Three Lessons from WID I Didn’t Know I Needed to Learn
Truth: When I applied to WID and was accepted as a WID Writing Fellow, I expected to learn some new tricks of the trade, gather some new ideas for writing assignments, and then move on with those new tools in my toolshed. I particularly looked forward to exchanging ideas with faculty from other disciplines about their teaching; it is a rare occasion and opportunity, after all, to have time to work with other faculty at length and in a structured way to exchange ideas about becoming a better teacher.
But admittedly, these were the limits of what I expected: that is, the opportunity to take time to think about my teaching, good conversations and new ideas in working with other faculty, and, as a consequence, perhaps some new assignments or ideas for my own classroom. Of course, this would have been worthwhile in its own right.
What I didn’t expect, however, was for WID to fundamentally rewire how I thought about teaching, particularly in the context of focusing only one aspect of it—the writing assignments. What’s more, I didn’t expect it to fundamentally challenge some of my long-held beliefs about how to structure good writing assignments. I had, after all, spent a great deal of time thinking, pedagogically, about how to structure meaningful assignments and had well-defended ideas about what I wanted students to learn from them. I didn’t quite expect that some of my assumptions could be, well…..misinformed, or just plain wrong.
So, for my teaching profile, I would like to focus on three lessons I took away from my WID experience that I didn’t know I needed to learn. As part of my teaching profile, I am going to include some ‘before’ and ‘after’ examples/shots to highlight the new, improved and WID-schooled me. These are in no particular order in terms of significance; they are all important.
1. It’s not all about you
It’s not all about you: Of course, as teachers, it’s not all about us! It’s about the students, right? Well, yes and no. It’s about the students, but ALL students, not just the kind of student you were. It seems pretty clear to me now, but one of the unexpected lessons I took away from my WID reeducation was understanding that I had been unwittingly shaping my writing assignments based on the kind of student I was—on what I longed for in writing assignments (creativity, fewer guidelines, opportunities for self-directed and styled study)—and not the range of learners my students were and continue to be.
Here’s one clear example: One of my main goals for students in designing writing assignments involves helping them work towards, understand, and reflect on reading assignments in the class. Bean discusses this in relation to helping students understand difficult texts (Chapter 9) and offers both the “reading log” and “exploratory writing with teacher prompted questions” as options for assignments that get students to interact with texts. I had, before WID, already incorporated several ‘low stakes’ writing reflections into my Individual and Society course to (a) assure/encourage that students completed and thought about the assigned readings before class and (b) provide students with ‘practice’ in reflecting personally on the ideas in the readings to engage with them meaningfully as well as work as a scaffold to the major writing assignment in the class: a sociological memoir. In the sociological memoir, they would have to use their ‘sociological imagination’ to address how one or more aspects of their personal biography was shaped by social forces using the course material; the low stakes assignments, I believed, prepared them for this.
These assignments did, and still do, take place in the first 15-20 minutes of class, are ‘open-book’ and ask students to reflect on the assigned readings for the day. I still structure these low stakes assignments as ‘informal reflections’, which take the form of a pseudo-diary (“Dear Anna-Liisa”) and require students to reflect on the readings and, hopefully, analyze one or more of the main ideas in light of their own experience. In Bean’s suggestion (p. 178), this is all well and good. Reading diaries, or logs, are one way to get students to interact with the text and authors by connecting theories and ideas to their own lives.
In my pre-WID days, however, I EXPRESSLY did not provide guidance to students on what to write about and what I was ‘looking for’ in their responses—doing so, I thought, was exactly the opposite of encouraging intellectual, personal, and critical engagement with the material that I wanted them to learn. After, all, I reasoned, I wanted students to get into the habit of thinking for themselves and responding to what was meaningful to them in the readings. So, I provided them with a blank page and “Dear Anna-Liisa” as guidance. In short, I assumed that providing structure, such as in the form of guiding questions, or prompts, would severely limit students’ creativity, critical thinking and thus ability to engage with the material. I knew for certain that, as a student, I would have hated such limitations.
In addition, however, I graded these assignments on a “0” (not completed) and 60-100 scale, believing that to be the best way to provide structured, clear goal posts for students for these reflections. I remembered also, as a student, that I hated the ‘writing to write’ or loose ‘check/check plus’ schema for any writing assignments; it didn’t speak to my competitive, grade-oriented student self who wanted such clarity. So the assignment was informal but the grading was formal. I had, of course, unwittingly brought rather high stakes grading into a low stakes assignment, all the while explaining to my students that should figure out what to write about. And, of course, I held onto this model and explained my logic, again and again, to students each semester, despite the fact that some would regularly look at me with moderate to severely panicked gazes at the outset of class, asking vaguely for guidance because that they couldn’t fathom what to write about.
