Saturday, August 11, 2012

Change Your Mind

One of the things that really bothers me about political discourse is when someone, anyone, gets criticized for changing their mind. 

When you have evidence that something is/was wrong, or that something else has a good probability of working better, then you SHOULD change your mind.

I recently went to a talk where the speaker laid out the research about the effects of correcting grammar in student papers.  According to the research (and I trust that the speaker did a good job looking at all the research), it does no good (and may do harm) for an instructor to mark or correct grammar in student papers.  The research looked at lots of different strategies: code and look it up, check and have the student correct it, and on and on.  And none of it, NONE OF IT, actually worked to get students to write better or more grammatically.  None of it.

In the face of that evidence, I'm going to do my best to stop marking grammar and proofreading sorts of stuff, and focus my energies more on responding to ideas and big picture stuff.  I expect that to be hard, because I've spent a lot of time doing grammar and proofreading marking.  But that's going to be a focus for me this semester.

In other words, given a good deal of evidence, I've changed my mind about my teaching practice, and will be trying to change my practice.

I think that's healthy.  I also think it's healthy when politicians change their minds.  Evidence shows that glbt folks aren't dangerous to have in the military?  End Don't Ask/Don't Tell.  Evidence shows that there aren't actually weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, change your mind!

Mostly, I want students to really think about how they "know" what they know, and to be willing to change their minds in the face of good evidence to the contrary.

What have you changed your mind about?


  1. I recognize that this question is tangential to your bigger point in this post, but is there anything that DOES work? If you're in a situation where you absolutely need to do something about students' grammar and proofreading skills (both because your department pretty much defines this as the purpose of the Basic Writing course, and because the lack of those skills is seriously hurting the students), what does the research say you should do?

  2. Yes, changing your mind isn't a sign of weakness or failure. When you change your mind because of evidence, you're demonstrating intelligence!

    That said, like FP, I'd love to learn about something that helps students improve their grammar and proofreading? I have a hard time engaging with ideas when the expression is so roundabout and ragged!

  3. I think we'd all hail as our hero the person who could come up with a surefire way to get students to use good proofreading and grammar.

    From the talk, what I got was that students "get it" over time, especially as they read more and as they write more. In the short term, what the talk suggested was spending individual conference time talking about ideas and asking students to clarify and help you understand points.

    I know (as you both do, I'm sure) that this answer doesn't satisfy my colleagues across campus at all. But then, it's not like we give students a semester of music and expect them to be able to write a Bach chorale or something, or give them a semester on the piano and expect them to play flawlessly and with feeling.

    If I could get my colleagues to understand one thing about writing, it would be that when students are writing about complex ideas/content that's hard for them, their writing will go to hell. In the same way, when a student is learning to play a really hard piece on the clarinet, s/he focuses in really hard on the fingering, and intonation and feeling go all to hell. Only after s/he's mastered the fingering can s/he bring the intonation work back into that piece.

  4. I like the idea of talking to them individually, and increased reading ought to lead to better writing. What have you noticed in your own practice? Do students improve when you explain the errors? I'd think this would be part of "getting it" over time.

    I have had students say something like "thanks--no one ever told me this was an error before" and then stop writing comma splices or what have you, so I think for a certain kind of motivated student, alerting the student to an error can help. One swallow doesn't make a summer, though, and that may be what the research is measuring: the majority of students.

  5. The research I've seen indicates that most people will only be able to improve 1-3 things from one version to the next (in any kind of learning environment). So you have to ask yourself, are comma splices really one of the three most important things you want to convey here? Are they the biggest problem with this paper?

    Maybe they are, in which case, go for it. But if you give your student more than three things to think about in a revision, odds are, they won't learn any of them. They'll just get overwhelmed and give up.

  6. As an inveterate proofreader, this has been a real challenge for me. However, going paperless (which I'm doing this semester) makes it much harder to correct grammar, so I do focus more on ideas; what I'll often do in the comments is just say something like, "There are a bunch of incomplete sentences here, so you should watch out for that."

