Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Finding Time to Write: Low Stakes Writing for Practice, Preparation, and Play

One of the problems that inevitably surfaces when I talk to instructors about writing in Freshman Inquiry is that of time management. With so much content to cover in a course, much of it complex and meaty, requiring a great deal of class discussion, it is challenging to find time for writing and “teaching” writing. Some people feel they need to reserve class time for discussion and pass the writing activities on to the mentors for mentor session.

The problem with looking at writing instruction this way is that it assumes writing is a compartmentalized task separate from the real work of the class: reading and understanding concepts from the text. Implicit is the idea that writing is something we do after we’ve read, discussed, and mulled over course content. I’d argue that this way of thinking assumes that students should write only in order to prove comprehension or to show they can make certain scholarly moves in writing (developing thesis statements, building an argument, supporting assertions with details, incorporating and citing sources, etc.). In this way of thinking, writing for college courses boils down to a performance.

But what if you start with the premise that discussing, thinking, and writing, while related tasks, are different and will each produce different ideas and understanding of course material? I would argue that a student may develop a different understanding of a concept or a text if she has to write about it. If we use writing as a way for students to “discuss” ideas from the text, we allow students to “write to learn.” When writing without the pressure of an assignment that will be evaluated, students are allowed to use writing as a tool of discovery. They learn what many of us already know: sometimes you don’t know what you think or understand until you write about it first.

Informal or low-stakes writing is practice, preparation, and play -- writing that I, the teacher, may never see (and most importantly to me as I face the daunting pile of typed and stapled formal essays now before me at midterm, I won’t have to evaluate for a grade). It can be a way for students to begin the work of formal assignments, to create the raw material that they later shape into the “high stakes” papers they turn in for a grade. Or it may just be practice – an exercise that gets students used to writing and thinking like writers.

This low-stakes writing can be used in several ways in the classroom. I like to start each of my classes with a guided five minute freewrite in order to get students’ scholarly juices flowing and to turn their minds collectively to the subject we’ve been looking at it. It is a way to center and focus the class and create discussion sparks.

A common concern I’ve heard (and had) about assigning informal writing such as reading journals is that instead of having to read and evaluate a huge stack of essays, teachers are faced with the onerous task of reading and responding to a huge stack of journals. I’ve seen this problem handled in a few different ways, for instance, journals can be read randomly for comments and credit given for simply completing entries on those that weren’t read for content. Or students can respond to one another’s entries, posing questions and augmenting discussion.

But informal writing doesn’t always have to be turned in or evaluated. Teachers can have students turn in only a portion of informal writing exercises for pointed feedback in preparation for writing longer pieces. For instance, I might have students do some brainstorming that might lead to a one-sentence working thesis that I then glance at to make sure they are on the right track before they commit to the typed word.

This prepatory/exploratory writing can be as simple as a ten minute freewrite. I try to choose a prompt that I think will get at a particular challenge in the assignment. For instance if I’m having them write a persuasive letter, I’ll have them brainstorm for a few minutes about ways they might establish credibility and common ground with their audience. If they’ve already written their first draft, I might have them write about a possible revision strategy for the next draft.

One thing I’ve noticed about consistently using informal in-class writing is the first couple of class periods some students write a few words, set their pens down, crack their knuckles, look around the room, and fidget. After awhile, when I say, “ok we’re going to do some writing,” all heads bow to the page, the room quiets, students settle quickly into their task, and their pens move until (and sometimes after) I tell them to stop. They’ve learned the practice of writing, so it doesn’t feel tedious, or scary, or whatever, anymore. They’ve developed some “writing muscles” that will help them when they sit down to write their formal assignments.

I’ve also had great success using writing in place of discussion. I have students read from their writing or write responses to one another’s writing, passing papers back and forth or down a line. It is amazing to look up from my spot at the front of the room and see every head turned toward a paper, actively participating in a “discussion,” rather than hearing the same few extroverted voices, mine included, volleying back and forth.

Informal writing works well as a tool for providing feedback. I got this from the book, Handling the Paper Load. On days they turn in a paper, students write to these three prompts: The best thing about my paper is... . If I had more time to work on it, I’d.... If I were the teacher, one comment I’d write on this paper is.... Students have the opportunity to reflect on their own writing and process and to guide my comments to their specific concerns.

