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Teaching Students to Write: Dealing with the Perennial Problem of the Pile of Crap
I'm currently designing my next course and I am faced with a problem that gets me every semester: what's the best way to teach students how to write well while balancing that objective with many others?
Many people in my department subscribe to the "look-Ma-no-hands" pedagogical principle, which asserts that the best way to learn to write papers is to learn from something you've already written, rather than going off of somebody else's templates. So, we assign papers, have the students write them, and grade fairly charitably the first time around; the idea is that the light hand should alleviate the discomfort that some students feel from having to write papers blind. Having myself done this, I've got a few problems with this approach:
Students really feel that this is unfair. "How is it fair that we get graded for something that we don't know how to do?," is the graceful, clear way of summarizing the question asked by many of my students.
The light grading tends to skew what students actually would get if you graded the papers for real. It's sometimes hard to explain to a student why they got a C on their second paper when they followed the same formula that got them an B on the first one. Responding that there was higher expectations on the second paper than the first doesn't help unless they can see what those expectations are.
Some students are encouraged to turn in the Pile of Crap, since (A) they know they can reasonably argue that their poor grade is unfair and (B) they know that they'll likely get a passing grade regardless of what they turn in.
Sidebar: A Pile of Crap is a project turned in with the absolute minimum work taken to complete it. What separates the Pile of Crap from the Last Minute Project is that the former is banking on some ambiguity in the assignment or on the student's ability to complain or wheedle about some aspect of the assignment, whereas the Last Minute Project actually represents the student doing the best she can to complete the assignment and get the best grade possible. An example of a Pile of Crap project is a student turning in a paper that is 2.15 pages long, when the assignment calls for a three page paper, with the student asserting that the paper technically makes it to the third page (after they've already found the largest type-face at twelve font and have used reference footnotes to bump the page length). Even though the ploy is as obvious as a forehead-mounted prom pimple, if push came to shove, the student would likely win in an academic dispute. And students also know that you don't have time to bother with such processes and will likely give them a decent grade not to have to deal with it. But there's tension from the other direction, too. If you spend too much time teaching students how to write, you do so at the cost of covering material relevant to whatever course they're taking. An additional complication is that, frankly, many students just don't care that their writing is par at best. This is especially problematic if your course is an elective or a course that people have to take to graduate. "Give me the grade, and as long as I pass, I don't care." The recognition that the hard work put into trying to teach people to write well will fall flat on many purely degree-seeking ears seems to justify not spending that much time developing our teaching agendas around teaching people to write.
And that's just the front-side planning. Grading papers thoroughly and providing feedback on papers is time-consuming. Generally, if my students hand in a 4-5 page paper, my comments to them, if I want to be thorough about it, tend to be at least one page (single-spaced). There have been some papers where my comments have had a longer word length than the student's paper. This is not because I am extremely picky or over-demanding or think I'm a much better writer than they are (which you can see by what you're reading), but rather, giving constructive criticism and discussing (in writing) ways they may approach their topic differently requires a lot of thought and writing. If I plan on giving thorough comments, I estimate 25 minutes for every paper, and that tends to be pretty close. So, for a class of 30 students, that's 12.5 hours of grading. I'm fortunate not to be carrying a 4/4 load yet, but, if I were, that'd be 50 hours of just grading to do. Assuming I do three papers (somewhat standard), that's 150 hours of grading papers, and only papers, spread out over 18 weeks. It'd take eight hours and twenty minutes, on average, per week to complete that much grading, but we all know that papers are feast or famine, coming in at key points in the semester. Again, assuming a 4/4, you can plan on blocking off an entire week (and some change) during critical times in the semester just for grading.
So, here's the spectrum: On one end, you have doing as little writing preparation and grading work as possible. On the other end, you have spending the time to be completely thorough in preparation and grading. I've considered some ways of shooting for the middle:
Assign the first paper, but deceptively not inform the students that it won't be graded. In reality, it's a draft or test-run. This satisfies the intuition that learning from what you've actually done is the best way to learn, but does so at the cost of you spending the time grading something that won't be reflected in any grade. Both you and the students have done a lot of work that doesn't count (at least this time). You also sacrifice a bit of your credibility by going this route, as part of the student-teacher relationship is built on trust.
Ask students who care about their writing to indicate whether they want feedback or not. This ensures that your efforts are well-spent on those students who care and not on those who just want the grade. I can attest from personal experience that two things happens with this approach: (a) no student really wants to admit that they don't care, thinking it'll effect your perception of them and hence their grade, and (b) students who get a grade they aren't happy with then want to talk about it, so you end up looking at the same thing twice.
Assign the first paper, but tell people that it won't be graded. This cures the anxiety of students and often frees up their thinking (meaning that you actually get some really good papers), but it also leaves plenty of room for the Pile of Crap. In my experience, most students respond only to the impact that assignments will have on their grade, not on the impact it'll have on their scholarly development; generally, the higher the grade impact, the more work they'll put into the assignment.
Assign the paper, grade it for real, and give students the option of rewriting the paper and averaging the two grades. This encourages maximum development, lets students who are happy with their grade take it and not work anymore, and thwarts some of the perceived unfairness of the turning something in blind. Perhaps more importantly, though, it also gives students an incentive to not turn in the Pile of Crap, as they know that doing so will hurt their average. However, these benefits come at the cost of your time, since you can anticipate grading at least half of the papers over again.
Option 4 seems to offer the best benefits for the least costs. This time around I'm going with it.
What's your technique for teaching your students how to write well?