Life has been too busy for blogging! I’ve spent the last two weeks at orientations and workshops at my new institution. I can’t accurately describe how impressed I am with this particular institution’s commitment to teaching, writing, critical thinking, social justice and public education. I met a lot of new colleagues, had wonderful conversations, found lots of like-minded people, and have already learned a ton. It’s truly inspiring and I can’t wait to start teaching this coming week.
The first workshop I attended was an intensive 3 day Writing Across the Curriculum workshop, and the second was a Diversity and Social Justice workshop. Both were fantastic, and I’ll talk about the WAC workshop in this post.
Even though I firmly believe writing is a great way for students to both think through issues, and learn to express themselves clearly, I’ve only ever used formal writing assignments in my classes. I’ve never actually had students “free write” or write short thought pieces that wouldn’t be graded. I’ve never just started a class by having students write down their thoughts and questions– and what a wonderful way to generate discussion! It seems so obvious, why didn’t I do it before?
And I’ve always had issues with grading. Yes, I’m confessing that I’ve always *hated* grading. I avoid it. I assign too much writing to begin with. When I do grade papers, once the guilt has gotten to be too much, I love reading students’ thoughts and helping them develop ideas, but I’m always overwhelmed with what kind of, and how much, feedback to give. I either give too many comments, or too few. And since I’m not a firm believer in letter grades, giving a letter grade always ends up feeling arbitrary. I end up thinking I am too harsh in giving comments, and too easy a grader. Why? Well, part of this struggle comes from never being taught how to grade! We’re not really taught to teach in grad school (at least not in my PhD program), and we’re definitely not taught how to give written feedback.
Now all that’s changed. In just 3 days I feel empowered to have students write, and I have direction when it comes to grading!
Here are the major takeaway points I took from the workshop:
- The difference between writing to learn and writing to communicate. Duh! This one should be so obvious, but it was a revelation for me. I can work writing to learn exercises into my daily classes (to get students to think about the readings before discussion, to get students to tell me the key points, or questions they have etc.). Writing to learn doesn’t get the same feedback as writing to communicate. I can collect it and count it as completed, or not collect it at all. More learning, and less time giving feedback!
- Free writing in class can be structured in the sense that it can walk students through good practices. Like how to form a good paragraph, how to make an argument, how to think through both sides of an issue, or how to evaluate evidence versus opinion. Structured free writing can also have students walk through Bloom’s Taxonomy for a certain concept or word. And, it doesn’t have to be graded! Students self-evaluate in class!
- Graded assignments are the writing to communicate part (although, of course all writing is writing to learn). Assignments need to be both very simple to follow and very clear about expectations. Define terms like “thesis statement,” “compare and contrast,” “analyze,” etc. either in the assignment or in class.
- Rubrics aren’t bad. I always dismissed rubrics because I didn’t love the idea of assigning set points to various criteria. Grading is more holistic than that for me. But, now I realize I can have a rubric of √+, √ and √- and not worry about attaching points that influence the final grade. Huzzah!
- The grading advice was the most mind blowing part of the workshop. You don’t have to comment on/correct everything that’s wrong with a paper! In fact, if you do, it will take you an hour to do it and the student will probably cry. Instead, we learned from the education professor in the class how she used to grade 4th graders. Pick 1-2 issues per paper to comment on and work with the student on. Only 1 or 2 issues per paper! So, things like clarity, organization, run-on sentences, thesis statement, argument etc. And when a student has serious issues, or something that might be hard to explain in comments, just ask to meet with them! Going over things in person is sometimes so much faster and easier.
Although I received a ton of good advice at the workshop, both from the facilitators and from colleagues, these are the things that immediately changed the way I will teach this semester. More writing to learn, less time spent grading stuff that will overwhelm the students anyway.
And we all got a copy of a fantastic book, Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom by John C. Bean. I’ve already devoured it, and highly recommend it.