Helping FY Students Take Ownership of their Writing

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 k 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:

  1. I give students a hard deadline for the first draft.  If they meet that deadline, they qualify for the following.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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11 Responses to Helping FY Students Take Ownership of their Writing

  1. Robin DeRosa says:

    I have a FYS in the Fall, but right now this “small” class is capped by the university at 27 students. Argh. But I totally think this kind of approach is the way to go, and you have a slightly different process than I do, which is giving me some great ideas. I have mostly moved towards student-determined grading in various ways, but some of that feels disingenuous given the power that I have to assign final grades (I am trying to move the program I chair towards a Pass/No Pass model– we shall see). I like the way you are so up-front about your two hats, and I think it must feel so liberating to get to read their work without the pressure of grading it at all, knowing that is safely compartmentalized into a separate part of the process. Anyway, love this conversation since it’s one of the key challenge areas for me right now. Thanks for writing this!

  2. @otterscotter says:

    And maybe peer assessment of their papers too? Exciting!

  3. Steve,
    I love this piece! I’m fresh out of two days working with education teachers who are collaborating to create a course with Lumen, and what you write echoes how elated I feel after working with teachers. Given that their background is in education, they were so collaborative and generous towards each other. Listening to them describe what they want their students to learn just floored me. That “pressure of grading” that Robin brings up is part of being a teacher. Your perspective of keeping off the “grading hat” is so important–especially to students who are figuring out who they are and who they want to be. We want first-year students to make it to the second year, right? That’s why we are in the gig. FWIW: I’ve done the co-written rubric with students and they always created something WAY harder than I would have written. Thanks for sharing this 🙂

  4. sgreenla says:

    Robin, I want to try to understand something you said: “I have mostly moved towards student-determined grading in various ways, but some of that feels disingenuous given the power that I have to assign final grades.” Are you saying that since you are responsible for final grades, student input into the process of deciding how some grades will be determined invalidates that student input? That’s not really what I’m talking about in this post. For me, it’s about helping students understand how to write a better paper. Final grades are just something teachers have to do, but it seems preferable to me that the students have a better understanding of where at least part of those final grades come from, and that they can influence how that part is determined.

  5. sgreenla says:

    Alyson, you said “I’ve done the co-written rubric with students and they always created something WAY harder than I would have written.” I’d love to hear more about your process. I understand what you’re saying, but to me it’s not about making the rubric harder or easier, because it’s not primarily about the grades. Rather, it’s about helping students develop a better understanding of what constitutes good writing, so that they can produce that. For me, that’s the best reason to get student involvement this way.

  6. Robin DeRosa says:

    Yes, you are talking about a slightly different thing than I was getting into. I think I have tried to move my role to a feedback role and asked students to do the grading piece, but it hasn’t worked as well as I wish it had. So thinking I might move to a model more like yours, where you seem to have two modes: feedback and grading. And I like that they can dwell in feedback as long as they want before they move themselves on to be graded. With student-created rubrics that follow so much feedback, that grading part seems less troubling. Do you think the final grades are an unfortunate reality, or helpful in some way? I am always struck by a study at my undergrad institution, Brown U, when I was there. At Brown, you could elect to take any course on a Satisfactory/No Credit basis (no letter grade). They did a study where they had profs assign grades for S/NC students and submit them in to the study, and found that S/NC students slightly outperformed letter-graded students in terms of grades. Some folks might chalk that up to the “elite institution” effect, but as an S/NC student, I found that working without a grade reduced pressure, made me more attentive to the work itself, and generated a different, more productive relationship between me and my profs… The more I read about teachers trying out innovative ideas like yours, the more I think I should also be trying to move my program to an Pass/No pass type model… Whew. Now I have to wonder if this makes me a fan of competency-based education. I NEED MORE COMMENT SPACE. 🙂

  7. Gardner says:

    Thanks for another thoughtful post, Steve. Interesting and inspiring to reflect on the decade-plus since this blog appeared. Thanks for all you give to this community.

    I have only an oblique comment at this point, which is that I was very struck by Jill Lepore’s essay on how to write a paper for her class. It could be a paper topic, that is, the subject of an extended analysis, all by itself–and probably should be. Don’t know if you’ve seen it; in case you haven’t, here you go:

    I’d love to know what you think.

  8. I gotta say first Steve, that I love reading that you labeled yourself a “writing instructor”. And what a great approach for help students transition out of the mechanical “what grade will I get” writing that students re conditioned into doing.

    What topics are the writing about? It’s insightful that you identified “One reason is that I’m not reading colleague’s papers for a grade” but to be honest, aren’t students writing for a grade? Are there other purposes that students might be writing?

    Great stuff, Steve.

  9. Steve Greenlaw says:

    Robin, I regret to say that I think final grades are necessary, at least until we train students differently. We’re not there yet.

  10. sgreenla says:

    Gardner, I love what this instructor is trying to do, and I think my FSEM students could benefit from hearing an instructor narrate what she’s thinking about how to write a research paper in history. I think that students often find the instructor’s thinking opaque, as if there is none. That said, this particular piece isn’t directly applicable because it’s about writing research papers, and the papers I was writing about are not research per se. Additionally, this piece is about writing history, which mine are not. Also, this is essentially the results of the process that I hope to lead my students through. I think they would lose something by not participating in the process. That said, the piece gives *me* ideas about what I should tell my FSEM students. Thanks much for the reference!

  11. sgreenla says:

    Alan, Thanks for reminding me that students first motivation is writing for a grade. I admit that had slipped from my mind. The papers last year were essentially book reviews, where I asked students to identify and evaluate the authors’ arguments. Part of the goal of FSEM, and especially my approach to feedback and grading, is to try to offer a different set of motivations for students to consider: That I am genuinely interested in what students think; that what students think is valued and valuable; that students have an opportunity to change my mind and my thinking; and that ultimately student thought as expressed in their writing is far more important than a grade. I don’t claim to be successful with this in one course, but if I can plant a seed…

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