I have a personal teaching policy to never give a graded assignment without having students do some in-class (or homework) informal writing in preparation for it. Instead of handing out assignments with the ubiquitous page of “possible questions to consider when writing this paper,” I save those questions for freewriting prompts. I often have students share and respond to one another’s raw writing and “workshop” their ideas. That way students generate the raw materials for their papers and practice wrestling with the questions where and when I can help them, before they write the formal paper.

Another benefit of low-stakes writing is the opportunity to experiment. One FRINQ instructor told me that he has students write in dialogue, as if writing a play, as a way of helping them get beyond just writing from their own point of view.

Please share your own informal writing ideas. What have you used and how? What’s worked well? And if you’re really brave, what’s bombed? Send me your stories:

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Five for the Price of One: The Revision Station Activity

This activity uses strategies from several sections in the Ways of Writing Handbook. You might have students read the corresponding pages before completing this activity. Any of the station instructions could be used separately. Or you can use them in combination to create a longer, interactive activity that gets students up and moving around.

I set this up as five different “revision stations.” At each of seven tables I placed a different instruction sheet and supplies. Every fifteen minutes students moved around to a station and applied the instructions to their draft. (If students finished before the fifteen minutes were up, they moved to an open seat at another station.)

Station 1
Cut and paste, from page 39.
Use for papers that have organization problems
Supplies: Scissors, blank paper, tape
1. Number each paragraph
2. Cut up your essay paragraph by paragraph.
3. Put your first paragraph aside.
4. Shuffle the paragraphs.
5. Find the one that has the most important point you are trying to make, and make this your first paragraph. See if the others need to remain and reorder them.
6. Tape them onto new sheets of paper, leaving spaces where you might need more information or transitions.

Station 2
Looping, from page 18.
Use for drafts that don’t have a clear direction or enough supporting details
Supplies: Notebook paper
1. Locate the most important sentence or idea in your paper. Write it at the top of a blank piece of notebook paper.
2. Freewrite (write without stopping to edit or correct. Don’t pause, just keep letting your pen and thoughts flow) for at least 3/4 of a page.
3. Read what you’ve just written.
4. Locate the most interesting or important sentence from your freewrite.
5. Repeat steps.
6. Use ideas and/or text from the material you’ve generated to write your next draft.

Station 3
Proofreading, from page 42.
Useful for drafts that need fine tuning in terms of sentence and word level errors.
Supplies: dictionary and writing handbook
1. Reread your essay, sentence by sentence, backwards, looking for spelling, punctuation, or grammatical errors.
2. Look them up and fix them.

Station 4
Wordiness, from page 47.
Useful for papers that need more “flow,” that “don’t sound right” or “need clearer sentences.”
Supplies: colored pen
1. Read through your essay and cross out at least fifteen words without changing the content of the ideas.
2. Look particularly for adverbs (very, really, ridiculously, etc.)
3. Look particularly for groups of words that can be made into one, i.e. “due to the fact that” = “because”; or “In the present time”= “now” or “today”.
4. Look particularly for unnecessary signals like “in conclusion”, “it should be pointed out”, or “in my opinion.”

Station 5
Expand, from page 36.
Useful for drafts that need to be longer or to include more supporting details.
Supplies: notebook paper
1. Pretend you are someone else reading your paper for the first time, without any knowledge of the subject matter.
2. Go through your paper and find any opportunity you can to ask a journalists’ question: who, what, when, where, why, how.
3. Write these questions to yourself in the margin.
4. On a separate piece of paper, answer these questions.

You might have them self-select stations. Or you could choose only specific station activities depending on the issues you’ve identified in their drafts. You might also direct them in peer review to offer advice as to which station to visit (in this case it would be important to make clear the purpose of each technique, i.e. paper seems too general, no clear point being made, needs more supporting details: send them to looping activity).

I followed this activity with a ten minute freewrite (to turn in) of their revision strategy, a plan for how they would rewrite the essay for a final grade.

Let me know if you have any questions or ideas about these activities. I'd also be grateful to hear about ways you're using Ways of Writing in your classes.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The "Diagnostic" and Writing Resources

Many writing instructors, myself included, like to assign a short, ungraded “diagnostic” writing assignment the first week of class. This assignment serves a few functions. Most importantly, it gives you a chance to preview students’ writing and prepare for the task that lies ahead; it helps you be able to steer developing writers to the resources available outside of your class. It gives you a baseline for later comparison. Additionally, the assignment allows students to introduce themselves as writers. It gets them writing right away and sets the tone of the class as writing intensive.

