Should I Force Students to Read Paper Comments?

Force Feed

Last week, I wrote about the way I have dramatically reduced my grading load this semester by skipping comments on student papers. As usual, my readers helped clarify my position.  I could have more accurately written that I reduced my grading load by switching to a face-to-face commenting structure rather than attempting to write comments on every student paper.

The main problem with trying to comment on every paper is I am inevitably wasting time writing out some comments that are never even read by the students they’re intended for. No matter how hard we try as teachers (or how much we deny the truth), there are just some students who don’t care about the feedback. These students flip to the bottom of the page, check the grade, and toss the paper in the trash along with all those painstakingly-crafted comments.

Maybe I’m too much of a realist—or too cynical—but I can’t bring myself to ignore the truth that a lot of my time as a teacher is wasted. I’m sure part of my perturbation also comes from the fact that I teach part-time and therefore have a lot more going on in my life than just teaching. In fact, teaching is really only a small part of my life. The less time I spend on it, the more time I have to do other things.

I realize that might not be a popular approach to teaching, but that’s the mentality I’ve adopted in order to retain sanity as an adjunct. Teaching is a job and the smarter I can do it, the better.

That being said, a big part of the job is also making sure students are learning and getting better. I don’t want to make dramatic changes that negatively impact my students. I have to find a healthy balance between work flow and student development. So I run experiments like the one I’m conducting this semester in order to discern the best practices that achieve that healthy balance.

On that note, I’ve been thinking more about how I could experiment with commenting on student papers. A few comments on last week’s post suggested ways I might check to make sure students are reading comments.

A comment by unfortunatehabits pointed out that I could make students respond to my comments or compile questions after reading them. Not a bad suggestion, but I’m not sold on the idea of forcing students to read my comments. Unfortunatehabits calls this the “eat your vegetables” style of commenting. I like the name, but I’m not sold on the efficacy of this strategy. Personally, I would probably just resent the teacher for making me do it, which isn’t exactly a good state of mind for learning. But maybe unfortunatehabits is right. Maybe some learning would sink in after several force feedings.

Another idea I had was to use the Track Changes function in Google Docs or Microsoft Word in order to ensure students are at least engaging with the feedback. I could require students to accept changes and resolve comments. Resolved comments could be responded to directly in Google Docs and disputed comments could be discussed in the margin, as well. I guess if I really wanted to get serious about it, I could sneak in a ringer comment or two that would show me if the students were paying attention. Grading these responses would be one way to force students to read my feedback.

I can’t help but point out, though, that this would be adding even more work to my already sizable grading load. It goes back to finding that balance between what is good for the students and what keeps me from spreading myself too thin. I haven’t found the perfect ratio yet, but I’ll keep trying new experiments and tweaking my strategy. I believe classroom innovation is crucial to both advancing student learning and alleviating teacher burnout.

Save Time By Skipping Comments on Student Papers

Day Dreaming at Work

I’ve always assumed students enjoy reading feedback on their papers about as much as I enjoy writing it. But that’s never stopped me from continuing to give it on every paper. Each semester, I take my stacks of student papers and work through them one by one, adding comments in the margin and coming up with some kind of end note that lists a couple positive comments and a couple suggestions for improvement. And each semester, I hand them back, not knowing if anyone cares about my advice or even reads it.

What if most students aren’t even reading my notes? Frankly, it would be a terrible waste of my time.  I could grade papers much faster if all I have to do is slap a grade at the end.

Of course, that wouldn’t necessarily be the most responsible way to teach writing. Personally, I would feel like I was shirking my duty to the students. Like I was shortchanging them somehow. Surely there are some students who actually do care about becoming better writers.

But as any adjunct who teaches multiple low-wage sections of composition knows, efficiency is king. The faster I can burn through papers, the better chance I have of earning a living wage. Some adjuncts have even argued that adjuncts should do the absolute bare minimum in order to maximize their usually sub-par pay. I don’t quite go that far because I take pride in my work and I always try to do a good job. However, I definitely understand the sentiment of that argument and I think it’s worth considering.

Ideally, adjuncts (and other teachers) could find a way to fulfill their responsibilities to the students and also to maximize their efficiency by not wasting time on futile exercises. To that end, I came up with a new strategy this semester and, so far, it’s been working pretty well. Rather than simply assuming every student is equally interested in my detailed feedback on their papers, I instead made the opposite assumption—that no student is interested in my feedback.

