Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Is It Working?

How do you tell if students have learned what you want them to learn in a composition or writing class? Or, what do you have students do for a final?

The way a lot of people try to do it is by giving students some readings and then having them write an in-class final. That way they demonstrate that they can handle outside sources in creating an argument.

But it doesn't test if students are able to use pre-writing and process strategies. Indeed, the in-class writing part, especially if students haven't had the questions ahead of time, probably discourages students from doing the sorts of pre-writing stuff I want them to learn.

Also, if you're going to ask students to write an essay in response to some reading(s), you either have to take time in class to discuss the reading(s) or they'd better be simple enough that students with marginal reading skills can put something together in response. And that seems generally to mean it's something about pop culture or some irritating current events thing. And I don't much care to read 20-30 in-class essays about either.

So what do you do?

At one time, I had students writing short responses to questions such as:

1) Describe freewriting. When is it most useful?
2) Imagine you were asked to write an essay about freewriting. Make a bubble map for that essay.

And so forth. I think it sort of tested whether students had learned what freewriting is, but it was dreadfully awful to read. And by "dreadfully awful," I mean worse than pop culture and current events essays.

And the thing is, knowing what freewriting is is really the first step in what I really want students to learn, which is that they have several strategies for approaching writing situations, and that those strategies are useful, and they should use them. But how do you test that? Or, do you even need to test it?*

I tried something new this week. My writing students have one final short essay for the course; I handed out the assignment as usual. And then we looked at each of the options, and I asked them to make a list of pre-writing strategies they might use to approach each of the questions. We put the list on the board, and then did some of the pre-writing strategies for each of the questions as a warm up.

Today, I had the students pick the question they thought they'd want to write to, and then put them in groups. In their group, they needed to make a more complete list of the things they might do to work on their paper.

Next time, we'll put these lists on the board and they'll use the lists they and their peers have created to work on their essays, and then do some thinking about how the strategies work for them. Seeing the lists on the board will give me a good sense if the groups have learned the different strategies and appropriate ways to use them. (It won't test those in any way, nor will it tell me if a specific student has learned. But the boards are only so large and time is limited.) (It also isn't numerical, which means the gurus over in the fort who want to measure my teaching by numbers wouldn't like it.)

Here's a question: I teach freewriting, listing, bubble-mapping (which goes by other names, too, but you get the idea) as ways to start writing. I don't teach outlining per se, though as part of bubble-mapping, I number sections and draw arrows and such to get a sense of the flow.

What other pre-writing strategies do you teach in your comp/writing courses?

How do you know if students are learning what you want them to learn?

*This is sort of like the time management problem: most high school students can tell you what they "should" do for time management. But convincing them to actually do those things is more difficult. And convincing them to use those strategies independently when faced with a task or problem is a whole 'nother world. You can "know" what to do, but deeply knowing means you also practice those things.

(And alas, I don't always.)


  1. I do teach outlining pretty specifically as a mediate stage of the writing process, either before or after a full draft. So back when I had to do a final exam (which I happily now don't have to do), I would give my students an essay or set of essay questions based on previous readings (usually some sort of synthesis), and then allow them to bring in an outline to the exam. They turn in the outline with the exam.

    However, I usually frame the exam as not about measuring the skills I've been teaching all semester, but as an exercise in how to port the skills we've been learning to writing exams for other classes.

    Now that I'm exempt from giving final exams, I do a version of a portfolio project: my students write a reflective essay on academic writing, incorporating sources about academic writing as well as sections of their own essays. In other words, I ask them to identify the skills that they think are most important for writing their essays, find what other people say about those skills, compare different viewpoints on those skills, illustrate the skills (or what happens when one doesn't have them) using their own writing, and then draw conclusions. So far, it seems to work well for determining whether students have actually learned what I want them to learn.

  2. I have been thinking about this "is it working" question a lot, myself. Since I've had so much plagiarism this semester, I have been feeling very down about my writing class. Comments like "I didn't think my own writing would be good enough" as an excuse for plagiarism really get to me. Of course your own writing isn't "good" -- that's why you're here! To learn HOW to write. I'm trying to think of ways to get students to do more revision, but the structure of "impossible-comp" program doesn't really allow time for it. I don't know what do to. Maybe just slog through one more semester and call it quits -- at least, with that program, certainly.