When I use the diagnostic assignment, I look for ability to follow directions and write coherent paragraphs; complexity, fluidity, and variety of sentence constructions; any evidence of shaping and supporting arguments; and of course, glaring problems with grammar or usage. I might have them start the piece as an in-class writing, then ask them to take it home, revise it, and type it up.

Some possible prompts:
• Compare yourself with an older relative when he/she was the same age as you are now.
• Make a metaphor of yourself as a writer. Explain how the metaphor works. For instance, “As a writer I am like a dormant seed...”
• Write about an early reading or writing memory.

Other prompts or diagnostic assignments/activities? Please share; I’m an avid collector of bright ideas! And if anyone can come up with a better name for this assignment than diagnostic (yuck, sounds painful and possibly humiliating, doesn't it?) I'll bake them a plate of cookies.

At PSU students self-place into writing classes. You can help students identify whether they might benefit from additional writing instruction. Every term the following courses are offered (some are full this term, but you can encourage students to sign up in the future):

WR115 Intro to College Writing: For basic writers. This class is a confidence-building course that introduces students to basic concepts and conventions of college writing.

WR121 College Writing: The equivalent of traditional freshman composition, this course gives students practice in writing and revision for college courses. It usually introduces them to researching, the concept of thesis, citation formats, etc.

LING115: Intro to College Writing for Non-native speakers. Introduces non-native speakers to conventions of U.S. academic writing, with a stronger focus on English grammar than WR courses.

WR199: A 1-credit course offered through the PSU Writing Center. Students meet one-on-one each week with an assigned tutor to work on FRINQ or other course writing assignments.

A course called Grammar Refresher is also offered through the English department.

Last, but certainly not least, the PSU Writing Center has scheduled appointments and drop-in hours for FRINQ students and faculty (Wednesdays 11-1). Our web site is; the blog:
Feel free to schedule a field trip with your class to the WC during our business hours.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Shoulda, coulda, woulda: What you should teach about writing in FRINQ

Question: What writing topics or skills should be covered in Freshman Inquiry?

Answer: I don’t know.

BUT, I do have some ideas, based on the expectations of the writing program at PSU, requirements for classes at local community colleges, as well as conversations with FRINQ faculty. Following, find a list of “shoulds” and “mights” of writing for freshman courses.


Most importantly, students should understand writing as a process.

This means that instructors don’t assign a series of only formal papers and expect that the students are learning to write. Students need to recognize that there are many steps to shaping a piece of writing. The best way to get this concept across is to incorporate informal writing assignments that lead up to formal written pieces and to “teach” revision. For example, students might be assigned freewrites, brainstorms, reading journals, or heuristics to explore ideas for a formal paper. After the first draft of their paper, they might be assigned a reverse outline, a peer review, or other revision exercise and set goals for how to write a second draft. As an writer, you might consider your own process and think of ways to “assign” some of the steps you take before and as write and polish a published piece.

Students should recognize that each discipline has its own set of writing conventions. Audience, values and assumptions, citation methods, forms, types of evidence, types of sources, diction, etc. are governed by “rules” of each discipline. Students should practice noticing and writing using these different conventions. Because FRINQ is multidisciplinary, it is particularly well suited to addressing this concept. Students can approach texts not only for content – what is said – but can analyze conventions – how it is said and why.


You might want to have students practice these different “modes of discourse” taught in traditional composition courses. Community colleges require all of these be taught in their sequenced writing courses (required for transfer credits into Oregon universities).
Research/Thesis based writing

Citation Formats (see Conventions)
Copy-editing techniques
Notetaking techniques
Paragraph and Essay Development/Organization
Research (see Conventions)
Style (see Conventions)
Voice (see Conventions)
Paraphrasing and Quoting

This "should" be an ongoing discussion, and, like the courses we teach, it will probably evolve. Please share your shoulds and mights for teaching freshman. Respond with questions or comments to this blog or contact me at

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Another Creative Idea for Responding to Drafts

Daveena's Keen Idea:
Here is what I'm doing to give less written feedback. For the first drafts of their research papers, I am having paper conferences (15 min each). I bought a digital voice recorder and I'm recording specific feedback as I read the papers. This has a bunch of advantages: very little writing for me, and I can give a "real time" experience as a reader instead of having to translate that experience through marginalia, which they don't seem to absorb. I can re-read their sentences out loud, showing which parts I don't understand. Also, in the conference, it spares me the problem of confronting a paper that I have commented on but don't remember (out of the 60 that I've read). My comments are right there, out loud, for both of us to hear and respond to. I can pause the playback and ask if my feedback is clear. Often I see them nodding as I am playing back the recording.