  7. Anonymous3:52 PM

    I've heard these conclusions before, but I'm skeptical of the research. There's a lot of very bad education research that doesn't understand treatment/control set-ups (or sample size or other basic statistics) that comes to bad conclusions. I have not read this particular research, but I would have to read the actual studies to be convinced. Education research doesn't have the highest statistics bar for getting things published.

    So yes, I'm willing to change my mind on things, but I need good empirical evidence first.

  8. I agree about changing your mind about something. Only morons hold their ground well beyond reason. The rhetoric, however, convinces a lot of people -- many of whom are the morons who hold their ground well beyond reason.

    As for the grammar thing, I am harder on English majors than the general education population. However, unless I'm doing physical harm to the students somehow, I'm going to continue to point out their comma errors and egregious grammar errors. Will it upset them? Maybe. But I think we spend way too much time patting our students on the back and being warm and fuzzy with them. They need someone to be honest with them about their writing -- and I don't do it in a mean way. I'm constructive about it and try to show them their strengths too. Maybe I teach too much the way I'd like to be taught and/or treated.

    What I mean is -- if I were doing something wrong or saying something stupid, I'd like someone to tell me in a non-threatening, constructive way, so I could change my ways. If my egregious error were left unanswered by a mentor, I'd be so embarrassed and upset when I finally learned I was doing something wrong. A good case in point was when I was in grad school and I was mispronouncing "Timon" from Timon of Athens all the time. It wasn't until my first year teaching Shakespeare that I heard the other renaissance person say something and Timon, and I felt really embarrassed and went and looked up the pronunciation. I was wrong; she was right. Then at SAA I overheard some grad students saying Timon incorrectly. I heard Peter Holland mention Timon in his talk later, and I hoped the grad students heard it, so they could hear the right way to say it. I didn't bust into their conversation to correct them. If I were their teacher, though, I would have told them they were wrong -- not only to save them from embarrassment, but to teach them the proper way, AND to save myself from embarrassment.

    For me, there is a certain amount of personal integrity involved in correcting students. If I don't correct them, I don't feel like I'm doing my job to teach them basic writing skills. I WISH someone had taught me this stuff instead of having to learn it in graduate school on my own, which I felt I should do if I were going to teach writing.

    Sorry for the long response. This is always a heated debate among English faculty (and others, of course).

  9. Anonymous4:47 AM

    I'm with Fie, i would want to know, and in fact i did have al ot of professors in undergrad and even my first masters program that did let me write bad papers for a long time without really telling me... (making a good grade on a paper with next to no comments doesn't tell you what to improve AT ALL) I still feel like I am trying to figure out how to write, and even a lot of basic grammar stuff, I still just don't get from a rules perspective, only from a "this sounds right perspective" despite having tried over the years, because no one really ever went over it well enough in school, and when I've tried to get help once out of high school and into college, no one wants to help people figure out commas and such things really. It's not like I can't write decently, but I still make stupid mistakes at times because I don't write based on the rules, and I can't recognize why things are wrong or right, just that they are (which is why I can't really proofread anything for anyone else, because it consists of circles saying "this doesn't sound right")

  10. I tihnk there's a difference between correcting grammar and commenting. When I think of how much time and energy I've spent being frustrated over marking grammar/proofreading sorts of things, and how much less energy I've put into responding to ideas as a result, I think my marking is going to look very different. I'm going to focus on ideas and asking questions; if things are unclear, then I'll focus on the ideas being unclear rather than the grammar.

    It's not that I'm suggesting anyone just drop a grade on a piece of writing without commenting, but changing the focus of the instructor's energy from grammar/proofreading to ideas. (And if you already responded to ideas really well without getting sidetracked by grammar/proofreading, then you were doing way better than I was.)

  11. ps. Anon, most native speakers don't know grammar rules. We've internalized rules of various sorts, depending on our region and such, but if you ask me to explain when someone should use "the" in a particular place, and why US usage is sometimes different from UK usage, I'm at a loss.