I had to admit, when we first started discussing low stakes, formative assignments, I thought: “low stakes assignments based on readings: check; scaffolding for bigger assignment: check.” Ok. But the suggestion that I should use prompts or questions to guide students in their responses? Or a loose grading structure that was not numerical to provide feedback on these assignments to reduce the anxiety associated with them (i.e. 100-0)? *Gasp*. In presenting why I structured the assignment this way, however, the discussion quickly turned to the different kinds of students that are in our classroom and how they see and experience such assignments. Many are just completely overwhelmed and stressed out by the blank page. Me? I would have loved it as a student. Then Anne Thorpe succinctly suggested that we, as educators, often design assignments for the students we were, even though most of us were not and are not the typical student we encounter as teachers in the classroom. Suddenly, I understood all of those stressed-out faces and it dawned on me that I was not, in fact, getting students to reflect well on the readings by providing less, rather than more guidance. And I was not giving them better structure by providing a graded, numerical scheme to those assignments. So I restructured all of my low stakes assignments, providing leading questions, a ‘zero-check plus’ structure, and more guidance generally on what I am looking for with the caveat that students can write about whatever they want if the question(s) don’t speak to them, thus combining the ‘reading log’ and ‘prompt’ assignment options into one. The result, across the board, has been better written work on the readings.
In addition, and unexpectedly, this also led to better discussion on the basis of the readings for the class in which they are assigned. Rather than asking about seemingly personal experiences in their ‘diary’, I ask students about their responses to the questions. And they are more likely to share. Better learning, all around. So, it wasn’t all about me, or the kind of student I was that I (unintentionally) wanted my students to be.
Here’s a before and after of my assignments:
Before (instructions in the course outline):
Sociological Reflections (10 total) = 22%
You will have the opportunity, as part of this class, to read excerpts of primary material and/or watch presentations by sociological theorists and researchers. These readings will be posted on Lea. Presentations, where noted, will be done in class. On the days noted in the course schedule, you will spend the first 20 minutes of every class in silence, responding to the assigned reading or presentation in a sociological journal. This assignment is not formal, and you will not be graded on style. Still, I expect you to articulate yourself in a legible script with a certain rudimentary coherence, and I would prefer it if you would use a ballpoint pen and refrain from skipping pages or lines. After commencing your entry with “Dear Anna-Liisa”, talk informally about what struck you as interesting in the reading. I am looking for proof that you have engaged with the reading in a meaningful way. Journals will be collected each class and graded promptly. There are only six possible grades for journal entries: 0 (unacceptable); 60 (somewhat acceptable); 70 (good); 80 (very good); 90 (excellent); 100 (outstanding). To earn a grade in the 60-80 range, you must demonstrate an informed familiarity with the assigned reading. To earn a grade in the 90-100 range, you must demonstrate an informed familiarity with the assigned reading AND evaluate at least one of the ideas advanced by the assigned reading in a thoughtful manner.
And, some sample feedback, 0-100 scale (Grade: 80)
Dear _________ :
Though quite strong, this journal entry nevertheless reads more like a summary than a reflection. In addition, this journal entry ends without giving any one idea the sustained attention that it deserves–viz., it’s WAY too general. Next time around, please be sure to focus on one particular idea in the text and examine it carefully. What’s more, I want to see more of YOU in the next journal entry. A question you should always ask is: Does this idea ring true for ME? And if so, WHY? Does it accord with my personal experience? And if so, WHY? Does it accord with the experiences of the people in my life? And if so, WHY? Give examples. Illustrate your points. Be concrete. Be specific. Generally speaking, here are four things you should keep in mind when you’re writing the next journal entry: 1) To earn a grade in the 90-100 range, you must evaluate at least one of the ideas advanced in the reading in a thoughtful manner (that is, connect it to lived experience) AND connect your reading to at least one of the sociological topics and/or concepts. 2) Journal entries that receive a grade of “70” or “80” usually have some kind of a relationship with the week’s reading assignment, but that relationship is not made obvious. What’s more, journal entries of this stamp invariably fail to connect the ideas in question to the broader themes of the course. 3) Journal entries that receive a grade of “90” or “100” engage directly with the text in a clear and obvious manner. 4) More often than not, the best journal entries—i.e., those that receive grades of “90” and “100”—are (at least) one single-spaced page in length.
After: See attachment. And below, the post-WID evaluation on my new “check” system:
|Check Plus (demonstrates clear, keen understanding of the material and relates its ideas well to social issues or personal experience)
|Check (demonstrates clear, keen understanding of the material; analysis is more summary and provides less insight)
|Check Minus (unclear understanding of the material; entry is not long enough to clarify understanding or response is not clear)
|Zero (non-completion of reading assignment and/or little understanding of content)
2. It’s all about rubrics
It’s all about rubrics, and not about rubrics, stupid: Before I entered my PhD, I worked in educational reform born of a stint with a Master’s degree in public policy and focus on educational and social policy in the United States. I spent the better part of my days working with struggling high schools and community-based organizations to help at-risk students and reengage students who had dropped out of high school. Much of what I did to address this, on an ongoing basis, was to write rubrics—rubrics for ‘soft skills’, standard high school subjects, and the like. Strange as that may sound generally, we learned with bosses as well as teachers that defining meaningful criteria for performance clarified and strengthened the capacity not just of students, but of managers and teachers to provide constructive, positive ways to address and discuss improvement.