Sometimes Learning Hurts: Using Revision Activities

As promised, here is the reverse outline and some other activities to help students approach revisions of drafts. Feel free to modify them as you see fit, and contact me with questions and ideas for using these and other revision tools.

One of the greatest challenges students face in making meaningful revisions is letting go of the integrity of their drafts. They are loath to make changes – as if their drafts were houses of cards, and any movement might cause them to implode. These activities encourage students to see their drafts as malleable. They force students to make real changes, to blow things up and see where the pieces fall; they help students separate themselves from what they’ve produced, to see their papers as works in progress.

Reverse Outline*: This activity allows students to analyze their drafts in terms of structure and organization by looking at each paragraph of their draft, by
1. Paraphrasing (what it says)
2. Describing purpose (what it does).

In this way students can step back from the draft as a linear whole and see how the pieces fit together (or don’t). They may be better able to see where transitions are missing. Here are a couple of URLs for electronic copies of this activity:

Some uses and modifications:
A. I like to have students actually cut up their drafts paragraph by paragraph.* I bring scissors, glue, and extra paper to class. I warn them that it will pain them to do this, but that their original draft will still exist wherever they’ve saved it – if they still decide its worth holding onto after they’re done. Students number their paragraphs, then cut them up. First they determine what the “core” paragraph is (this activity often shows them that there is no core or thesis in their draft). Then they go through and make a note on the back of each paragraph of how each relates to the core idea. They make two piles – the “keepers” and the “doesn’t fits.” Then, they reassemble the paragraphs in an order that makes sense, noting where information and transitions need to be added.
B. Many instructors require students to complete a reverse outline and turn it in with their rough drafts.
C. Or they have students do reverse outlines on one another’s drafts in lieu of a traditional peer response.

Questions as Knives*: I stumbled upon this one last year in a Bruce Ballenger textbook, The Curious Writer. The idea is that students apply the journalist questions (who, what, when, why, how) as “knives,” to refine thesis statements by making specific claims rather than generalities. I used it in my research writing class with great success. I start with an example thesis statement, perhaps one I’ve made up or one plucked from a previous student’s paper. As a large group we apply the “knives” and rewrite the thesis with each cut in order to make it more precise.

After they get the hang of it, I have them trade thesis statements with one another. Each student writes a knife question and passes the thesis back for rewrite. I have them pass them back and forth at least three times.
Here’s an example...
Thesis: Society needs to do more to hold sexual predators accountable.
Possible knives: What do you mean by society? Why does society need to do this? Which kind of sexual predators? How would they be held accountable?

Crack Open Your Brain!: I made this one up last year for my research writing class in a desperate attempt to get them to “re-see” their topics. Their drafts and theses had become ossified, they were bored with their topics, and I was bored reading their drafts, but they were reluctant to change them because they’d invested so much time. This was an attempt to loosen them up a bit, to see their subjects from different angles, and to inject some creativity into those god-awful boring drafts.

I had students brainstorm ten analogies or metaphors for their topic/thesis/ or subtopic. For example one student writing about organic viticulture, growing grapes for wine-making (yawn) compared the use of chemicals in conventional farming to chemotherapy (hmmm).

After they brainstormed a list of metaphors/analogies, I had them pick the most promising one and freewrite about how that analogy worked, exploring in what ways the two things were alike, extending the metaphor. Then I had them share their writing with each other.

• One cool thing about the reverse outline is how practical it is: it allows students to practice three important skills of the writing classroom: analysis, paraphrasing, and description.
• The cut and paste revision activity is based on an activity originally designed by Peter Elbow.
• Although I think Ballenger’s “Questions as Knives” activity is brilliant, the metaphor is somewhat inaccurate. It makes more sense to imagine the application of questions as pruning cuts allowing a new, healthier shoot to grow from where a diseased or leggy branch was cut. But “Questions as Pruners”sounds sort of dumb.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Saving Your Sanity When Responding to Drafts

Every quarter this happens: I get the first drafts of the first assignment. After multiple hours slogging through dozens of student papers and writing detailed comments, I find myself bleary-eyed and resentful; I’m pretty sure I’m spending more time commenting on papers then they’ve spent writing them. When I finish commenting, I almost always look back at them and realize I’ve written too much and worn myself out.