  12. Anonymous8:10 AM

    Something else that's usually recommended along with not correcting grammar: don't use a red pen. Red is such a scary color.

    One of my college professors took that to heart and caused me to hate green ink with a violent passion. (Red, of course, I associated with praise.)

    Again, I need to see real research and not just rhetoric before making changes. Did the speaker provide any citations?

    If you want to take from the Mindset Literature (see: Carol Dweck), these kids need to get over themselves and not take criticism as proof that they're not smart (in a fixed mindset modality), thus shutting them down, but incorporate the corrections to improve as with a growth mindset. Never being corrected just feeds into that fixed, "everybody is special nobody needs to change" mindset that the self-esteem movement has made prevalent. That would suggest that Not of General Interest is right that they need both the corrections AND the process of rewrites.

  13. Anonymous9:12 AM

    I have colleagues who are not writing professors, yet, proof things and can still write down "what" is wrong with it, and it makes me feel very inadequate... I'm still very thankful for their help but... *I feel tiny* in comparison

  14. Anon, /comfort I know we all feel badly when we get corrected. I do, at any rate. Is there a way to get stuff proofread that won't make someone feel badly about their writing?

    The thing is, making people feeling "tiny" about their writing isn't actually going to help most become better writers. Nor is just nodding and saying, "gosh, that's nice." Figuring out how to help people write better is just so difficult!

  15. It's tricky getting the right balance,isn't it? I tend to correct grammar/ spelling errors on the first couple of pages and after that, advise a trip to the Writing Centre if things are bad. I'm in History, though, not English or composition, so I'm more focused on the students' arguments and evidence. If a lot of them are making the same types of errors (say, subject-verb agreement or possessive apostrophes), I'll do a short class session on the rule and why it matters.

  16. Anonymous3:54 PM

    Not everybody feels badly about getting corrected. I sure don't. It's ok to make mistakes and it's good to learn from them. Editing is incredibly important and it is irrelevant what the first draft looks like, only what the final product is.

    My son's first grade teacher was very good at getting her students over the perfectionist "must be right the first time" mindset. Maybe that's what should be worked on, not giving up on students ever getting anything right. If they haven't assimilated grammar in their 18-22 years on the planet, how is another 4 years without any direct instruction going to help?

    Our best (technical) writing teacher in our graduate program tears the students to shreds her first few weeks, but builds them back up by the end. Just like bootcamp. She gets crazy high teaching evals and I can tell when I have students who have had her rather than one of the other sections. They know how to write.

  17. "And if you already responded to ideas really well without getting sidetracked by grammar/proofreading, then you were doing way better than I was."

    I spend an insane amount of time responding to papers -- something like 30 minutes per paper. (It took forever to grade papers with 50+ intro students this spring, which is why I had to reorganize my assignments.) To me, it was less of a hassle correcting grammar/mechanics than it was to respond fully to ideas. In fact, I will probably have to reign myself in during the fall semester, since I will already be stressed out to the max.

    Like nicoleandmaggie, I also enjoy being corrected because I want to know how to make my writing better. I plan to run my senior seminar like a revision boot camp, hoping that the seniors will finally grasp that revision is not just about changing a word here and there and fixing your comma errors. I will be ripping their papers to shreds in the first two weeks of class, and then conferencing with them to help them map out revision. Really, this should be the job of their major professors, but as I have learned this past year, they just don't do that. It's actually kind of embarrassing, to me, that our students graduate with such poor senior portfolios. But how can we make that better without pushing them?

    This will be an interesting (probably stressful) experiment for me. If the seniors don't improve through this revision process, I'll most certainly rethink my attitude toward the writing program and how much of myself and my time I'm willing to give to it. No one likes being on a futile quest.

  18. Thank you for this! I wish I could convince my non-English faculty colleagues that they can assign writing without having to correct grammar. They are so reluctant, both because of the work and because they don't feel they are experts at it. But if they would just get their students to write and not worry about grammar when they collect the writing, it would do a lot of good and not be so hard on them.

