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Writing Workshop November 2009 

We had a very nice discussion, ranging from what is helping students improve their writing to what allows the TAs to be explicit in grading expectations and what makes for lesser or greater workload. We spoke almost exclusively of structural choices – assignment wording and timing; grading expectations, methods, and options; use of technology and multiple languages. What follows are the recommendations, which they were told would be forwarded to the faculty anonymously.  

Assignments 

A1) Providing explicit expectations ahead of time improves writing. TAs spoke overwhelmingly in favor of presenting rubricsor other descriptions of grading criteria ahead of time (structural, not content) that then allow students to mold their assignments to expectations. Among the examples discussed was how paragraph-ID answers might be graded (who, what, when, where, and double points for significance), to enable students to prepare all the elements of a successful answer.  

A2) Assignment language should be assessed. As they learned in Kate Mangelsdorf's CeTAL session, certain words make expectations clear; others confuse. TAs pointed out this confusion is compounded for bilingual students. Perhaps Kate's handouts and recommendations would be enough, but perhaps a group session or individual consultations will work best, so faculty members can understand these pitfalls. 

A3) Structure of assignments course-wide. There was some discussion whether the structure of assignments – 6 one-page papers throughout the semester, vs. a paragraph followed by two pages and then five pages – has any noticeable effect on the ability to improve; it was undecided. Similarly, the decision in a midterm to require an essay vs. a fill-in-the-blank outlineas an answer was also undecided as to what is a gauge of student content knowledge. We might discuss further what assignment types faculty are using in which level courses, and then see if regularizing those choices may also allow students a regular path to improvement.  

A4) Variable timing rarely works. TAs where assignments could be turned in at any time of the semester said students always choose the last possible time, and they are overwhelmed. We discussed whether group-assigned due dates could better stagger the work (all A-M this day, all N-Z the following week), if that was the concern, or trying another method of giving choice, such as counting four grades out of six assignments (a chance for some to improve – though a chance for others to accept zeroes and plan only to do four). Another possibility would be segmented choice, with two dates possible on a version of an early assignment, two on the next assignment, etc.  

Grading  

G1) Rubrics. They said rubrics have allowed for faster, easier, and more objective grading, and made conversations in grade disputes more productive. 

G2) Drafts and peer review. TAs said that when drafts were written and opportunities for improvement taken, papers were significantly better. We discussed many of the ways this is tried in the department – in-class and out of class writing workshops; classmate or any-human peer review; drafts required for TA or peer reading. The consensus was that in-class peer review was the best choice for draft editing, with regular opportunities for students to discuss their writing and recognize improvements over the length of the course. This system would work even with short assignments, they said, as discussions would focus on how to gather the evidence and structure the argument; longer papers would add the element of argument arc and transitions. Systems requiring the turn-in of peer-review sheets and both early and final drafts were mentioned as effective. The Calibrated Peer Review system (http://cpr.molsci.ucla.edu/) recently touted by CeTAL was mentioned, but no one has experienced it.

G3) General Expectations explained. TAs said that classes that spent time on study skills – note-taking, underlining, being prepared for class – plus basic writing skills – the 5-paragraph essay, tips for proper grammar, efforts to remove colloquial or informal language and to banish the bubble concept map in favor of outlining arguments seemed fundamental to student success in improving writing. (They did note that their grading, plus these expectations, seemed to point toward stylistic and mechanical improvement more than content improvements.) The idea of doing mid-course evaluations generally, and especially asking about how students view their writing improvements or lingering problems, was also suggested.  

G4) Turnitin and other plagiarism checks. TAs said that the experience with Turnitin has been spotty – it has trouble recognizing the second draft of the same material from the same person as not a case of plagiarism – but that it offered help in identifying how much of a student's paper was quotes, and could allow them the chance to revise to include attributions, transitions, and other improvements.  

G5) Grading short assignments online. There was no general consensus on paper editing vs. online, as each can allow line editing and extensive comments, or merely scores and rubrics. Yet most felt that short assignments (paragraph to two pages at least) could be easily graded online, to save paper and ease accountability (no lost papers; instructor and TA can review same assignment, etc.).  

G6) Spanish writing options. There was no clear consensus on whether the decision by some faculty to accept assignments in Spanish led to better-written assignments in either language, but one TA offered anecdotal evidence that the comments on Spanish-language papers seemed to result in more improvements for those students than the class as a whole.  

TA Quality of Life 

To summarize, and to move from student-centered goals to a TA-centered view of the work involved, they named clear beneficial and time-consuming choices around writing:  

Positives 

Rubrics make expectations known, make grading faster and more objective, and student questions afterward more grounded.

Some system of enforced draft-writing and revision (peer review, submitted drafts, and/or Turnitin anlaysis) made for better papers.

Answer keys for content material also made grading easier. 

Negatives 

Choice of due datesleads to inadequate spacing of the workload.

Complexity of assignments, draft procedures, or unclear language add to the explanatory burden or the logistical trouble.

Legibility of student handwriting. They seconded my suggestion that, if possible, UTEP should create a test lab – where a class could take an in-term midterm or final on locked-down, Internet-free computers, so that the in-class assignments could be typed, rather than handwritten. (This is common in law schools; they use software on the students' own computers.) 

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