The No Comment Approach to Grading Student Papers

Here’s how my little grading experiment works. For each paper, I put barely more than a grade, and under that grade I write: “Feel free to make an appointment during which we can discuss specific strategies for improvement.”

This way students can easily learn more if they’d like by coming to the office. If, on the other hand, they care only about the grade, I don’t waste my time writing out comments.

I have followed this strategy for every student paper this semester that earns above a “C.” Any paper that earns a “C” or below still gets normal feedback. In my mind, these students need the most help, so I actually feel guilty not commenting on their papers, regardless of whether the student chooses to read those comments.

Aside from the time saver, I’ve found that paper comments work much better as a discussion anyway. Students can hear my tone and understand my perspective better. And they can respond to me, which is something we never got with static comments. This way, my feedback becomes a two-way discussion. I can hear the student’s thought process and confirm whether or not he understands the advice I give.

Surprisingly few students have actually come to my office to discuss their papers. In the single digits. I’ll let you decide for yourself if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. That being said, I’ve still had more students in the office this semester than I usually do, so that’s probably a victory in some way.

From the teacher’s perspective, this experiment has been a huge success. I’ve saved dozens of hours by leaving the comments off student papers. There’s no doubt in my mind that this grading style makes my life easier.

As for the students, well, I can say those who have come to the office to talk have certainly received more specialized help than I’ve ever been able to give students in the past.

It’s hard to say how the absence of comments affects the students who received no direct feedback from me all semester. I admit to feeling a little uneasy about that outcome, which feels like a dereliction of duty somehow. But, then again, maybe these students never would have read my comments anyway.

All in all, this experiment appear to be a net positive. I’m curious what you think, though. Have I gone too far with this strategy? Is there a better way to save time and also continue to improve the writing of my students?

 

Classroom Advice for a New Teacher

New Teacher Award

All new teachers want to know what to expect. Maybe you arrived at this article asking the same question: What can I expect as a new teacher in a college classroom? What should I do on the first day of class? The first week? How should I grade? How many papers should I assign? What if no one talks in class?

All valid questions and real concerns for a new teacher. Due to the large number of requests I get to answer questions like these, I’ve decided the best thing I can do is create a post series dedicated to new teachers. In this series, I’ll answer all of these common questions about how to prep and what to expect as a new teacher. I’ll cover some of the grading policies I’ve developed over the years (including some that failed miserably), and I’ll also toss in some sample assignments, paper prompts, and syllabi that I’ve had success with in my classroom.

This new teacher series will focus primarily on freshman composition for two reasons. One, it’s what I teach. That one’s obvious. The second reason, though, is that freshman comp is by far the most common course taught by new teachers. Almost every student at every university is required to take at least one semester of freshman writing, so you can imagine how many sections that translates to each year. Lots of young writers and lots of young teachers standing in front of them, imparting their writing wisdom.

[pullquote]In the writing classroom, new teachers have to develop interesting paper prompts, create and navigate a grading rubric, facilitate engaging classroom discussions.[/pullquote]

And, furthermore, freshman composition allows more creative freedom to the new teacher than any other course. It’s not like math or science, where the prof can just follow along with the textbook and run multiple choice tests through the computer grader. In the writing classroom, new teachers have to develop interesting paper prompts, create and navigate a grading rubric, facilitate engaging classroom discussions.

So many opportunities for uncertainty and excitement. And, ahem, so many opportunities for a new teacher to crash and burn. Don’t worry about that, though. That’s why you are reading this series. Because you’re going to prepare properly and succeed in your first semester as a new teacher.

A New Teacher Resource Guide

The point is the composition classroom has many opportunities for you to do what you think is best. Which is pretty cool if you’re ready for it. Hopefully this series will help you–and the many others who contact me each week–plan for a successful first teaching experience. Over these next few weeks, I’ll regular add short posts containing advice, tips, anecdotes, and examples for new teachers in the composition classroom.

If all goes well, I’ll turn it into a nice little ebook resource when I’m finished that will help many future new teachers. You can be a part of the experience by interacting with  the articles. Use the comments to ask your own questions, to give advice, or to share your experiences as a new teacher. Also feel free to tweet me with ideas or questions: @josh_boldt.

