Sunday, October 26, 2014

Safety Nets

As we get near the end of the semester, I can tell that students are more and more stressed out, and so I am very glad that my courses have a lot of "safety nets" built in. I do have high expectations for my students and the work they will do, but I also know that life can be kind of overwhelming sometimes, so safety nets are important... vitally important in fact!


BRIEF DESCRIPTION. There are a variety of strategies I use that fall into the category of "safety nets" to help students cope when things don't go according to plan. These include both time scheduling strategies (Grace Period, Alternate Project Schedules, Late Projects) and flexible assignments (Half-Reading, Portfolio Option, Storybook Free Passes, and Extra Credit). It is my goal that every student should pass the class, and these strategies are designed to help them bounce back from anything that goes wrong and to keep on moving forward.


DETAILS.

Grace Period. I've written a post about the Grace Period, which is an automatic no-questions-asked extension for assignment deadlines.

Alternate Project Schedules. I need to write up a post about this, but the basic idea is that students can miss and/or repeat a given week in the Storybook or Portfolio schedule and still carry on using an alternate schedule. No backtracking, no making up missed work; instead, the schedule adjusts to the fact that they missed a week for whatever reason, and they carry on from there. You can see the alternate schedules for the Storybooks and the Portfolios here: Storybooks and Portfolios - see bottom of page for alternate schedules. I also have an FAQ about that for the students: Alternate Project Schedules.

Late Projects. The Storybook/Portfolio assignment is due at the end of each week, with a Grace Period that extends until Monday at noon. After this, students can turn in the project assignment for partial credit: later on Monday, 8 points (out of the 10 possible); Tuesday, 7 points; Wednesday, 6 points; by Thursday noon, 5 points. The hard deadline of Thursday noon allows me to still get comments back to the students by the end of the week. Admittedly, I do not always apply the late penalty. If I know that a student is struggling with something, I often tell them to turn in the assignment by Thursday noon and just to remind me not to count it late. Also, if someone turns in something late, but it is really excellent work, I don't apply the penalty, and I make a point of explaining that in the comments I send back. If, however, something comes in late and shows signs of having been done in haste, I apply the penalty and I do so without hesitation. The students can always make up the missing points with extra credit (see below), but I am frustrated when I see haste and sloppiness, and this is one way that I do indeed try to counter that sloppiness. Having students revise the work is, of course, the important way to counter that sloppiness, but I would rather put a stop to it earlier than the actual revision assignment!

Half-Reading Option. Each week the reading is split into two halves, with specific accommodation for students who end up only having time to do one half. I've written a post about the half-reading option here.

Portfolio Option. I've written a post about the Portfolio alternative to the Storybook; it's a new experiment for Fall 2014, and I would say it has been a big success.

Storybook Free Pass. This is something I have done in response to a student last semester who, when commenting on my idea for the Portfolio, suggested that I do something extra for the students choosing the Storybook since it is indeed more work than the Portfolio. I thought about that a lot, and it was pretty tricky because I absolutely did not want the people doing the Portfolio to feel penalized in any way for their choice. In the end, I came up with something I am calling a "free pass," and Storybooks have two free passes built into their schedule that the Portfolios do not. I need to write up a separate post about this because it is a little weird, but it has worked out wonderfully! Most of all, it has been a big help for the students who start out struggling a bit at first with the Storybook (which is admittedly more complex than a Portfolio), so that the free passes allow me to help students to really slow down and think about the organizational aspects of their projects without any points penalty. I need to write up a post about this. It's kind of complicated, but it has been a really great thing, both to create a sense of equity between the two different project options, but also as a way to help people do a better job with the Storybooks overall.

Extra Credit. I need to write up a long post about my whole philosophy of extra credit, but basically it is this: I can only ask students to do 6-8 hours of work per week... but there is so much more that I would like for them to do, especially on the interactive side of the class, reading and responding to other students. So, I have no problem at all of thinking up lots of great extra credit assignments, because they are exactly the assignments I would require of the students IF we had more time together. In that sense, there is really no difference at all between "required" and "extra credit" ... all points go into the same pot, and I consider all the assignments to be of equal value in terms of the overall learning experience and success of the class. They are "extra" only because I am asking the students for extra time. I do need to write up a post about this approach in general; it is one that is really important to how I see the overall course design and how, ultimately, student choice is the single most important factor in that design. To see how extra credit works now, check out the Myth Assignments and Indian Epics Assignments pages.


HISTORY.

