Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Big Thirsty on Essay Help From Tessa from Tucumcari.

I'm a rather new proffie, and in my discipline we only have students write 1-2 essays each semester. But at my new college it ends up being a big chunk of the grade.

I want to offer help to my students, after all I do grade the final projects. But one of my colleagues from the English department tells me my plan to meet with students outside of class in a rough draft conference is not necessarily the best way to do this. I've been told peer workshopping is better so that students can learn from each other.

I don't have any background in writing instruction that wasn't learned in my own one on one discussions with grad school mentors about my thesis and dissertation.

Could the writing instructors among us help me?

Q: What step or steps should I be taking in order to give my undergraduate students the best and most useful writing help as they work on the occasional essay in my class?


  1. If you have a good writing center on your campus, I have found that they can be a BIG help. They will often come to your class and do workshops. In addition, I have always had good experiences making it a requirement of my students to take their rough drafts to the Writing Center for review and editing.

    Above and beyond that, I also heartily recommend that you use a rubric for evaluating the essays. Not only will this speed up the time it takes you to grade the essays, but if you share the rubric with the students they will have a clearer understanding of your expectations. A win-win if you ask me!

  2. I second TK-421's suggestions, and I would add that it would be okay to do both a workshop and draft conferences -- it doesn't have to be one or the other.

    If you had to pick one, I would say that draft conferences would be a better use of everyone's time. Workshops can be useful, but they can also be a bit of an unproductive time-suck, depending on who shows up, how well your students understand the assignment, and how the workshop is designed. If you do wind up making a rubric (and I just want to reiterate how helpful these can be in explaining your expectations, justifying your scores, and making grading clearly objective), you can use the rubric in the workshop. For the purposes of the workshop, I would suggest taking point-values and/or grade letters off the rubric and using descriptions like "Needs Improvement", "Meets Expectations," and/or "Exceptional" so that students aren't focused on the grades but on the quality of their writing.

    Good luck! There are a lot of comp folks on here, I think, so hopefully you'll get a lot of useful ideas!

    1. Your absolutly right, Lucy! I didn't mean to imply that it was one or the other :). And I love your idea for using the rubric for workhshop, or even peer, evaluations!

  3. For my beginning writing students, I use both. The peer review always comes first. We always talk about how peers can give great help, but the student who is the writer needs to retain a sense of ownership. Just because a peer says something doesn't mean it's a good idea. I allow them to make revisions based on the peer feedback. Then I offer them the choice of a conference with me or a tutoring session in the writing center. Our WC is very cooperative about requesting actual copies of the assignment and working with the professor to ensure their tutors don't go astray.

    A rubric is always in the course materials so they know up front what they will be graded on. Of course, the academic dishonesty policy is also a part of this.

  4. I always run peer review workshops; though, to be honest, I find them fairly ineffective. What usually happens is a version of the blind leading the blind. However, when you give them a list of specifically pointed questions/areas they should look for in each other's papers, it at least gives the students clues as to what they should be doing in their writing. Secondly, I don't have actual meetings to discuss rough drafts, but I encourage them to email me their drafts with SPECIFIC questions or areas they feel concerned about--that way, I can quickly hone in on what they need help with and proceed accordingly. Lastly, I highly recommend they take their drafts to the Writing Center. If they utilize all of these things, they can create a pretty solid draft. Usually, though, they ignore everything and turn in utter crap. Nope, I'm not bitter at all.

  5. Create a clear rubric and clearly written assignment (for your own sake and for your students' sake), and use a model that the whole class discusses before any peer workshops (and the model doesn't need to be perfect, but it should at least be competent). A student volunteer is usually the best approach for the model.

    When discussing the model, make sure to point out positive features to be emulated as well as negative ones to fix or avoid. The workshop after the full class's discussion of the model draft should be focused (clear goals, clear timelines, explicit questions to address in written peer feedback, etc.).

    It would help to have some preparation done outside class (rubric sent out, groups created, model draft shared and at least skimmed before class) so that time isn't wasted in class on simple preparation for the actual discussion and workshop.

    Since you're new to teaching writing, I would suggest borrowing liberally from other instructors if possible when drafting a rubric.

