elements that must be in place in order for a student to feel empowered and to continually improve as a writer. Allow me to explain why.

1. The Importance of Grading Rubrics

Grading papers has the potential to be unfair because it is such a subjective process. But a grading rubric can help to create a more objective standard of measurement that you can use to assess your students' writing more consistently. If you don't have a clear grading rubric in place, then you are probably only grading your students based on your gut reaction to their paper alone. It's inappropriate to grade students based on your gut feelings because this reaction has the tendency to be arbitrary. While I feel that there is an element of the student's grade that should be influenced by your initial impression of the paper (more on that later), it is generally a very unreliable evaluation method because it can be easily influenced by your own biases (such as your personal feelings toward the student, whether or not the paper aligns with your personal political beliefs, or even just the mood you were in while you were grading). Furthermore, it's difficult to defend a grade that came from your gut reaction when a student presses you for more specific information about how he or she could improve the paper.

By contrast, if you can provide your students with a grading rubric, it not only makes your expectations for the assignment clear, but it ensures that you will grade your students consistently and fairly. Rubrics help to make your grading more objective because it forces you to weigh your students' papers against a set criteria rather than some indefineable, subjective gut reaction.

Here's an example of the basic grading rubric that I used for the Summary/Strong Response paper:
  1. Mechanics and Formatting (minus up to 20 points maximum)

    1. Length (4-6 pages)

    2. Page numbering

    3. 12 pt Times New Roman font

    4. Standard margins

    5. Double spacing/spacing between paragraphs

  2. The Thesis Statement (20 points)

    1. How it is phrased

    2. Correlation between thesis statement and what is discussed in the body of paper

  3. Topic Sentences and Paragraphs (40 points)

    1. Overall quality of the topic sentences

    2. Overall quality of the paragraph development

  4. Discussion of the Ideas in the Text (30 points)

    1. Summary of the text

    2. Quality of response to key ideas and central meaning of the text

    3. Concrete examples from the text

  5. Use of Quotes (30 points)

    1. Use of attributive tags, follow-up discussion

    2. Quoting mechanics

    3. Balance between quotes from the text and the writer's own prose

  6. Overall Quality of the Argument (30 points)

    1. Overall quality of the student's level of critical thinking

    2. General quality of the argument

I then provide a 5 page point-by-point breakdown of each element which clarifies exactly what I mean for each of these different point elements. For example, here is the grade breakdown for grading element 4a (the initial summary of the text, worth 10 points of their final grade):

The summary of the text in the introduction to the paper was above average. The writer had an excellent grasp of the argument presented in the original text. The summary cut right to the core of the main ideas of the text. It was neutral and unbiased. The summary also provided the perfect context for the rest of the writer's argument.
The paper provided a summary of the text it responded to in the introduction to the paper. The summary only included the main ideas of the original text and left out the details. The summary was fair and balanced.
The paper provided a summary of the text it responded to. The summary perhaps got a little bogged down in the details of the text. The summary could have perhaps framed the rest of the argument a little better. The summary could have perhaps framed the rest of the argument a little better. The summary may have been somewhat biased or may have slightly misrepresented the original argument. The summary may not have been in the introduction of the paper.
The paper provided a summary of the text it responded to but it may have been too long-winded or awkwardly stated. It may have had little relevance to the paper and may have been obviously biased. The summary may have been missing from the paper or difficult to find.

Using this rubric, I have a one-page sheet that has a breakdown of the points I assigned for each of the different grading criteria. That way, my students can compare the score I gave them to my rubric and see exactly what elements of their paper I thought were weak and which were strong.

The main advantage of grading rubrics is that they help you as an instructor to get clear and specific about what you consider to be important for that particular essay. It allows you to assign heavier values to the more important aspects of a student's essay (such as the quality of their argument) and keeps you from over-emphasizing less important aspects of an essay (such as grammar). They also help you to clearly communicate your definition of good writing to your students.

To be fair, I do find my initial impression of the student's essay to be helpful in some ways. First of all, my gut reaction is reflected in the score I give them for element #6 (the overall quality of the argument). Secondly, my gut reaction helps me to judge how accurate my grading rubric is. I compare their final score with the grade I would have given them based on my gut reaction to see if my rubric is accurate. If my students are collectively getting higher or lower grades than I think they deserve, I make notations to myself about modifications I need to make to the grading rubric for the next semester. With trial and error, my grading rubric eventually begins to take the shape of an objective standard of measurement.