  19. I second the digital commenting as a way to avoid commenting on grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc. It's much easier to make editing comments on paper and thus much harder to break the habit. On the flip side, I find it much easier to focus on ideas/substance with digital comments. It doesn't take any less time (in fact, it may take more), but I use the review notes for marginal comments and I like that I can edit and/or delete comments as I get a better sense of priorities for a particular draft/student.

    I can (and do) still comment on grammar/etc from time to time--when I really don't understand what the student is getting at or when I see a substantive pattern of error that needs addressing. But often I just say in end comments, "hey, you need to pay more attention to editing in the next draft." I do this early on in a quarter and then check to see if students do/don't respond accordingly; that helps me gauge what kinds of issues I do/don't need to explicitly teach/review. Usually, it's not the concepts/rules themselves that need teaching but, rather, strategies for editing that students need to learn.

    Most importantly, I make my approach to commenting explicit with students. I tell them, "in this draft, my comments will focus mostly on XYZ" or "in your revised draft, I'm going to be looking at how you addressed XYZ; I'll also be expecting you to pay more attention to ABC." And I tell them why I have the priorities I do at various stages/drafts or points in the quarter, e.g., "at this point, it's more important for you to develop your ideas than to care about every last comma; you can't do both well at the same time" or "this is the last draft, so I expect that you'll be able to attend to the surface issues a bit more."

    I find that, very often, when I follow through on what I say I'm going to do, students learn to trust me, relax a bit more, take more intellectual risks with their writing, and invest more of themselves in their work. That increased investment doesn't always mean better grammar; sometimes, students will note in their reflective memos that they really worked on refining their ideas or trying out new organizational structures and that, as a result, they didn't pay much attention to editing. And that's OK by me, given my pedagogical priorities.

  20. I always tell my comp students on the first day of class that I won't be correcting the grammar or spelling on their papers until after midterm, if then; and that I will never even mention the grammar or spelling until we're near the final draft of the paper. (We do several draft papers, with the students and me meeting together to talk about each draft.)

    You should see the relief that comes over their faces.

    I always explain why, too: that I want them focusing, for this early part of the semester, on structure and content (on higher order concerns, I call them), not on proof-reading. I tell them that stuff matters, too, but until they get the content and structure right, it really doesn't matter if they've got the spelling right.

    And here's the thing: by the time we get to the third or fourth draft of their papers, they have (almost all of them) fixed all the grammar problems and spelling issues themselves. I don't *have* to talk about grammar and spelling.

    That's something important I have learned by teaching writing this way. Many of them actually can write, and write well. We've just taught them (with the red pencils) to write badly.

  21. I should add that to teach writing this way you have to *give* *up* the idea of quantity. My comp students write three papers a semester (as opposed to the eight papers a semester I used to assign when I was teaching comp the traditional way).

    OTOH, by the end of the semester, most of them have learned something about how to write a paper. I never felt that when I was doing it the other way -- teach them a writing technique, assign an essay, hand it back with a C, move on to the next essay.

  22. I do something similar to delagar. I don't correct grammar much on early drafts because I focus on getting them to revise to the point where the sentences with grammar mistakes in one draft might not even be in the next draft. (I do 3-4 papers a semester, too, and I often require a preliminary "logical outline" that is essentially a rough draft of the ideas. I'm much less likely to even want to correct grammar in that context.) Unless it's something really egregious, where I can't even understand the sentences.

    One thing I've found that helps students who know how to write well with simple ideas learn to edit and proofread when working with more complex ideas is teaching them Lanham's Paramedic method, though I only get to that late in the semester. They end up paying close enough attention to the structure of the sentence that they can correct most of the mistakes that aren't covered by the Paramedic method without even thinking about it, in addition to having much more concise writing. (I teach them the paramedic method using my own writing, which entertains them greatly.)