“We did not have to stress about our grade but instead we were able to just work”: Student Evaluations of Learning

The evidence on student evaluations of teaching (SET) suggests that this sort of feedback is deeply biased in the U.S. against women educators, Black educators, and international educators; in other words, using SETs for evaluation in higher education is a misguided tradition that cannot be justified by the sort of scientific inquiry and research that the academy claims to embrace.

In both my levels of teaching—about two decades each as a high school teacher and now in higher education—I have always sought student voices and feedback. Those reflections, however, prompt students’ perceptions of their learning. And the validity and reliability of that feedback, of course, is best determined by me through the lens of what learning goals we were pursuing in any course.

Each fall, I teach two sections of my first-year writing seminar, Reconsidering James Baldwin in the Era of #BlackLivesMatter, which culminates in a portfolio assessment for their final exam grounded in minimum requirements for receiving a grade in the course:

Exam/ Final Writing Portfolio

Resubmit all REFLECTIONS (1-15) on exam date noted above. You may include any other artifacts of work throughout the semester to support the grade you deserve in the course.

Submit the following through email attachments:

  • Final drafts of E.1, E.2, E.3, and E.4 as email attachments; be sure to submit CLEAN files (no track changes or comments visible).
  • Label files with your last name, essay number, “final,” and the date of submission, such as Thomas.E1final.121715.docx
  • Attach also a reflection (1-2 pages) on what you have learned as a writer and what you see as the key weaknesses you need to continue to address. Label the file your last name and final reflection, such as Thomas.finalreflection.docx
  • In the body of the email, RANK your four essays from the best to the weakest.

URGENT: Reminder

Minimum Requirements for course credit:

  • Submit all essays in MULTIPLE DRAFTS per schedule before the last day of the course; initial drafts and subsequent drafts should be submitted with great care, as if each is the final submission, but students are expected to participate in process writing throughout the entire semester as a minimum requirement of this course—including a minimum of ONE conference per major essay.
  • Demonstrate adequate understanding of proper documentation and citation of sources through a single well-cited essay or several well-cited essays. A cited essay MUST be included in your final portfolio.

Final Grade Sheet—FYW 1259 (Fall 2019)/Thomas

Some of the challenges students face in a first-year writing course as well as unique features of courses I teach include not receiving grades on assignments, submitting multiple drafts of essays (and engaging significantly in revising those essays), participating in peer reviewing, and moving beyond the “research paper” and “memorizing MLA” toward scholarly writing in which incorporating high-quality sources and a wide variety of citation styles are the norm of essay writing.

When I read the students’ reflections, I focus on my two overarching goals for the course: Students thinking (and behaving) differently about writing and language (the two text books are designed to address these), and students developing their own agency as writers and students.

This fall, students were very enthusiastic about John Warner’s The Writer’s Practice (the first time I have assigned it) and often pleased with Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, 12th Edition, by Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup (a text I have used for many years through many editions). I recommend them both highly.

Below, I want to offer some of the selected feedback, in my students’ own words (anonymously), that reflects the most important patterns from their learning this fall. Again, I want to emphasize these are reflections on learning, not intended to be any sort of proof about my teaching or the structure of my course. None the less, I am as pleased as I have ever been with this group of students and who they have become and are becoming—which is proof, I think, of how important the students themselves are to any claims we make about teacher or professor quality.

I am highlighting feedback about the nature of first-year writing courses, students navigating a course without grades, students coming to embrace feedback for revising their writing, the transition from high school to college writing, and student perceptions of writing and being writers along with many other significant comments by these students.

It is a powerful thing, to me, that these comments below are rich with the language and concepts found in the two text books, noting as well that students read and reflected on these texts throughout the semester with no graded form of assessment or accountability such as tests.

In their own words, below are excerpts of reflections about their learning:

Student 1: This semester has been hard. In high school, I was very weak in writing, and sadly, I never sought out the help I needed. Before college, I would tell myself that I could wait till college, and then, I will learn proper writing and receive the help I was in need of. Thankfully, I was able to take an FYW class that would aid in my college writing and teach me the skills to become a strong writer.

Student 2: The in-class conferences were very significant in my progression throughout the course as I got to see first-hand from my teacher on what I did wrong and what I could do to improve my writing. The Writer’s Practice and Style helped me a numerous amount with my writing, such as ways to approach certain types of essays and how to connect with your audience in the best possible ways. There were many different forms of writing that helped me improve my weaknesses, such as communication, concision, clarity, complexity, and many other forms.