    1. Addendum: If your students aren't accustomed to working on peer groups to provide feedback, having a clear model of what good feedback looks like would also help a lot to avoid the blind-leading-blind problem MNT mentions.

  6. I have similar problems teaching writing in my Philosophy courses. When I do peer review, I have them bring three copies of their draft -- I have them keep one copy and turn two in to me.. I keep a copy so that I can give points for the draft, then I have them pick a partner to work with for the first half of the class -- then I make the pairings for the second half. When I make the pairings I look at the topic (they get to choose among a small range of topics). I first make sure they're working with someone else writing on a similar topic and then I pair up the best looking essays so that the students who are most prepared are working together.. This will lead to a degree of the blind leading the blind (less prepared students), and to students who are well-prepared working together as well. When we discuss the peer review process I tell them to bring what seems to them to be a complete essay. The ones who fail to do so are missing an opportunity.

    I don't do individual conferences because my classes are just too danged big -- and I have too many of them. I do offer to discuss essays in my office hours, but I don't encourage sending me e-mails with drafts of essays -- mostly because the ones I've had in the past are crap and it takes me too long to make the comments necessary to shape them up, and -- in the end, the comments are either ignored OR I end up writing their essays for them via the comments... neither of which are a good idea.

    I've also experimented with online draft exchanges via our course management system. Those are hit and miss -- but they can be a good alternative to in-class workshops if you're willing to go in and look at the results.

  7. Back when I was an undergrad, I dreaded peer reviews, because they were never any help. The people who read my drafts were invariably inarticulate and/or imbeciles. Most of them just made insipid comments like, "Interesting!"

    Back in grad school, while TAing for a professor who was into the whole peer review thing, I would occasionally overhear students giving other students aggressively bad advice and actively unhelpful feedback. Not on purpose - I don't think they're smart enough to do that.

    I've never yet had a single student ever praise - in person or in evals - the peer review process, but every semester I was assisting a professor who used peer review and the one semester I tried it when I got out on my own, I've had a handful complain about the uselessness and stupidity of the process.

    I'm no expert, but I've come to the penetrating conclusion that peer review blows, and I don't use it.

    YMMV, I guess.

  8. The absolutely best peer review experience I had as an undergraduate went as follows:
    1) Teacher created sign-up sheets for midterms, giving each group one hour slots. Teacher assigned groups based upon availability: aka students who could "only make it during class hours" were given a spot on those slots.

    2) All papers were due to the peer review groups and the professor 72 hours before the peer group review session. This gave time to read and give feedback. Students had to send an email to the prof and group members. Failure to meet the timestamp for the professor + group = failure for peer draft.

    3) Students could earn a maximum of one letter grade higher than their peer review draft. This made the stakes high enough to have people put enough effort into the first draft.

    4) Students were required to bring a hard copy of the other students' group work with comments written in the margins/copy edits/etc., AND had to write a one page, typed letter giving overall impression and feedback. Students brought two copies of this letter: one for the student, one for the prof. Then the professor checked off to make sure we had commented on the drafts.

    5) During the peer group review meeting, we spoke for about 10 minutes on each person's drafts, and worked together as a group to give solutions and suggestions. Failure to attend the peer review group or to be prepared resulted in failure for the peer review assignment.

    This was a fabulous experience, and the only positive peer review experience I had in college.

  9. This is probably not quite what you're asking for, but as a student I find that I 100% prefer workshopping with the professor if I can, with very few exceptions. Obviously a lot of professors don't have enough time to do this, but frankly? I hate peer reviews. Hate them. They've never, ever not been a waste of time for me--and for various reasons I won't go into, I've had no less than 5 years of college at this point, at two different institutions.

    This may be partially because, although I'm not always the best student ever, writing is one of my major talents. I never seem to get any useful feedback ("um, I can't think of anything to change, so I guess it's good" is the usual response). This can't be the whole story, though, because pretty much every other student I know hates them, too, even the ones who are not-so-great at writing.

  10. Your English colleague might have other reasons for doing peer workshops (ie. they're efficient and make students feel like they are doing something useful; some students will even rate them as useful because, to them, surface-level mistakes are all that's important to editing). Peer workshops CAN work well if students are trained to look for specific things. That takes time and effort that you perhaps do not have not need to do in a non-English class.

