This Week In My Classes: (How to Avoid) Reinventing the Wheel

It’s too late now to do anything organized about this problem this term, but as I work my way through the next-to-last assignments my students are doing I’m puzzling over why so many of them seem not to have learned much from the assignments they have already turned in and had returned. It seems a no-brainer to me that you would scrutinize a returned assignment to learn how to do better next time: that’s the point, that’s why this is called ‘education,’ that’s why I write comments and corrections on it in the first place–that’s why I hold office hours, too, so that if my written comments don’t give you enough to go on, you can follow up in person. But I’m not the only resource, and for some problems (apostrophe errors, for instance) I’m not the best one to turn to, not because I can’t explain apostrophe errors, but because you can look those up easily on your own and save our inevitably limited one-on-one time for higher order things. Obvious as it seems to me that you don’t just note the grade and file the assignment away (or recycle it), though, I’m convinced that many of them simply put finished work behind them and move on to the next task as if it is unrelated.

It’s possible that a lot of students are actually diligently following up on my comments and just making very slow progress. It’s possible, too, that a lot of the problems I see are the result of haste rather than ignorance, and that they persist because the students get no better at time management as the term goes on, and even get busier, making proofreading an even more unlikely process. And it’s also possible that many students are happy enough with the grades they are getting that they can’t be bothered to strive for better–professors, themselves relentless and incurable “A students,” have a hard time understanding complacency in the face of a C, or even a B+, but that’s our problem. Whatever the reason, though, it is frustrating to get the sense on assignment after assignment that some students are endlessly and needlessly reinventing the wheel, opening a new document and just starting in (probably late at night before the due date!) as if there’s no connection between this new task and what they’ve already done.  I always urge them, as a new deadline approaches, to review their past work, but I’ve been thinking that I should actually build that into the structure of some classes as a requirement.

On Twitter the other night, when I was complaining about this issue, @rwpickard noted that he asks “for a commentary on the last paper’s grade & comments before I accept the next paper,” which sounds like a great idea. I remember that in my own first-year English class, we had to turn each essay back in after it was returned to us, making corrections or revisions on the opposite side of the page in response to the professor’s comments.  (I actually have a vague memory of having required something like this in my earliest sections of English 1000 myself, back in the dark ages.) My only concern is that with relatively large classes, such measures add a potentially onerous, or at least tedious, further step for me–but on the other hand, telling someone on three papers in a row that they haven’t stated a thesis but only announced their topic is also tedious, as is endlessly circling incorrect apostrophes. I have a small first-year class next year, the smallest I’ve ever had (30 students): I think this is a good chance to try something like this, as it clearly does not go without saying (and does not happen, by and large, without the element of coercion). Still, I am a bit anxious about the additional 180 items that will need to be submitted and returned across the year (we have a departmental requirement of six essays in our first year classes).

I’d be very interested in ideas from other people about how to encourage students to follow up on the feedback they get, and particularly about strategies that are fairly easy and efficient to handle with larger groups. Even with my nice small class of 30, I will have two other classes going on at the same time, adding up to about another 100 students, and no TA support: there’s only so much paperwork I can do and keep track of. Also, in classes where writing is meant to be a supporting issue, while literary content is the chief class objective, it’s tricky to know how to balance demands that they write clearly and correctly against the other aims of an assignment.

4 thoughts on “This Week In My Classes: (How to Avoid) Reinventing the Wheel

  1. JoVE March 26, 2012 / 6:13 pm

    This may seem unrelated but stick with me. I have been reading a blog by a high school math teacher in Idaho called Shawn Cornally. His blog is Think Thank Thunk (he’s also on twitter under that handle, no spaces). He has been engaged in some rather radical grading experiments in his classes, which he blogs about. I think some of what he’s been working through might be helpful.

    One of his big things is that if you have certain standards you expect students to achieve (like being able to use apostrophes properly, or that their essays should have a thesis not just a topic), then what should matter to their final grade is whether they have achieved those standards by the end of the course. If they mess up on something in an early assignment but learn from that and later incorporate that learning consistently into their work, their grade should not be brought down by the early problem.

    There are a whole bunch of ways that he operationalizes this basic principle. (And he himself has learned what works by trying stuff, figuring out it doesn’t work, improving, etc.) Also, he has discovered that there is a big cultural shift that has to happen because kids are very ingrained in a culture of points getting rather than learning. The only reason they care about the apostrophe is because it gets or loses them points. So even if they “get it” in your later papers, they might not actually transfer that to future classes or whatever. This is an issue I suspect you agree with him on.

    He doesn’t have a simple solution. But he does have some great ideas. Even though his subject (math and science) and his level (high school) is different from yours, I think you would find reading his blog rewarding in that it would provoke some interesting thinking about how you might approach this problem. I agree that a class of 30 is an ideal opportunity to do so. And your existing practice of blogging reflectively about your teaching offers you an ideal forum for working through your own trial and error process and get feedback along the way.

    There is something to be said for accepting that some students are fine with a B or a C in a way you might not have been as a student. But there is also something important that you want them to learn and take away into their lives. And you want the grades to in some way reflect that.


  2. Dorian Stuber March 26, 2012 / 11:12 pm

    Tough questions! Increasingly, I find what works for me is to devote extensive class time to writing workshops of one sort of another. (I’ve some exercises I’ve made up myself and some I’ve stolen from people like Peter Elbow and Pat Hoy.) Our 200-level classes introductory literature classes double as writing courses, which is a fiendish mix, but I’m simply devoting more time to writing as process/revision and less to content. Our 400-level senior seminars also lend themselves to experiments of all sorts. (I do not assign grades to written and oral work in these classes, for example.) It’s our 300-level classes for majors that I don’t know what to do with…

    So, in response to your actual question, I try to give them, via workshops of various sorts, feedback *before* the paper is due. I find they have a lot more incentive to respond to it that way.


  3. Nicole March 27, 2012 / 12:05 am

    I stopped giving grades on all of their writing during the semester with the exception of their final portfolio, which is worth only 30% of their grade. I found that this takes the focus away from the “what did I get?” and puts it back on “what can I improve?”

    Of course, contract grading isn’t always possible depending on department policy. I think another way that you could avoid grade emphasis is by giving feedback first and grades later, maybe the next class or online (if you give hard copies of the essays). You could also ask students to write reflections on the feedback: how would you address this feedback? what does this mean to you? is this feedback clear? This forces them to self-assess and self-evaluate.


  4. Petey March 27, 2012 / 12:56 am

    I actually quite like the idea of having students re-submit papers in response to your critiques. Tedious it might be, but there’s no question it’s a useful exercise that forces students to seriously engage with your comments and concerns, rather than glance briefly at their letter grade before pushing it out of their mind completely (not that I’m speaking from personal experience…).

    Most importantly, it teaches students the oft-forgotten fact that academic writing is (ideally) a process of intellectual debate and development, and that their writing and questioning shouldn’t end the minute a draft gets turned in. Too often, I think, students come to behave as though papers are merely hurdles to be jumped over on the way to a final grade, rather than legitimate contributions to academic discourse. I know that I certainly did. Getting them to improve their work and hand it back in could go a long way to correcting that perception.


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