As a consequence of this experience, I have to say that writing and using rubrics was and is just part of the initial process for me: doing so helps me define what I want students to learn when I design and define a new assignment as well as set expectations for what I expect in terms of performance for the assignment (here, this relates to writing assignments). Bean points out, again and again, that these are some of the primary and useful ways in which rubrics can be used to clarify expectations for students as well as provide meaningful criteria when grading for teachers. And yet….
Bean also points out the utility of peer review for drafts and feedback between students before submission of the final product. So, if I post the grading rubric in advance to set my expectations and encourage peer review, what happens? Here, I learned something revolutionary. I had only used rubrics to set my expectations and for grading consistency; while Bean discusses the several options and provides suggestions on finding your own way, I pretty much thought I had these down aside from clarifying and defining some of my criteria more thoroughly.
But again, no, I didn’t. Why? Because, by chance, I was also experimenting with non-standard forms of writing in assignments that took students out of their comfort zone and quickly bucked up against the limits of a well-defined rubric. The limits of what I used them for became clear in the context of assigning a photo essay for my advanced sociology class. As background, students in this class were already at the point of writing 10-page papers in another class during the same semester and I wanted to provide meaningful options that incorporated different forms of writing and research for their major assignment; the photo essay form, employing both visual media driven by text, seemed like a worthwhile and worthy WID experiment in the making. Yet I found it difficult, in this, to assure students who were unused to this new, unusual format to understand that the writing and analysis component was essential to the process of shaping a research- and academically-driven essay including photos of an applied subject.
My first approach, of course, was to provide the grading rubric for the proposal and final product to students. But this was still challenging. And, before WID, I have to admit I put little stock in peer review as part of the writing and learning process.
So, I tried combining the two—providing the rubric to students for the proposal and the final product, yet also requiring students to present, in small groups, their proposals to one another, use the grading criteria defined by the rubric, and provide meaningful feedback as well as peer-reviewed grading on the basis of the same to one another before assignments were submitted.
The results were magic. Why? Because altogether the criteria seemed to have more meaning from the outset. Suddenly, reviewing the rubric was not only a presentation about what I expected from them, but the basis for how they would look at each other’s work. So they listened more and asked more questions. And before the two days of peer review, we had meaningful discussions about what each of the criteria would mean, how they would provide feedback, and how to provide constructive feedback on the basis of the criteria. Their appreciation for doing so deepened as they faced the prospect of telling their peers whether and how they felt they met the criteria or didn’t. In short, what they also learned is the difficult lesson of assessing someone’s work and not their worth.
At the end of the day, my use of rubrics has changed drastically in my courses because I came to appreciate the utility of peer review in small groups. Now, the students and I use them as a conversation piece, as a starting point for feedback, rather than a guide on expectations and tool for grading. So, it was about the rubrics, but not the way I was using them—which, by the way, is still valuable. But it’s not everything or, as I learned when combined with other lessons, nearly enough.
3. It’s all about the process
It’s all part of the process: (a.k.a. Morcheeba’s lesson; listen here as you read this post for musical accompaniment). One of Bean’s first and general insights to guide the WID approach is to think about writing as a process, sensitive to audience, made up of low-stakes and high-stakes combined assignments, and about continuous draft, revision, redraft, etc. Of course, we all like to think about our writing assignments as part of a process in teaching and learning in our classrooms. That paper at the end of the semester is, after all, the result of what students have learned, no? And in my case, as I said, I did have low stakes reflections woven throughout the semester.
But somewhere along the way, this simple idea of process took on a profoundly different meaning for my teaching: in unwinding how I thought about my writing assignments for my courses, I realized that process was also about how I wanted my students to think about them. In other words, process brought me to the role of metacognition in teaching—getting students to “think about how they think”, which ultimately deepens their own abilities not only to understand the course content, but their whole process of learning as well.
I suppose I should say, at this point, that writing in the particular classrooms and community I participate in also played a role in this lesson. As part of the Active Learning Community (ALC) at Dawson, we talk a lot about metacognition and the role of active learning in helping students learn by, in part, helping them become conscious about their own thinking and learning. To do so, we lecture less and work alongside the students in the classroom as they encounter new ideas and strive to understand them. So the ALC has probably also played a role in helping me realize that constituting writing as a process in my courses involved also designing opportunities for students to reflect on what they had learned.
Now, I include several types of assignments throughout the semester that ask the students to critically reflect on their own process. In my social problems class, for example, my semester-long group project assignment now includes an individual, reflection-style essay component which asks the students to address (a) what they think they contributed to the group effort, (b) what they learned from the experience, including both working in the group and researching their project and (c) whether and how the project experience shaped their learning and/or ideas. And in the same course, I asked similar questions of students to accompany a requirement for the students to volunteer their time for an issue or cause they considered important (see attached).
Of course, the process of this portfolio has accomplished similar goals; in reflecting on how my teaching has been reimagined and reconfigured post-WID, I have come to realize changes in my own process as well as the critical importance of being conscious about how I think about teaching and learning on a continuous basis to encourage both my teaching and my student’s learning to grow.