2. The Importance of Providing Instruction and Examples

Another benefit of having a grading rubric is that it also helps me to create an outline for my day-to-day class instruction. It would be unfair of me to grade my students on a particular element of writing when I haven't given them specific instruction about it. So, I make sure that I give instruction about each of the different elements that I will eventually grade them on.

For example, for grading element 4a (initial summary of the text), I spend a full day discussing how to write summaries (see my lesson plan about summary writing for reference). At the end of the lesson, I make sure I provide several examples of both good and poor summaries. We discuss together as a class why the samples are effective or ineffective. Then, I end the day's instruction by talking about how the things we discussed in class will affect their final grade for the Summary/Strong Response paper. We go over the grading rubric for element 4a and I make sure they clearly understand what is expected of them.

I also think that it's very important to provide a sample paper for students to use as a model along with an explanation of why I think that paper is effective. One of the things that I like about the Allyn and Bacon text is how they have a meta-commentary off to the side of their sample papers that explains the effective elements of the paper (sort of like a play-by-play analysis). I find that method to be quite helpful to my students in explaining my expectations and in demonstrating the different "moves" that an academic writer makes in a Summary/Strong Response paper.

My sister's instructor never provided her with a sample paper. When he first gave her the assignment, she texted me asking if I had any sample Analysis/Synthesis papers and email it to her if I could so that she could get a feel for the genre. It makes it much easier for students to understand your expectations when you provide them with a good sample paper. Otherwise, it turns into a game of Take-a-Wild-Guess-What-Your-Teacher-Wants, which is not fair to students.

3. The Importance of Allowing for a Rough Draft Option

Lastly, I feel that it is very important to provide your students with a rough draft option. Although I give them detailed grading rubrics, clear in-class instruction and sample papers, some students turn in papers that are way off in left field in terms of my expectations. Maybe it's the student's fault for not paying enough attention, but I ultimately feel that it is unrealistic to expect all students to get it right the first time. It's therefore reasonable to give students a second-chance to try to improve their paper once they have a better sense of my expectations. Furthermore, I think that students learn a great deal about how to be a better writer when they make revisions with guided feedback. It helps them to apply the principles we discussed in class when they have a better idea of how the grading elements apply to their paper specifically.

The only drawback of having a rough draft option is that it means more grading (ick!). The way that I've resolved this issue is to make the rough draft mandatory, but the final draft optional. If students are happy with the grade they received on their rough draft (low as it may be), they are welcome to keep that score if they so choose. Or they are welcome to make revisions based on my comments and feedback. I find that only 30-40% of my students opt to turn in a final draft, which helps reduce my grading load.


I think that these three elements (grading rubrics, clear in-class instruction accompanied by examples, and a rough draft option) are essential to writing instruction. They help to minimize potential grading subjectivity and they provide students with the tools they need to become better writers. When a student feels he or she is being graded based on an ineffable, arbitrary standard of measurement, they can easily become demotivated and discouraged about their ability to improve as a writer. For that matter, subjective grading systems only reward students who were already talented, experienced writers to begin with and do nothing to help the novice writer to find specific, practical ways they can improve their writing. I can't imagine a system that would be more unfair than one in which you are assigned a grade based on some teacher's vague impression of you, without any clear instruction on what was expected of you or without a second chance to make changes to your writing once you have a better idea of where you could improve.

I just wish there were some way I could communicate that to my sister's instructor.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

What Is Needed In Order to Have a Scholarly Dialogue

I recently listened to a lecture given by William Wilson. He provided a definition of what it means to have a scholarly dialogue. I liked his definition. I made some additions to it [in brackets], and I figured I would share it with you:

Simplistic as it may sound, the chief requirements for [scholarly] dialogue may be courage and honesty.

By courage, I mean:
  • The individual scholar's willingness to put his or her ego up for stakes,

  • [Diligently and objectively searching all possible perspectives and information on the topic,]

  • Abandoning long-cherished positions when necessary,

  • And acknowledging how and why one's mind has changed.