I've always let students work ahead, and I still consider that the single best safety net of all: if they can work ahead, instead of waiting for the deadline, then they have a built-in cushion to accommodate anything unexpected. When I first started teaching online, I was very naive about that: I assumed that all the students would work a day or two ahead, and maybe a week or two, and that would be all the safety net I would need. Unfortunately, that proved not to be the case. Even when given the opportunity to work ahead, most students wait for the deadlines; I'll blame the schooling environment for that bad habit. Given that students are rarely given the opportunity to set their own schedules and work ahead, it's not surprising that the habit is hard to adopt at this late date in their school careers.

So, as a result, I've added in these different safety nets over time. I'll try to list them here in the order that I have added them over time.

Extra Credit. This is something I also had from the start. I originally intended it as a way for students to build up credit in advance, but it quickly became obvious that they also needed extra credit options to make up for missed work.

Alternate Project Schedules. I probably started this a year or so into my online teaching career since it was a natural feature of the Storybook project. There's no specific reason why a Storybook has to have four stories total in the end — three stories or even just two stories can make for a good project. As a result, I early on decided to make it easy for students either to miss a week and/or spend an extra week on revisions, with the alternate schedules showing how they would then proceed to the end of the semester.

Late Projects. This is something I started doing around 2005 or so. I originally accepted late projects without penalty up until Thursday noon, but this became so onerous for me in terms of the workload I had at the end of the week, trying to get comments return to everyone by the end of the day Friday, that I had to institute the partial-credit policy.   I feel badly about how that works (I don't like the idea of penalties at all, and I do call it "partial credit"), but so many students are oriented towards the deadline for an assignment that, without a real distinction between the soft deadline and the hard deadline, they will indeed wait for the hard deadline.

Grace Period. This is one of the single best things I ever came up with, and I guess it dates to around 2007. The students certainly did not enjoy writing me to ask for extensions (and I had students writing me basically every day), and I certainly did not enjoy hearing about whatever particular problem it was that prevented them from completing an assignment before midnight. I realized that of course it didn't matter to me whether an assignment was done at midnight or 3AM or 10AM for that matter, as long as it did not affect the overall workflow of the class. I wish I had thought of this sooner: it's been great for both the students and for me, given me a chance to send out a reminder email each morning that really is a big help to some students who do just need a last-minute nudge. They do their work mostly in the evenings and at night; I do most of my schoolwork during the day. The Grace Period is a perfect way to take advantage of that fact!

New for Fall 2014: This semester has been a time of all kinds of changes in my classes, and I am so happy with how those changes are going! In terms of safety nets, these three are new in Fall 2014: Half-Reading, Portfolio Option and Storybook Free Passes.


GOALS. Quite simply, my goal is for every student to pass the class. If a student fails a class simply because of poor time management skills or poor workload management skills, that seems to me a very bad business indeed. It means the student has lost out on the money they have paid for the class, and they have an "F" on their record which really does not indicate engagement with the course material one way or other other; instead, it usually just represents a failure to engage at all as a result of poor time management and workload management skills.


GENERAL THOUGHTS

I really believe that addressing the issues of time management and workload management head-on are is an incredibly important aspect both of course design and also of our day-to-day interactions with students. Some people might say that in a college course, it should be all about the content and it should be left entirely up to the students to do their own time management and workload management; to design a course with these factors in mind is considered by some of my colleagues to be "pandering to the students" or "dumbing down" of the class. I disagree. If the end result of these strategies is to increase the OVERALL level of student engagement with the coursework, then the exact opposite is true: by strategizing about time management and workload management, I am "smarting up" the class rather than dumbing it down!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Comment Wall

One of the biggest dilemmas I faced in switching from the Ning group blogging platform to Blogger was losing the great Ning Comment Wall feature. A simple solution — having students create a post called "Comment Wall" at their blogs — has turned out to work just fine! Not as good as Ning's Comment Wall... but definitely good enough!


BRIEF DESCRIPTION. Each student creates a simple post called "Comment Wall" in their blog which is easily accessible via the Comment Wall label. The post exists so that visitors to the blog can leave comments there. This is how students comment on each other's websites, and also how they leave thank-yous and other miscellaneous messages for each other. You can see how that works by looking at the Storybook listing for Myth-Folklore. As you can see, each Storybook has a link to the student's blog with Comment Wall. (For the Portfolio, since the writing consists of blog posts, students can just leave comments at those post although, interestingly, some students choose to do that at the Comment Wall instead and, of course, either way is fine!)


DETAILS.

