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.