I remember that writing “instruction” is paradoxical – in reality, THE LESS I SAY ABOUT THEIR WRITING, THE MORE STUDENTS WILL LEARN. I repeat it as a mantra. I resolve to do better next time and to spend the least amount of time possible writing comments on drafts.

As a writing instructor, I feel compelled to address all levels of revision, from ideas and organization to the finer points of style such as elegant and error-free sentences. However, in my experience, committing the time and brainpower to that level of individual feedback has rarely yielded significant change or improvement in student revisions. In my quest to become better at managing my teaching time and energy, I’ve picked the brain of many a colleague, consulted the writings of composition theorists, and experimented in my own classes. Here are some things I am finding out:

1. Write less, much less: Students do want written feedback, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for them. Getting back a draft cluttered with comments of many different kinds is overwhelming. It can also be confusing; all comments appear to carry the same weight: a missing comma appears as important an issue as the missing thesis.

A solution is to pick no more than three issues to respond to (and just choosing ONE is ok) --and only respond to one example of each -- nothing more! The more different types of suggestions you make, the less likely your students are able to absorb and apply them (let alone prioritize which would make the most difference to improving their paper).

2. Set goals: Look closely at the instructions you’ve given for the assignment. Determine what your main goal of the assignment is. For example, is it to learn something through the process of writing? Or is it to test what they’ve already learned? Is your goal to have them develop a really clear thesis? Is it learning to accurately cite in a particular format? Or to incorporate and interpret source materials? You may decide that each draft of the same project has a different goal and respond accordingly.

For example, if you want them to learn to write a thesis, focus all your comments on that. You might, in this case, decide you need to read only the first page of each paper. (What? Yes!!) Underline what you think the thesis is, and ask questions or make suggestions to help them narrow and refine. (If you can't find one, why should you bother giving comments on the sentence or paragraph level? A thesis could change the whole paper.)

For another example, if your goal is mastering citing, choose ONE example where a student cited a source and give her cues/help, i.e. "make sure you introduce your quote, tell who said it, and tell how it relates to the point you are trying to make." You might give an example of what this might look like. (Again, you needn't read the whole paper at this point.) Then tell them to find and apply that principle every time they quote or paraphrase someone in the next draft.

3. Prioritize your goals: Consider at what point your students are in the drafting of a specific project and what point you are in the course. If you’ve spent the last two quarters working on refining a thesis and organization/development, and students are working on a second draft of a project, it might be time to narrow your feedback down to the level of style and usage.

If you are looking at a final draft or a paper that won’t be revised, make minimal comments regarding content only. In my experience, only the most sophisticated and motivated students will be able to apply writing advice from one project to a future one (these are otherwise known as graduate students).

4. Place responsibility for learning on students: I often remind myself that my goal as an instructor is not to help students “fix” flawed writing but to teach them the process of how to evaluate and revise their own writing. It’s the old “teach a man to fish” cliché. Instead of, or in addition to, traditional written comments, consider using other feedback methods that allow students to actively analyze their own and one another’s writing. These could include short conferences, peer review, self-evaluations, and exercises such as reverse outlines.

Here are some specific examples of evaluation/feedback techniques to use other than written instructor comments:

Have them work on different portions of their own or one another’s drafts in smaller sessions. I might have a day where we talk briefly (or I have them read something as homework) about the rules for MLA. Then they trade their papers with classmates to have them check for errors. I've found they are better able to apply these fixes when they've had to identify mistakes in their own or someone else's paper. Or we might have a few minutes where they look at one another's intros and write what they would expect the paper to be about based on the current intro, and give any suggestions of what might make it catchier.

Have each student come up with a "revision plan" -- three things he is going to do to significantly revise and improve his paper. You could have him turn this in with the rough draft at which time you only respond to these three issues.

Use short conferences: Donald Murray, a writing teacher and composition theorist, never gives written feedback to students. Instead, he holds conferences with his students in which he has them do ninety percent of the talking (prompted by a couple of his initial questions). In this way, his students are engaging in a dialogue about their writing and analyzing and problem solving as writers, not just as passive recipients of advice from an expert.