Students do brainstorming and develop their Storybook projects during Weeks 1-5 of the semester, and then in Week 6, they begin commenting on each other's Storybooks. By that time, they have been leaving comments on each other's blogs for five weeks already, so they have become proficient at that, so the Comment Wall makes sense as a mode of communication. They receive feedback on their Storybook in this way for Weeks 6-12, which means every student should get around 10-15 comments total, and sometimes they get more if they are selected as a "free choice" in addition to the commenting group assignments.

I subscribe to the comment feeds for all my students' blogs, and I am really pleased by the quality of comments that are left both at the Comment Wall and also on the individual blog posts. Thanks to the power of Inoreader, you can see an HTML clippings view of the comment feels in my two classes. The Storybook comments are longer than the individual blog post comments as you'll see:
Myth-Folklore Comments
Indian Epics Comments


HISTORY.

For five years, I did all the student blogging in a Ning, and I used the wonderful "Comment Wall" on the Ning Profile page for students to leave comments for one another. That was the single best thing about the Ning: the Comment Wall really fostered CONVERSATION, in addition to comments, because it had a "reply" link with every comment, where you could create a threaded conversation back-and-forth between Comment Walls. Admittedly, though, students rarely took advantage of that option, and I suspect that was because the Ning had a strangely impersonal quality (see below) because of the generic design that did not allow individual customization.

In any case, I was very sorry to give that up that threaded conversation feature when I switched to the blogs, but I'm still pretty happy with how things have worked out: I use an Introduction blog post which serves much the same function as the old Profile Page did (I should write up an explanation of that also!), and the Comment Wall post solution has been working just fine.

One way in which this solution is superior to Ning is that when students visit another person's Comment Wall, they go in through the blog's main page, using the Comment Wall label to then click on to the Comment Wall. This means they get to see at a glance the person's latest posts, giving them an impression of what that person was doing for class over the past week. In the Ning, the Comment Wall was not integrated with the blog in that way and given how nicely the students are customizing their blogs to create a sense of personal presence, I really like the fact that to get to the Comment Wall you go through the blog home page.

Another factor that is contributing to the quality of interchange is how the students are in groups of three for their Storybook comments each week (new random groups each week). So, that means that they are both giving-and-getting comments to-and-from the people in the group. As a result, there is a sense of interchange that results from the round-robin strategy of using the groups. The comments are connected to one another in a kind of conversation among the group members each week.  Much of my approach here was driven by the QuadBlogging approach, along with a combination of randomization (so that everybody can meet everybody) and free choice (so that people can connect and reconnect based on shared interests).


GOALS. I consider student feedback on the Storybook to be one of the most crucial components of the class:

* Students have an audience for their work that is not just me.
* Students tend to provide holistic, personal feedback that is different from the feedback that I provide.
* Students learn how to provide feedback by practicing this skill every week while also receiving feedback each week from others.
* Students receive feedback in a timely fashion that allows them to improve their project week by week.
* Students can access all the project comments in a single place to review each time they spend time working on the project.


GENERAL THOUGHTS

The switch to Blogger which provoked me to use this "Comment Wall" post solution has been one of the best things that has ever happened in my classes. I had not realized what a negative effect the sameness of the Ning interface was having on the interactions: all the Ning blogs looked more or less the same (in a mini-Ning, students all had to use the same blog design), and all the comment walls looked more or less the same also. With Blogger, the sense of individual student presence and personality is so much stronger than it ever was before, which I think has given a big boost to the quality of the comments overall, with much more of a person-to-person dimension. I am very pleased with both the blog commenting and also the project comments at the Comment Walls!



Sunday, October 12, 2014

Week 8: Review Week - Spring 15

The Week 8 Review Week went even better in the Spring 2015 semester with a more clear set of assignments, so I've updated this post to explain my current strategy.


BRIEF DESCRIPTION. There are two review weeks in my classes each semester: Week 8 and Week 15. The idea is to promote some self-reflection, looking both backward and forward, while also soliciting feedback and suggestions from the students — suggestions for me, and also suggestions for future students. The workload is also much lighter, saving the students two or three hours of time. We all need a break for humpweek, after all! The semester has a very nice symmetry now as a result: Orientation Week (Week 1), six reading weeks (Weeks 2-7), Review Week (Week 8), six more reading weeks (Weeks 9-14), and then a Final Review Week (Week 15).


DETAILS.

