Proofreading Skills Assessment

The first course element I thought I would discuss is the proofreading skills assessment that I do in the first week. It's not going first for any reason of importance, but simply because this morning I toted up the results for this semester and shared them at Google+, so it's something on my mind today. In this post, I will try to expand on and contextualize what I said in the G+ post.

Proofreading Skills Assessment

Brief Description. Students choose two stories (out of six) which contain numerous errors in spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure. Their task is to correct the piece of writing and send the corrected piece back to me via email. I then look at their corrections and send them back detailed comments via email.

Details. You can see the instructions provided to the student and the six stories here: Proofreading Practice. To get a sense of what kinds of proofreading skills I am trying to assess, take a look at one of the stories. Students struggle the most with the special punctuation rules for quoted speech (very important for narrative writing in this class), and, like everybody else, they struggle with the many different types of comma usage. Some students also have more basic problems to work on, such as the use of the apostrophe.

History. This is the fourth year I have done this assignment. For the first year, everybody did the Panchatantra story of the mouse-bride. The next year, I changed that to the Japanese fable of the stonecutter. Each student thus did the same story, and it was a story approximately 800 words long. Last year, I went for the "choose your own stories" option, with six stories that are each approximately 300 words long. Although the mouse-bride and the stonecutter were both excellent stories that I was glad to share with all the students, this choice-driven approach is much better. See below for more about that.

Grading. Like all work in my classes, this assignment is graded on a complete/incomplete basis. If students complete the assignment, they get 5 points. Because this assignment is part of the Orientation Week, students are required to complete the assignment; everyone completes this assignment and, if they miss the due date, they receive reminders from me until they do complete it. When they are done, the fill out the Declaration at D2L and the points are automatically recorded in the Gradebook.

Feedback. I have a set of "canned comments" which are able to address most of the errors which students either do not correct or which they correct incorrectly. I can also anticipate some of the errors that they will introduce on their own. At the same time, students provided unexpected responses to this assignment all the time, such as introducing new kinds of errors I've never seen before or completely rewriting a given sentence. That makes it interesting for me to read each of their papers. Even though they are writing on the same stories, it is not at all like grading a quiz. It is much more interesting! As a typical example of canned feedback, here is a sentence from the story that needs to be corrected:
Can't you tell there's a hurricane coming.
If a student does not add the question mark, I send back to them the uncorrected sentence plus my comment:
Can't you tell there's a hurricane coming. 
==> even though this is a rhetorical question, it still gets a question mark at the end: Can't you tell there's a hurricane coming?
(you can review rhetorical questions and other kinds of questions here:
Depending on the number of comments I need to return to a student, marking one of these might take 10 minutes or it might take 20 minutes, or perhaps more. Overall, then, it takes me anywhere from 15-20 hours to mark and return these assignments, but I consider it time well spent (for the many reasons why, see "goals" below). In another post, I will say something about the language I use in communicating about writing problems with students, trying very hard to emphasize the positive steps they can take to make improvements. That will be a topic for a later post!

Results. Every semester, the results are pretty much the same: there is a more or less smooth continuum that ranges from just one or two errors to thirty or more efforts. No really significant clusters, just a continuous range of performance. That is a huge challenge for me as a teacher, but one that I welcome: I aspire to make this class a valuable writing experience for every single student across that whole range. In a classroom, I don't know how I would respond to that challenge, but by teaching online, I can work with each student individually on their writing every week. Here are the results I compiled for Fall 2014, showing the same pattern that I see every semester:

The numbers per se are not important and do not justify any kind of detailed analysis. Since the assignment is open-ended (some students introduce a lot of new errors!), there is no "maximum" number of mistakes to use in assigning any kind of percentage score.

Also, when a student is struggling, I do not mark all the items that I might mark for a student with strong proofreading skills. For example, I do advocate the use of comma before a conjunction that joins two independent clauses, and that is something I point out to a student with strong proofreading skills. If, however, a student is having basic problems with other punctuation usage, I don't worry about pointing out this particular comma usage. So, for those students with more than 15 errors or so, their actual error count would be higher if this assignment were graded by a machine. But it is not graded by a machine, and it could not be graded by a machine. That is a very important topic, and one far too big to explore in this blog post... but I promise to come back to that later. I'll even create a draft post now to remind me to do so!