By honesty, I mean:
  • Citing other scholars accurately in context and crediting one's sources fully,

  • [Ideally using only those sources which are of the highest quality and credibility,]

  • Refusing on principle to distort the evidence or another scholar's view,

  • And not pretending to have an expertise one does not possess.

What do you think? Is there anything you would add or revise about this definition?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Teacher-Centered vs. Student-Centered Philosophies

Most of you are probably familiar with the concepts of teacher-centered classrooms vs. student-centered classrooms. Here's a quick refresher of the concepts:

In the teacher-centered model:
  • The teacher is an expert on the subject matter and the students are there to learn from a "master," if you will.

  • The teacher is in full control of the course. He or she selects the projects/texts. The work is produced for and graded by the teacher.

  • The teacher dispenses wisdom and the students absorb it.

  • The students are motivated by their grades and other extrinsic rewards. They are graded by how well they match up to a pre-determined standard of excellence.

In the student-centered model:
  • Power is decentralized in order to make room for everyone's empowerment. Everyone learns from each other---including the teacher.

  • The students actively shape the direction the course will take. They select the projects and texts based on their interests.

  • Knowledge and learning is created synergistically by the class.

  • The students are motivated by their own curiosity and intrinsic desire to learn. The students' work is produced for a real audience and for real purposes. The students may be graded by their peers.

Classrooms have historically followed the teacher-centered model. Most universities are pretty much set up to follow this model. But recent research about teaching methods have led to the growth in teachers who use the student-centered model. Although they were a little more rare, I had a few professors who followed the student-centered model from time to time when I was an undergraduate.

It's important to remember that these are not binaries. I find that many teachers use a combination of these two models, some falling closer to one end of the spectrum than others. During my undergraduate studies when I was being trained pedagogy and educational philosophy, the student-centered model was strongly advocated by most of my professors. I don't think it's because the student-centered model is definitively better (although it does have a lot of research to back it up). I think it was because these professors assumed we were already familiar with the teacher-centered model and wanted to show us the benefits of the student-centered model in the hope that we would give it a chance.

For me personally, my native impulse is to be more teacher-centered. I supposedly have a red personality, which means that I have a strong need to feel that I am in control. For that reason, the teacher-centered model appeals to me on an instinctual level. But I have also found that the more I introduce student-centered elements into my curriculum, the more beneficial I find it to be.

This semester I'm experimenting with a fairly student-centered approach when it comes to my class policies. I have a neighbor who is a psychology professor at UVU and he's been bugging me for a very, very long time to try letting my students determine the policy. I've finally caved in and I'm giving it a chance---reluctantly giving up a little bit of that sense of being in control for the sake of the experiment.

Basically, on the second day of class, I had the students engage in a class debate about what our policy should be for absences, tardies, and late assignments. The debates were fairly interesting. When discussing absences, one class spent the bulk of the time talking about how missing class was its own punishment because it causes you to fall behind in the course. (They ended up opting for just letting people attend as needed with no penalties for poor attendance.) One class decided to allow 4 absences and give 5 points extra credit for every unused absence. Another class decided to give 30 points extra credit for having less than 3 absences and -30 points for having more than 5.

In the first two classes that I taught the discussions went fairly smoothly. It surprised me how quickly they reached a consensus. However, the last class had me second-guessing whether I was ready to give up control just yet. Many of the student started talking about how coming to class was just a hoop to jump through in order to get a grade. Their cynicism towards their education admittedly made me feel a little defensive---and it started to bubble over in my tone during the discussion. At one point I asked them why they weren't just taking an online class (which only required you to do the work and didn't require attendance or strict deadlines). I was hoping someone would talk about the value of coming to class, and a few of them did, but not very powerfully. I honestly began to wonder if any of them would end up attending the class at all. Finally, when I told them that I really didn't think I could be an effective teacher if only 3 students showed up because I had planned lots of group work and in-class discussions, that seemed to shift the discussion a little bit. (They were the class that opted for the +30/-30 policy.)

Anyhow, it's been really interesting. I hope I haven't damaged my rapport with my third class because of my defensiveness. My sense is that it's not a lost cause, but we'll see how it all plays out by the end of the semester. I'll let you know how it all turns out when the semester is over.