Instead of the usual Monday-Thursday assignments (reading, reading diary posts, and a storytelling post), the Week 8 review week has four very simple assignments: three are blog posts in which students review their progress in the course so far, and one is a blog check-up:

Monday: Reading Review.
Tuesday: Writing Review.
Wednesday: Commenting Review.
Thursday: Blog Label Check-Up.

I thought it was pretty cool how the class really does exist along these three dimension. I could have added a Technology Review post also, but I figured the blog label check-up was really essential, and three reflection posts are enough. I'll do a Technology Review post at the end of the semester, though, because it will fit nicely there, and the students don't need a blog check-up at that time.

Of course, these assignments can all be done at once, and some students did indeed do all of them at once, freeing up the rest of the week for other things. For most students the blog check-up required no real work at all, although it served a very useful purpose for students who either were having trouble with their blog labels and/or people who had missed the Comment Wall assignment earlier in the semester.

For the Friday-weekend blog responding, there were no new Storytelling posts in Week 8, so I modified that assignment slightly: instead of commenting on Storytelling posts from the current week, students responded to these Review posts in each other's blogs.


HISTORY. My Indian Epics class has always had review weeks because of the way the reading was structured, with the Ramayana taking six weeks (Weeks 2-7) and the Mahabharata taking six weeks (Weeks 9-14). I felt like the students really needed a break in that class, both in order to help with the transition from one epic to the next, and also because the reading load is significantly heavier than in Myth-Folklore. But then as I thought about making changes to the classes for Fall 2014 (this has been a semester of some huge changes!), I decided that having review weeks would be great in Myth-Folklore also. I am very pleased with how that has turned out, and I am especially happy with the assignments as they have evolved over the past two semesters.


GOALS. Each of the individual assignments has its own goals, but overall some goals for this Review Week are:
* to prompt students to reflect on their work during the first half of the semester
* to encourage students to plan and strategize for the second half of the semester
* to solicit feedback and suggestions for me to use and also for future students
* to give students a break with a lighter workload during "humpweek"


GENERAL THOUGHTS

I guess that when students see the word "review," the first word that pops into their minds would be: exam. And, of course, it does make sense to review for an exam. The more important role of review, however, is the role that it plays in any kind of learning experience. In my classes, I have no exams or tests, but I really believe in the value of review for learning. There are elements of reflection and review built into many of the class activities, and I am also really glad to have these review weeks in place for Weeks 8 and 15 also. I say "no" to exams... but I say "yes" to review!

For a graphic, here is something from David Kolb's model of experiential learning which I found in a wonderful post by Karen LaBonte: The Quest in the Quest-ions - reflecting is crucial!

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Writing - Feedback - Revision

My anecdotal impression is that students do very little revision in their other classes and, even when they do revise, they have very limited feedback to go on. If we want student writing to improve, we have to offer offer multiple revision opportunities with abundant, detailed feedback.


BRIEF DESCRIPTION. In addition to their weekly blog posts, students complete a formal, semester-long writing project, and revision is a key component of that process. You can see the overall writing and revising schedule here: Storybook and Portfolio Schedules. For each assignment that they turn in as part of the project, the students receive detailed feedback from me which they then use in the revision process, and they also receive feedback from other students.


DETAILS. In other posts, I've written about these semester-long Storybook projects and Portfolio projects (students choose one or the other). In this post, I will focus on the role of feedback and revision in those projects.

Student writing workflow. The basic workflow is as follows:

* new story: students publish a new story and get detailed feedback from me, with ongoing feedback from other students
* revised story: students published the revised story, and they again get detailed feedback from me, with ongoing feedback from other students
* final revisions + new story: students revise the story one more time and also publish a new story, on which they get detailed feedback from me, etc.

As a result, each story in the project is revised at least twice, once substantially and once more for light editing. If needed, it's easy to add in an extra week of revision; the semester-long schedule is very flexible that way. As I've explained elsewhere, there is no grading component here, so students are not penalized in any way for needing an extra week of revision. There are no grades given on any of these writing assignments. No grading: instead, it's all about the feedback.

My comment workflow. Here is my comment workflow:

* Students alert me that their story is ready to read via an email that contains a completion checklist.
* I copy the text of their published story from the website into a plain text editor.
* I insert running comments into the student's writing, sentence by sentence and/or paragraph by paragraph.
* I write a paragraph or two of general comments at the top when I am done.
* I paste the result into an email replying to the student's checklist email.

Using plain text this way means that I do not have to worry about specific software choices: plain text email works well with any program on any device the student prefers to use. It is fast, convenient, and highly reliable.