I’ve actually done conferences where I haven’t read the student’s paper. She has to tell me what the thesis is, where she is struggling, what is working, what her plan is for revising.

Other ideas to keep written feedback to a minimum? Keep them coming. Tune in next week for exciting specifics on using reverse outlines.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Mmm, tastes good; could use more commas, though.

Despite spell and grammar check, or perhaps because of them, many of my students can’t seem to spell their way out of a paper bag. Many of them treat punctuation like a condiment – season with commas to taste. And then there are the text messages that find their way into formal papers: it is important for u to make sure your sources are legit.

On my worst teaching days I feel like expecting accurate, polished writing is a lost cause; I should be happy if some of it just makes sense. On better days I remember that learning to write well is a process. Many of the ideas and skills I introduce will need to be gone over again and again throughout my students’ college careers (and beyond). I, as the instructor of freshman, am getting in on the beginning of this process; most students won’t master any writing skill or rule during the short time I’m with them – and that is okay.

I also know that students want to learn more about grammar and usage (in theory, at least). They suspect punctuation and style rules are like a secret handshake of the academically savvy. Consequently, I try to give grammar its due: important, but less important than supporting a thesis. I generally attack the subject later in the course, in small doses, and during later stages of drafting.

I break the umbrella word “grammar” into two categories: style and usage. Style covers those instances of awkward sentences full of tortured syntax and nonsense poorly veiled by sixty-four dollar words, as well as examples of inappropriate diction and tone. Usage problems cover hard and fast rules of punctuation, spelling, verb tenses, etc.

Some practical ideas for dealing with usage:

Proofreading Lesson/practice: Studies have shown (and my experience as a tutor has reinforced) that students can recognize up to ninety percent of copyediting errors if they simply slow down when proofreading. At least once a quarter I have a lecture/discussion when I elicit/suggest proofreading techniques such as reading work out loud, reading papers backwards, using search and replace functions in word processing programs, etc. Then I have them take those drafts home or look at one another’s in class and put the techniques to the test.

Editing log: This is a worksheet (available through me or at the PSU Writing Center) that students use to keep track of their own proofreading foibles. As the instructor, you can identify a couple of errors on each draft that seem to be a pattern of error for the student. She is then responsible for figuring out how to fix it and how to remember not to make the same mistake again. This becomes her checklist for proofreading future drafts.

Grammar “nuggets”: Have mini-lessons or readings on common usage errors, i.e. it’s vs. its. These can consist of reading short sections out of a handbook or the PSU Writing Center blog, a regular five-minute lecture, or a student presentation. Once students have been reminded of the usage rule, they should have to apply this knowledge to copy-editing a draft. The key, if there is one, is to have them apply these rules to their own writing – to practice. Just hearing or seeing the rules won’t make them sink in.


Have a style workshop: Identify a few style issues for students to look at specifically in one another’s drafts such as passive voice, sentence variety, level of diction, etc.

Same piece, different angles: Write about the same subject, but for different audiences, using different voices. This is a good exercise for many reasons. It can help break bad habits; it draws attention to rhetorical choices we make as writers based on audience, author, and purpose; and it can be fun.

Read your texts for style, not just content: Have students analyze the grammatical structures (sentences and phrases) and rhetorical moves in texts. Have them consider questions about what kinds of sentence structures and language the author uses. What does this tell you about the author? The audience? How would you imitate it?

Outsource: Recommend students take the grammar refresher course offered through the English department and encourage them to visit the writing center.

Please share your questions and your own ideas about grammar, especially if you have tools that have worked well. Post comments on this blog or email me at

Thursday, April 26, 2007

In Praise of Blindness: Making Peer Response Count

I hear this complaint all the time – from instructors and students – that peer response is, in effect, the blind leading the blind.

A common scenario: Students get into small groups to “workshop” their papers. After about five minutes they are examining their cuticles or talking about last night’s episode of South Park. When asked why they aren’t discussing their papers they say “we’re done; the papers look good; we don’t know what else to say.”

Here is what else I know:
1. Peer response is an incredibly powerful teaching tool to help students improve their writing and boost their confidence as writers/readers.
2. When it works (and it does!) students write better revisions than if they only received instructor feedback. In portfolio essays and course evaluations, my students most often cite peer response as the most valuable tool to their improvement as writers.
3. But the instructor has to lay some groundwork first.