Goals. This exercise has many goals. I will not call them learning objectives (ugh, I am not a big fan of that term at all)... but "goals" sounds good to me! Here are what I consider my top five goals for this assignment:
  • Learning experience for me. This assignment gives me a lot of insight into the students' writing in general. Because the assignment is open-ended in nature, every semester I see new results — new corrections that the students devise, and also new mistakes that they introduce into the text). When the assignment ceases to be a learning experience for me, I will come up with something different, but clearly I still have lots to learn about the kinds of errors students are prone to make. It gives me a chance to review and expand as needed the writing support materials I provide here: Writing Laboratory.
  • Wake up call for students. This assignment lets the students know that I really will be working with them on the formal aspects of their writing. The class may be a total free-for-all in terms of creative subject matter, but it will not be a free-for-all in terms of punctuation and spelling. For many students, this is the first time they have ever received word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence feedback on a piece of writing. They also learn to get used to the way in which I return comments in plain text, with my comments inserted and marked with ==> (see example above).
  • Areas for improvement. The assignment also alerts students to the specific problem areas in their writing. When they start doing some writing for their class projects in Week 4, I ask them to look back at this assignment as they define their own proofreading and revision strategies. So, I don't worry too much if students only glance at this feedback now because they will be revisiting it again later. If, however, they do use this as an occasion to start reviewing these topics, so much the better!
  • No punitive grading. The grading for this assignments demonstrates to the students that writing deficits are not going to be penalized; instead, they will be treated as learning opportunities. This is not about red ink, not about grading — it's about learning. Everyone gets the same number of points for this assignment, and they declare those points for themselves when they turn it in. I return feedback only; I do not grade. Also, as mentioned above, I try to couch my feedback in very positive, proactive, empowering terms, emphasizing what the students can do to improve their writing. I promise to write more on that important topic later!
  • Story variety. In its current form, the assignment introduces the students to the kinds of stories that they will be reading in these classes, and it also introduces them to the idea of making choices, which is a fundamental part of the class design overall. From my perspective, it is so cool to see how all the stories get chosen every semester, and I really enjoy reading the comments the students make about the stories themselves. It provides an occasion to make some person-to-person connections as I learn more about what kinds of stories they enjoy and why.

General Thoughts:

As the long list of goals might suggest, this is an assignment that I consider to be very important. I want to continue working on this assignment to improve it if I can, but I would also say that the assignment is working very well at this time, helping me to achieve all the goals listed above. Because there are several other writing assignments in the Orientation Week, students realize that not all of their writing is going to be scrutinized in this way (that would be crazy-making, both for them and for me!), but I will be giving them feedback on their class project in the same way that I provide feedback here. The difference, of course, is that when I give them feedback on their own writing, most of my feedback is about the content of the writing. At the same time, I want to prepare them for the feedback they will receive on the formal elements of their writing too — not because they will be punished for it in terms of the grade, but so that they can learn to master some of the rules of written English that, for whatever reasons, they have not mastered thus far. 

Since I teach mostly college seniors, this class may in fact be the last opportunity these students will have to master those rules of formal written English. Sadly, very few college faculty work with their students on writing mechanics and proofreading, which means the students get very little feedback and reinforcement for any of the skills I am trying to foster in this class. There are many reasons why most faculty don't work on the nitty-gritty of writing with their students: perhaps they don't have time, and/or they might be scornful of students who don't already have these skills, and/or they could be applying these skills unconsciously but without the ability to articulate them consciously. In some cases, the faculty might not even have the skills themselves to begin with — believe me, after working for several years in the editorial office of a prestigious academic journal, I've seen it all! 

For me, personally, I cannot imagine not trying to engage with students in this way. I love to read the stories that they write, but at the same time I do notice — I cannot help but notice — the problems they often have with written English. That is a topic that extends to the whole writing process that I try to promote in my classes, though, so I will wrap this up here, and I promise that this larger topic of formal writing instruction is going to come up again and again in future posts!

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