    I teach in two departments (one is English), and in English, we use a variety of methods to offer feedback. But for the other half of my Social Sciences teaching, we use conferencing mostly.

    We do group conferencing (meeting in small groups of 3 with the professor) to provide guidance to the group (students are required to provide each other with complete drafts ahead of time) & schedule an hour per group to review the essays. Since the prof guides the group, it's more effective than peer editing. This is effective depending on the students in the group. It takes time, but ends up being useful to the professor and the students.

    We also use one-on-one conferences. I schedule 20 min slots per student and give feedback on overall content needs (ie. they can go to the Writing Lab for spelling and grammar). I only spend 20 mins so if we haven't finished their paper in that time because it's a mess and we had to spend most of the time on the intro and setting the context, that's the deal. I tell students that the better the paper is, the more I can attend to important areas instead of wasting time on small problems that they could have fixed.

    If students go to the Writing Lab, I also extend the deadline by one day for them (they have to provide evidence of having gone).

    I agree about the rubric. Students can use it to both guide their process and you can use it to offer feedback.

  11. If you teach at a university where the students are all motivated and intelligent, and have a minimum ACT of oh, 28, or so, peer workshops might help. Otherwise it's a total joke. And even then, it's not going to help as much as working with you will. The idea that the "students will teach each other" is ludicrous if the students aren't good to begin with. To my mind it's also lazy teaching.

    The best way to help your students write successfully is to help them yourself, to walk them through it. Even the bright students aren't writing teachers.

    Now, you're not obligated to do this unless they're willing to come see you for help, of course. But to suggest workshops, or use class time for them, in lieu of your one-on-one help, is shortchanging the students.

  12. I love this idea that you can earn only up to 1 letter grade higher than a draft. Even with one-on-one conferences, it eliminates the problem of being sent CRAP to "fix."

    1. Likewise. I'm thinking very hard about implementing it.

    2. Go for it! It really cuts down on the poor drafts. You can also encourage your students to go to the university's writing center for an additional half letter grade if their writing is really atrocious.

  13. Peer review workshops are most useful when you give students a limited number of very specific things to look for in each other's drafts. I mostly have students evaluate whether the main components of the assignment are there: abstract, literature review, thesis statement, counter-argument, and so on. I tell them that if they have to ask where or what something is, they should note that. Questions about quantity can also be handy; for example, in an annotated bib, they are generally capable of determining whether the paragraphs are roughly the same length. If they need to include a certain number of quotes or have a source in each paragraph, they can spot that. If I've given specific directions that they are not to give their own opinion on a subject but just analyze the article or whatever, they can usually spot problems with that.

    Despite what Peter Elbow and your colleague say, I've always found individual conferences to be much more useful, despite how time-consuming they are. Elbow would be right if students had more expertise and confidence with criticism, but alas. Still, I do try to help them develop those skills (I teach comp, it's my job).

    1. Agreed. I forgot to mention on my initial comment that peer review works only if the students are already prepared to focus on very specific aspects of the work. I ask them, for instance, to restate the thesis in their own words and find at least three specific instances of support for the thesis. If they can't find those things, either the writer is in big trouble or the peers have not been paying attention. I also don't allow them to proofread for each other. I make them focus on content through a series of four questions that don't allow for simple yes or no answers. We talk about avoiding the "Gee you did such a good job" and "I am a grammar Nazi who wants to slash your paper to death" extremes in criticism.

      For individual conferences, I work with them on organization, mechanics, and overall presentation. That way they get a sense of how two different audiences (peer versus professor) can perceive writing. Students have told me both parts of the process are helpful to them, and I've noticed those who don't participate tend to have grades that are one to one and a half letter grades lower on average.

  14. I have been trained in giving peer review workshops. I have read entire bookshelves of stuff about how to do it right. Let me tell you this: Peer review workshops are a goddamned waste of time. Even with heavy scaffolding, not a whole lot of value gets done. Individual conferences (or small group conferences, in which you can mingle the peer review method with a sanity-saving schedule and direct professorial involvement) are miles beyond peer workshops in terms of usefulness.