How I’ve made it work:
• Workshops don’t work (at least not at first). Students will have much more success (both as reviewers and reviewees) if they write a formal peer response letter or critique.
• Practicing as a large group, giving a mock critique of a "fake" paper primes the pump, gets students’ critical and analytical muscles working, reminds them they know how to be readers, and gives the instructor a chance to model how to reframe vague or overly evaluative comments.
• A few specific prompts of issues to address in the paper (i.e. main idea and introduction) encourage insightful, supported comments; a laundry list of many possible writing issues to address won’t.
• Writing a self-evaluation/revision plan is important if students are to apply feedback (mine or other students’) to their drafts and make real revisions.

I find it useful to first do a mock workshop in class using a “fake “paper. This can be accomplished in a half hour or less. They are much more likely to be brutally honest when they don't know the writer. At that time you can reframe their comments in constructive ways while praising them for being critical, and remind them that honest, respectful criticism is much more helpful for the writer than vacant praise. I also facilitate this workshop by making them point to specifics rather than making general comments like "it flows, I liked it."

With the peer letter, I make it a formal assignment: typed, double-spaced, proofread, and with an assigned point value. You might even tell them ahead of time what you'll be looking for (like a grading rubric). What’s worked best for my classes is for each student to take home and critique two peers’ papers.

Lastly, I think it’s important to have writers write a short self-evaluation and evaluation of their peers’ critiques – what advice or insights did they find helpful? how will they use this feedback (or their own insights) when revising the piece? In this way the feedback loop comes full circle as writers consider and incorporate criticism and plan their revision.

This is one way I’ve used peer response successfully. I think it teaches my students to be better critics of their own work. It also frees me up from feeling responsible for giving a lot of comments on early drafts. Both of these aspects fit my pedagogical goal of treating writing as a process rather than as a flawed product that I, the instructor/expert, give advice on how to “fix.

Please share your own best practices related to using peer response. Post them on the blog or email me with other ideas, questions, clarifications, or for materials.

And have your students read this week’s informative and entertaining Writing Center blog entry at on how to make peer response work for them as a writer and a reader.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

I Heart Critical Thinking: The Portfolio Essay

I believe in the final portfolio. Despite the fact that they take a long time to grade and they tend to accumulate, clogging every shelf and drawer in my office, I think they are a valuable teaching tool that more accurately charts a student's skills and progress than a final paper or test might.

BUT, in order for them to work, it’s important to give students plenty of cues as to how to approach the final reflective essay that accompanies the portfolio. Otherwise, these tend to be full of vague, generalized statements; mere reiterations from the directions in the assignment; or evaluations of how much the student did or didn’t enjoy each assignment, i.e. “I really learned critical thinking from that one assignment. And I really liked doing that other assignment because it helped me to think critically.” Or they end up being a sort of thank you letter written to give strokes to the professor for how great the class was and how much they liked it (or, in a few cases just the opposite, a chance for students to vent about how much they hated the class).

In none of these cases does the essay/reflective letter meet the goal of the final portfolio – to look back at the products of the course in order to notice process and chart progress: to see where challenges, improvement, and breakthroughs occurred.

Like other academic essays, the reflective piece should use specific details and support from the text (now student-created) to support their assertions. It is an opportunity for students to see for themselves what they have learned in the course, and to show the instructor their ability to apply some of the rhetorical moves of analysis, interpretation, and critical evaluation to their own work.

Part of the problem with reflective essays has to do with genre. Perhaps most confusing is the issue of audience. Is this piece for the teacher? The student? Those anonymous reviewers who will be looking at the portfolios? Often, when we ask students to reflect, as opposed to research, analyze or synthesize, they have difficulty figuring out the voice, the point of view, and the formality of the piece. Ostensibly, the piece is to be written in first person, a point of view that lends itself, especially at the freshman level, to unsupported evaluations and opinions (because if I ask you to write in first person, I must be asking you to tell me how you feel and what you think, right?)

