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