Feedback contents. When the students turn in the stories for their projects, the first round of feedback they receive from me is extremely detailed, often sentence by sentence or even phrase by phrase. My aim is to share with them my experience as I read their writing, responding to it on a variety of levels such as:

* remarks about the story's overall development (character, plot, etc.)
* comments about composition at the word, phrase, and sentence level
* detailed identification of writing errors of all kinds
* questions about gaps, bumps, and other composition problems
* suggestions for further research and reading (links to online resources, other students' writing, etc.)

Here is a screenshot of a typical chunk of running comments inserted into a piece of student writing. My comments are marked with ==>


Canned comments. For comments related to writing mechanics (which is a huge problem for many students), I rely on an ever-evolving document (appx. 30 pages long now) which contains canned comments and links to online help. The comments have "xxx" in them where I can paste in the specific word or phrase or sentence from the student's actual story so that they can see what needs fixing, along with a link to an explanatory help page. You can see there the kinds of problems the students struggle most with at my writing support website: The Writing Laboratory.

Revision comments. When a student turns in a revision assignment, they get more limited feedback from me, focused strictly on remaining items that still need their attention. These are almost always just canned comments about writing mechanics, although if a student has substantially rewritten the story rather than just revising it, I'll treat that as an original writing assignment and provide sentence-by-sentence commentary a second time, which may or may not lead to a second week of extensive revision.

Time required. As you can guess, the time required to provide this type of feedback is considerable. I have designed my classes so that I am able to spend almost all my time each week providing this feedback to the students. I have 80-90 students each semester (three sections, 25-30 students per section), and the stories are typically 800-1200 words in length. On average it takes me appx. 20-30 minutes to comment on a new piece of writing, while a revision assignment goes much more quickly, usually taking just 10-15 minutes. My weeks alternate between original and revision weeks and, luckily for me, the students are also on slightly different schedules (the Portfolio option has also helped with that), so that in an original writing week I might have 50-60 new stories and 20-30 revision items, while in a revision week I'll have 50-60 revision items and just 20-30 new stories. Either way, it's real work: in an original writing week, I'll spend easily 30 hours writing up comments, but then I get a break in the revision weeks, when the load is more like 20-25 hours.

Feedback nirvana. Yep, you read that right: 30 hours. 20-25 hours. I am a full-time online instructor, and providing feedback to students is the single most important part of my job. Luckily, I also enjoy it enormously! When the day comes that I am not excited to get to work every morning, then I will redesign my courses from scratch to re-ignite myself. So far though — and I've been doing this for twelve years now — I find myself liking the job more and more, largely I suspect because I am getting better at it, which means the students are having a better experience too. That's a positive feedback loop for all of us!

In addition, the piecemeal nature of the commenting process means that I can take frequent short breaks, allowing me to attend to other class-related tasks (writing class announcements, responding to other student email, setting up the weekly comment groups, etc.), as well as spending time interacting with other teachers online. My use of social networks like Google+ and Twitter fits in very nicely with this intensive but piecemeal workload, so that I can take "social media breaks" all day long, often sharing what I am learning from my students as I work through the stack of assignments.

Daily quota. To make sure I keep up with the work and finish every week by the end of the day on Friday, I have a daily quota, Monday through Friday. I use labels in Gmail to flag the incoming assignments and to determine my daily workload. I also share my progress through the writing stack with my students as I've explained here: The Stack. I do no work on the students' projects over the weekend, although I sometimes choose to do course-related development activities ... like writing this blog post on a lovely Saturday afternoon. :-)

Feedback from other students. The students also provide feedback on the Storybooks and Portfolios each week. Their comments tend to be more holistic, not the sentence-level detail that I provide. This feedback takes the form of comments at the "Comment Wall" at their blogs.  Helping students learn to provide specific, useful feedback is an important goal, and it is often something new to them. Here are some of the materials I use to help the students learn how to provide useful feedback: Giving Feedback: Details, Details, Details and Storybook Feedback.

You can get a sense of the kinds of comments students leave for one another by browsing through their blogs; you will see a "Comment Wall" link in the top navigation or sidebar for each student's blog, along with comments on individual blog posts: Blog Directory. The students' eagerness and willingness to help one another with their writing is one of my favorite things about these classes!


HISTORY.