The more people we get involved, the more comprehensive the resource will be. Hopefully fewer teachers will have to learn the hard way like many of us did.

Continue to the next post in the series: Prepping For Your First Day in the Classroom.

Attack of the Robot Graders!

Michael Winerip’s recent New York Times piece entitled “Facing a Robo-Grader? Just Keep Obfuscating Mellifluously” basically just confirms everything we already knew about computer grading. Nothing to see here. Keep moving.

Still reading? Oh. Fine then. The article is about the new “e-rater” by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which can grade 16,000 essays in 20 seconds. Winerip pits the ETS e-rater against MIT writing director, Les Perelman, who systematically disembowels the robot grader and its proponents. Two days later, Winerip appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered to discuss his article. According to him:

The automated systems look for a number of things in order to grade, or rate, an essay, Winerip says. Among them are sentence structure, syntax, word usage and subject-verb agreements. “[It’s] a lot of the same things a human editor or reader would look for,” he says.

Enh! Wrong.

In my grading rubric (and the grading rubric of most contemporary composition instructors), sentence level and grammatical issues are pretty much at the bottom of the list of priorities. Of course, if a paper is riddled with these “local errors” to the point that it effects the paper’s coherence, that’s clearly an issue that needs to be dealt with. Incidentally, these are the students who need a real teacher the most. So, pawning these students off on machines would be one of the most irresponsible educational decisions imaginable. Thus, the e-rater fails the test for evaluating students with real developmental writing needs.

But what about students who are decent writers looking to polish their essays? Well, that’s not going to work either. Papers with only a moderate number of local errors can (and in my opinion, should) be evaluated differently. Personally, I care much more about my students’ ideas and overall structure. Like whether they craft strong thesis statements, transition smoothly, and support their claims with appropriate and well-documented evidence. Let’s see how the computer grader weighs in on these issues.

“You could say the War of 1812 started in 1925,” Winerip says. “There are all kinds of things you could say that have little or nothing to do in reality that could receive a high score.”

Oh, really. Interesting.

As NPR’s Melissa Block points out, “they truly don’t understand what they’re reading.” Because of this, a computer will never be able to effectively evaluate a sophisticated and multi-faceted piece of writing. In order to fully appreciate a student’s writing process, one must be capable of understanding what one is reading.

Aside from that, how can a student be expected to improve as a writer and a thinker without ever receiving any constructive feedback beyond how many commas he misused? What that does is teach a very formulaic, cookie-cutter style. A style free from “error.” A style with no room for creativity or personal voice. Think for a minute about the great Americans who have made this country what it is. Inventors, Artists, Writers, Entrepreneurs, Thinkers. How many of them would you say colored within the lines? How many of them would you say believed creativity was an unnecessary nuisance that should be stifled whenever possible?

Why Robot Grading Doesn’t Work

Grading is necessarily a dynamic process. It is interactive. Improving student writing requires that teachers enter into conversation with their students. If we really want to make students better writers, we have to talk to them about how to get better, whether that is through comments or in conferences. We can’t just assign a grade and wash our hands. Anyone who disagrees with this either doesn’t care about improving student writing, or is lying to himself.

Personally, I believe the proponents of computer-grading predominately fall into the latter category. Many are administrators who want to streamline the process and make it more efficient and of course, cheaper. Others are teachers who are burned out and tired of grading, which I totally understand. I really do. The efficacy of effectively evaluating 100 essays in a week is equally as questionable. I would love to turn my grading over to computers and have that most difficult weight of teaching lifted from my shoulders. But, I know it would be irresponsible and it would be a disaster to student improvement, so I won’t do it.

I know everyone is up in arms right now about these recent developments in computer-grading, but it just isn’t even something we should be discussing at this point. In the NPR interview, Block astutely points out that she isn’t “sure [she] can see a value beyond speed.” Exactly. Machine grading has absolutely no value beyond speed. None. Surely, this isn’t what it has come to.

Move on. Nothing to see here.

Paper Two Redux, or How I Kept From Drowning in a Sea of Student Papers

As promised, here is the follow up post regarding my on-the-fly restructuring of last semester’s paper prompts.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, this past semester was the first time I taught four sections of the same course. One prep? No prob! Easy semester! Yeah, not so much. Try 100 papers delivered on the same day. For you math whizzes out there, that means somewhere around 500 pages. To grade AND comment on. Not just read. I’ll get right on that.

