Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Getting students to write more seriously

I’ve taken to writing these blog posts in Word. The spell and grammar check there is better than the alternative in my browser (got to love that green squiggle underline) and I can get a better sense of how much I’ve written. In the default format I use which I believe is the default for Word (Times New Roman, 12 point, single space paragraph, one line space between paragraphs, one and a half inch left and right margins, one inch top and bottom margins) my typical post is about two and a half pages. Knowing this helps on whether I should continue writing or not and when I really need to wind up on the topic.

Because I have a penchant for counting beans and making back of the envelope calculations, I did a little test and found that a one page document of the sort described above is about 30K in file size. Armed with that, one can go to the Sent Items folder, see how many days of email are there, look at the file size of the entire folder and make some correction for image content and other non-text file types that are attachments, one can produce an estimate of how much writing per day the student does via email. For example, I have about 6 MB in my sent items box for 12 days worth of mail. Let’s say half of that MB is images or headers or other stuff not to count. Then I’d have produced about 100 Word page equivalents for about 8.5 pages per day. That sounds plausible to me, if a bit on the high end.

At least hypothetically, we can imagine doing such calculations for real students. Somebody will invariably point out that they probably do more writing by IM than via email. I have no clue if that is true or not, but certainly if the IM were archived such a measurement would not be hard. I do think it is an inescapable conclusion that students spend a substantial amount of time each day producing written communication.

However, I suspect that most of us would argue, though in general I don’t know how to control for this because seemingly all students do email and IM, that this type of informal online writing has little or no carry over to doing more formal writing, doing written work for course assignments, and producing research papers. So I think simply getting students to write a bit each day is insufficient to product the critical thinking that we want to develop in our students.

The informal writing is reflexive in the extreme. One learns to give the quick response and creativity manifest this way might produce a quip or humorous note, but it is extremely unlikely to generate depth of thinking or fundamental new perspective. A different type of writing is needed for that. Pre-writing is a big part. Problem solving and getting the story to tell right are big parts of that. Then there is the issue of having the writing critiqued and getting perspective on the writing and reconsidering the issues again, as an editor would, and as a reader would.

Where does this happen? Indeed, does it happen at all? Most of us who teach are heroes at the outset and cowards near the end of the term. We start out with high ideals and then get caught up in other things and know that evaluating student writing, especially in the mind numbing case where all the students are writing on the same topic, may very well be our obligation but it is not a reward in itself. In large classes it feels like self-justification for the letter grade assigned to the paper rather than as part of a dialog to push the argument along. So we put it off. We procrastinate just like the students do. And then we short change them with our commentary.

I have argued (and I’m sure I’ve got that from someone else, perhaps those who advocate for Just In Time Teaching) that online students can do shorter writing (say a paragraph in a survey question) and the instructor can make ensemble critique rather than individual response and that represents a reasonable compromise on the instructor obligation and can give the students meaningful feedback that they can reflect on and modify their views and their presentation. Perhaps. Really, this is conjecture, not fact, especially when one extends the approach to issues that might not have so straightforward an analysis as a textbook Physics problem.

Those who argue that online instruction is as good or better than face to face have this issue in the back of their mind. In the online world, the student writing does get critiqued via the class discussion. Not all of the critique comes from the instructor, to be sure, but some of it does and the rest of it is relevant. Moreover because the writing is the activity, there is encouragement for the students to write reflectively to be a good participating class member. But most would say an online class of this sort should have no more than 25 students and to make that approach cost effective either the instructor must be low paid adjunct or the faculty must teach quite a few of these classes.

On our campus now we have two undergraduate courses that must be writing intensive; that is there is a Comp I and a Comp II requirement. That is two courses out of perhaps forty or so. What happens in the rest? We used to have a Freshman Discovery program which has small classes (no more than 20 students) where only first year students were eligible, and only tenure track faculty could teach the course. The idea hits many of the buttons to push. But did those Discovery courses have the students writing critiqued by the instructor? And even if they did, now we’re at three out of forty courses that are writing intensive. If at the end of their time at college we want students to write and think critically, do we really think that those three courses are sufficient?

Suppose we made it a goal that each semester students would take at least one writing intensive course. Given all the strategic planning going on, suppose we made this part of the strategic plan for the undergraduate program. Students should do serious writing in some of their courses each term they are in college. The writing needs to be critiqued by the instructors and the students need to be able to respond to the criticism. This is the core of what I learn when I took the Writing Across the Curriculum seminar.

The truth is we’re struggling even to keep up with the writing requirement we already have. Some of the Comp II courses end up being taught without the students doing much writing. There is no way we can afford upping the ante in the way I suggested in the previous paragraph. So instead the charge is to consider the periphery of the student course experience, capstone courses and how courses overlap with the rest of student life.
The result, I think, is we’ll offer a package that works for some of the students, the very bright or the very outgoing. We have an obligation, however, to be utilitarian in our approach, at least with respect to the students that we admit. I hope there is some forum where the issue can be aired. I fear, however that won’t happen.

Technology can’t solve this problem. But it can make it more visible. With all the attention on the technology itself, I don’t believe the student writing issue is getting the attention it deserves.

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