I was extremely naive when I first started teaching at the University of Oklahoma in 1999. I had no idea how much support my students needed in their writing, and I was also surprised at how uninterested they were in improving their writing for its own sake. When the students turned in their first papers in my first semester of teaching, I was simply overwhelmed. I realized that it would be impossible for me to comment on all the papers in a meaningful way while still returning them in a timely fashion, so I offered the class two options: get a grade on the paper but no comments, or rewrite their papers based on detailed comments from me, but not for a better grade. The comments and revision would simply be in order to improve their writing. Out of 50 students, exactly one took me up on the opportunity to rewrite his paper — Randy Hoyt, now a game developer and web programmer extraordinaire, and also a great writer.

So, that moment in Fall 1999 was my wake-up call. I realized that I was trapped in a meaningless, grade-driven writing nightmare, and I decided that I had to do something completely different. The next semester, I switched from traditional essay-writing to creative writing, helping the students to publish their writing as stories online, and so the Storybook was born. It was a great success: students loved writing the stories and they loved sharing them with their fellow students online. They were also extremely eager to learn how to create websites. Back in the year 2000, it was still quite an unusual skill to have. And even today, in 2014, the vast majority of my students have never published a website or even a blog.

So, solving the engagement problem was easy: the students were now eagerly writing stories that were truly a pleasure to read. In terms of writing mechanics, though, they still had serious problems, and it was harder for me to find a way to find a solution to that problem. In fact, it took another several years until I finally settled on the writing-feedback-revision routine that I now use. I simply did not realize at first that I had to make revision weeks a formal part of the process so that every other week students were doing revision, and nothing but revision, before they moved on to the next new story. I am very happy with this routine now, though, and it works well for students with a whole range of writing skills and motivation. Every student benefits from the opportunity to revise, and I try to adapt the feedback and revision expectations to the individual skill level and motivation of each student.

In the 2013-2014 school year, I embarked on a new dimension of the revision process, hoping to promote more autonomy in the revision process and encouraging the students to develop a personal repertoire of revision skills independent of the feedback they receive from me. This is still a very new project and, while I have seen some early successes, I still have a long way to go. It is proving to be a good challenge for me as a teacher, and I am learning a lot as I watch the students attempt to build up their independent revising skills. I have some new ideas I want to try in that regard next year; I'll write some more about all that in a separate post!


GOALS. Here are just a few of the goals I have in mind for this writing-feedback-revision process:

* to help students improve their writing
* to encourage students to feel a greater ownership of their writing
* to show students that writing is a process, not a one-time event
* to give students experience in commenting on other people's writing
* to separate evaluation of student writing from the grading process


GENERAL THOUGHTS

I have to note here that this all happened by accident: I never set out to be a writing teacher. If during that first semester of teaching the students had turned in assignments that were more or less acceptable, I probably never would have felt compelled to turn my classes into writing classes. I am so glad things turned out the way they did, though, as I have ended up with a more exciting job as a teacher than I ever imagined. Every week of every semester is so stimulating, filled with wonderful reading experiences for me and also with great teaching challenges as I am continually reminded of how difficult it is to write in English, but also how worthwhile it is to rise to that challenge.

What I like best is being able to feel confident about every single student, even if they might not be feeling any confidence in themselves. After having done this for so many years, I know for sure that every student has stories to tell, and I also know that they can learn to tell those stories well, using the power of language to bring their stories to life. With abundant feedback and opportunities for revision, they will all learn to become better writers.

Sad to say, though, my class might be the only college class in which their writing really improves, and there are all kinds of reasons why the writing process is badly neglected in other college classes. Here are what I consider to be the top three reasons:

1. The teaching of content trumps the teaching of writing.
2. Writing, and the teaching of writing, both take a lot of time.
3. Almost no college instructors are trained as writing instructors.

These are not easy problems to fix, yet I do not see how we can continue to graduate students with poor writing skills and low confidence in their writing. I find it frustrating that we hear an endless chorus of praise for "critical thinking skills" yet almost nothing about the teaching of writing. The next time you read some high-minded defense of humanities education, take a look to see exactly what the authors say about the teaching of writing and what specific proposals they offer to fix the serious structural problems listed above. They might opine about the importance of writing, but such platitudes don't help to solve the actual problems we face.

If college students are going to learn to be confident, skilled writers, they require abundant feedback and revision opportunities, and I think it is time for us to have an honest conversation about how we can make that happen. If we are not going to have that conversation, then we need to be prepared for Kaplan and Pearson and the other purveyors of standardized education and standardized testing to take over higher education, with no one to blame but ourselves: they are only filling the educational vacuum that we have created.

We can and must do better!


The beautiful part of writing is that you don't have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon. — Robert Cormier.