After a miserable week of grading, I managed to tread water and slowly drag myself to shore. Where I was still lying–beached–as I handed out the Paper Two prompt. I hated the thought of another marathon grading round about as much as my students hated the thought of writing another paper. So, I came up with a brand new plan.

First of all, I just want to stress again as I did in my earlier post that I really don’t mind grading. I kind of like it even. Student papers make me happy (does this make me insane?). I love seeing students apply what they have learned. When a student learns from a mistake and revises a draft, it’s one of the highlights of my life. Seriously. And this is the very reason I hated grading 100 papers at a time. I couldn’t possibly give each one the attention it needed. I couldn’t possibly advise each student thoroughly. I couldn’t effectively do what I love to do: teach.

My first thought was: “Okay, I’ll just stagger the due dates.” Not a bad plan. It would have done the job. I didn’t like the way it would mess with my course outlines, though. We would inevitably get behind in some sections. There had to be another way. Something more innovative and interesting.

If you know anything about me, you know I am a collaborating fool. Especially in the brainstorming stage. God, I love kicking ideas around with people. Talking them out until they grow into solid plans. The other thing my colleagues know about me is my obsession with revision and drafting. Ah, the groundwork has been laid.

I was on the phone with my friend Wes Blake, a future trendsetting high school English teacher, when the paper two plan began to materialize. It started with the goal of de-emphasizing the grade or product, and prioritizing revision and the writing process. I wanted to find a way to push students to care about drafting. The new plan would do just that. It would also empower the student to make decisions, allow me to intimately advise one-on-one, and of course lift the heavy burden of grading from my shoulders (or at least reduce it a little). Without further ado, here is Paper Two Redux:

  1. First, all students write a rough draft of their papers (following a detailed prewrite, as always).
  2. Peer Review. This is also standard procedure in my classes. Every student’s paper is peer reviewed by at least two classmates.
  3. This is where things get interesting. Students do a “Revision Reflection” in which they digitally comment in the margins of their own papers, and then they write a 250 word introduction to their reflections. In this introduction they have quite a bit of creative freedom to discuss how they intend to revise the paper. They can mention advice gleaned from peer reviews, discuss the thesis, outline a plan for including outside sources–it’s really up to them. The key is this revision plan is graded. They know if they just say “I need to fix my grammar,” it will hurt their final grades. The burden is on them to take revision seriously.
  4. Next, I scheduled a week of one-on-one meetings with my students. This is something I love doing anyway, and it fit perfectly because it was right at midterm. No class during this week of meetings. Each student was required to come and talk to me for 15 minutes. In these meetings, we discussed their Revision Reflections. They told me how they intended to revise. Interestingly enough, most of them knew exactly what their weaknesses were. They told me what they were doing wrong. This allowed me to immediately focus on direct mentorship during the coveted “teachable moment.” By the time each student left my desk, he or she had a plan in place for how to revise the paper.
  5. Grading for this assignment was particularly interesting. I divided it into three categories: Draft completion, Revision Reflection, and Enacting the Revision Plan. Each received equal weight.
    • If a student turned in a rough draft, he or she was given full credit for that portion. I don’t like to “grade” drafts for anything other than completion because I feel like it defeats the purpose. This portion of the grade was simple for me. Turned it in? Check.
    • The Revision Reflection was basically graded on the spot. I read it with the student during the meeting. Afterwards, I jotted down a quick grade and a few notes regarding the plan. That simple.
    • The third part of the grade was the most time-consuming, but even it wasn’t all that bad. I read the final papers and cross-referenced my notes to see if the changes had been made.
    • Finally, I just plugged each grade into Excel and averaged them up. Pretty sweet.

This grading experiment went so well, I plan to do it again this semester. Because it emphasizes different steps in the process (and I found that it favored the student grade-wise), I wouldn’t recommend doing this for every paper. Not only that, it’s hard to justify canceling that much class to do my one-on-one meetings (although . . . potentially much more beneficial . . . another post maybe). Anyway, my students loved the creativity and flexibility. Many of them cited this assignment as the most helpful assignment of the semester. And, of course, I lived to grade another day by alleviating some of the crushing at-home workload.