What we can do as teachers to help students navigate the genre of portfolio/reflective essay:

• Call the essay something other than reflective. I refer to it as an interpretive or analytical essay to remind students that they have to perform the same rhetorical moves they have been practicing during the term, but this time, they are analyzing their own process and their own texts. If you call it a letter, make clear that it is a formal letter.
• Give students specific format cues and conventions. Tell them this is a formal essay, that they are supporting an argument or thesis (the thesis can be that they learned something). Tell them whom they should consider the audience. Tell them that they must support their assertions with specific references to the text -- their writing or class work. Remind them that it must be organized logically, paragraphs must be well-developed, and it must be carefully copy-edited.
• Show them examples of successful portfolio essays. As a class or in mentor session, have them analyze examples, noticing voice and audience, structure and organization, assertions and supporting details.
• If you have time, build invention and revision into the writing process. Give them an opportunity to brainstorm and share ideas of what pieces they might choose and why in class or mentor session. Have them “workshop” their draft essays and rewrite it for the final portfolio.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Avoiding Plagiarism, some activities

Here are a couple of links to useful internet resources you might use in class or mentor sessions. is an interactive quiz from Indiana. It uses APA as the citation format. It might be good for class to do together to spark discussion about plagiarism, paraphrase, quotes, and citation. features a "worksheet" that looks at plagiarism in general (no specific citation format). This would also work well as an in-class/mentor session activity or as homework that sparks a class discussion. It asks students to identify problems and offer solutions regarding citation in a list of passages.

Please share your favorite internet or print resources for teaching citation, quotation, paraphrasing, and avoiding plagiarism!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Why does it make me so mad when they cheat?

Recently, I met with someone who thought her student had plagiarized a research paper. It was a hunch based on the consistency of voice and sophisticated level of diction in the paper. Unfortunately, the student hadn't turned in many previous assignments and hadn't done a first draft as assigned, so the professor had little to compare this sample to. She wasn't sure how to approach the student, given that she had no "proof." She wondered if she could just give the student a zero for that assignment.

She was also concerned about dealing with the student because of her own, somewhat unexpected, emotional reaction her suspicion had triggered. She felt angry and disappointed. Maybe even a little hurt. I've had similar reactions to my students' drafts -- even when I haven't suspected plagiarism. Many a night, bleary-eyed and surrounded by stacks of first drafts and rubrics, I've taken personally their poorly and seemingly hastily written drafts. I've despaired at my failure as a teacher and/or fumed at their laziness as students.

Usually the voice of reason interjects in these situations (my dear spouse) and reminds me that the issue is neither as black and white as I make it out to be, nor as dire a situation as it feels to me after three hours of grading. And he's right; the drafting process affords (and often delivers) the wonderful possibility of improvement and growth.

And plagiarism is rarely as simple as a student purchasing a paper off the internet or copying directly from a source. To be sure, there are gradations of intent involved in plagiarism, as well.

In the case of my frinq friend, we tried googling some sentences in the paper to see if it was copied directly off a searchable site (it wasn't). We also went to the student's bibliography to see if the sources were real (they were), if they were available at the PSU library (they were), and whether we could recognzize any verbiage from the paper (we could).

We found several things:
1. None of the phrases were verbatim, rather they were from internet sources listed in the bib. They were failed attempts at paraphrase, since they were simply the source's words in rearranged syntax (hence the suspicious level of diction).
2. The student hadn't cited some sources properly in her bibliography so that we could actually track them down, i.e. include database information.
3. The biggest problem was actually that the paper didn't meet the criteria of the assignment. It was a report, not a research paper. There was no thesis, there was no indication of the writer's inquiry or interpretation of the source material.

Here is the plan we came up for this instructor:
1. Ask the student to come in for a meeting and to bring her sources. Ask her how/where she found them. Point out that her current bib doesn't allow the reader to be able to easily track down these sources.
2. Ask the student about in-text citations and paraphrase. Ask her where her own ideas occur. In places that don't sound like a student, ask her, "are these your ideas or someone else's?" If someone else's, whose?
3. Tell the student that this will be considered her first draft and that she must rewrite it for credit for a second draft. Point out how it misses the requirements of the assignment. Talk to her about thesis and inquiry.

Rather than accusing the student, asking her questions helps the instructor understand what actions may be intentional and unintentional. It also gives the instructor an opportunity to fill in gaps when students forget, miss, or misunderstand information from the class.
Asking her to rewrite the paper doesn't let her off the hook; it affords her the opportunity to practice the rhetorical goals of the assignment -- we generally assign papers because we want students to learn how to do a certain writing/researching task, not just so we can give them a score.

I encourage faculty who suspect a student of plagiarizing to contact me. I'm happy to be a second set of eyes and a co-investigator, and sounding board. Also, contact me for ideas to create assignment sequences that make plagiarism difficult or simply not worth the effort.