Remarks for the UMW FSEM Swap Session, May 5, 2016
This year is the 10th anniversary of our First Year Seminar program (FSEM). Since the beginning, introducing FY students to college writing has been an element of FSEM. Through the years, we’ve had a number of workshops on how to teach writing to first year students and what writing problems first years bring to college. These remarks are intended to be a small continuation of that conversation.
One of the goals of FSEM is to change students’ perception of writing assignments from something they do for us, to something they do for themselves. I tell students I’m not looking for them to identify the right answer on their papers, but rather that I genuinely want to know what they think. Some students seem sceptical, as if (to quote Gardner Campbell), “[they] assume there is a rule they don’t khttp://www.gardnercampbell.net/blog1/now about that teachers will hold against them.”
Some years ago, I noticed that grading student papers seemed to be an adversarial process. I would read a student paper and then start thinking about what was wrong with it, how I could deduct points to determine a grade. Yes, I knew that I was supposed to include positive as well as negative comments, but when one is grading a lot of papers, it’s much easier to focus on what’s wrong with a paper, rather than what’s right. After all, students are supposed to be able to write, so why should I credit them with what they should be doing already?
One day, I had an epiphany: The way I read/comment on my colleagues’ papers is very different from how I grade students’ papers.
Why is that?
One reason is that I’m not reading colleague’s papers for a grade. Rather, I’m trying to help them improve their work. But isn’t that, or shouldn’t that be, the same goal for reviewing student writing? That depends on whether reviewing student papers is perceived as formative (part of the learning process), or summative (a final judgment).
As I developed my first FSEM, I made the choice to change the way I read student papers:
- I give students a hard deadline for the first draft. If they meet that deadline, they qualify for the following.
- I review the draft like I was reviewing a colleague’s: I identify parts of the paper I don’t understand and ask for clarification or elaboration. I identify parts of the paper that piqued my curiosity, and/or that I’d like to hear more about. I identify places where I lose the argument. I make suggestions for improvement.
- I tell students that these are my comments, but that the paper is theirs to revise as they see fit. I hope they will take my comments seriously, but any changes are up to them.
- I don’t say anything about a grade. In fact, while I’m reading I’m not thinking about a grade. Rather, I’m just thinking exclusively about what suggestions for improvement I can make. (By contrast, when I grade papers, the comments I write are very different than the ones I put on drafts.) This was difficult when I started the practice, but it comes without thinking now.
- I tell students if they revise their paper I will review it again, as many times as they like for the next 4 weeks until the final paper is due. Only when they decide their paper is “done” will I put my grading hat on.
I want the students themselves to evaluate their writing, to decide when it’s done. I think we’ve trained students to expect the teacher to tell them how good their work is and when it is done. I think when we do this for them, they miss out on an important part of the learning process. Suppose on the first draft I told a student s/he had an A paper. What more work would they do? Is an A on an FY paper as good is it could be? Suppose a student writes a weak paper. Asking s/he to reflect about how good it is might help them take their writing more seriously, especially if you draw out their thinking. (What makes you think it’s strong/weak?)
This probably sounds like a lot of work, and it is. But it’s not as much as you think. FSEM’s are small classes capped at 15 students. These are short papers (3-5 pages). Only a few students write more than three drafts. Except for the first one, the drafts come in in a staggered fashion, allowing me to read and comment on them one at a time. All students write fewer drafts as the semester progresses.
As a bonus, I feel much better about how I teach writing in the FSEM.
The next step in my evolution as a writing instructor, which I will try next fall, is to lead my FSEM students to develop a rubric for me to use in evaluating their papers. I’m thinking of a list of what makes a good paper (and what makes a poor one), rather than a rubric listing requirements for formal grades. HT to Robin DeRosa for inspiring this. Now that I’m planning this, it seems like an absolute no brainer.