Student 3: This semester, I have grown as a writer and as a student. Coming out of high school, one of my main concerns was my ability to write at a college level. I took AP classes in high school and those are supposed to simulate a college level course. However, now taken actual college courses, I see that AP is nothing but a different form of standardized testing. The First Year Writing course has greatly improved my ability as a writer and made me enjoy writing again….

Overall, I believe Furman provides a unique opportunity to students through the First Year Writing classes. Not many universities are concerned with every individual student’s ability to write. The class allows a student to explore their own writing in depth and properly address the issues they consistently make. If every college student was given a similar opportunity, their writing ability would improve greatly. I’ll admit, I was hesitant when I first saw that I would have to take a required writing class in college. However, I would now gladly recommend to other colleges and universities to implement a similar style of course in their institution.

Student 4: This ties into a larger area of focus for me: concision. I fall victim to large paragraphs and sentences at times. This can confuse the audience and make my arguments hard to follow. It took some training for me realize where I lose readers, but through the readings we have in class, I’ve seen it is not a bad thing to use short sentences. It used to come across as choppy to me, but it’s just direct. Short sentences don’t necessarily mean bad ones. Often, short sentences are more effective at conveying points I would want to make. I would definitely say my concision and clarity are areas I intend to improve upon….

All things considered, I think you gave us the best possible FYW experience. This isn’t meant as flattery, but rather, my true opinion. You gave us the tools necessary to succeed, and allowed us to work independently to reach our goals. You didn’t hold our hand through every process, and you didn’t leave us out to dry when help was needed. I look forward to writing, I look forward to improving my writing.

Student 5: Throughout the year, I have learned many different techniques and styles that have improved my writing. The most improvement I noticed in my actual writing was the improvement of clarity and focusing on the audience. The Writers Practice book helped my writing with focusing on the audience, and the Style book helped me with making my writing more concise.

Student 6: Having to submit multiple rewrites has been a very helpful tactic for me. In each rewrite I would notice similar patterns in my mistakes. It has even come to the point where when I am writing a paper, and something doesn’t sound write I can picture a sentence from a previous essay that Dr. Thomas highlighted in green and I am able to fix my mistake based on a previously made mistake.

I also appreciate the in-class conferences. I feel like many professors simply markup student papers and send them back with vague explanations. This leaves students curious on what they need to fix and how to fix it. Having the in-class conferences after receiving feedback helps to solidify the problems with my essay and learn from my mistakes. After I have my conference, I am confident that I have a clear understanding on how to fix my paper.

Student 7: After developing my first “vomit draft” to this essay, the ideas came flowing rapidly. This leads me into something else that I have learned as a writer, which is the importance of “vomit drafting” and the pre-writing stage. In high school, I always had to force the drafting stage. Yet in this class, I had the freedom to hold off on drafting until I was in the mood or I had an idea that made me want to start drafting right away. I also discovered ways to get into the writing mood, and the main strategy I used this semester was reading Bad Feminist (Roxane Gay). Reading good writing inspires me to attempt to do the same thing….

I am glad that I have founded a passion for writing and confidence in my ability to write effectively while conveying a purpose. To add on, [a] general notion that has been brought to my attention in this class was that my opinions matter, and writing is one of the best ways to demonstrate my thoughts to the world. Some of the discussions we have had allowed me to make initial opinions on them, and I have been able to control that energy through my writing. This class has had a variety of benefits to it, and I am excited to see where my new passion for writing takes me in the future.

Student 8: What I appreciated most about this course was our ability to choose our own topics for essays. It was because of this process that I realized my [excitement] towards writing when it was about topics that I actually cared about. Generally, in all of the writing I did in the past, it felt like such a chore. Preparing keyhole five paragraph essays was so formulaic and boring, I absolutely never enjoyed the writing process. Being able to experience the opposite and having the creative freedom to choose anything I wanted to write about made my experience that much more enjoyable. A new experience I hope to be able to carry with me on journey at Furman.

Student 9: I had also previously thought that fancy wording was more formal in writing, but reading Style taught me that simpler writing is actually better. Another important lesson Style taught me was that most grammar “rules” are not really rules but choices writers make for clearer writing. This way of thinking of grammar is a lot less intimidating, and I feel better knowing that sometimes my grammatical “mistakes” are really just someone’s personal preference.

The Writer’s Practice helped me to find a writing process that works for me, rather than forcing me to use one process, like in high school. It also taught me to consider the audience more in my writing and think about answering their questions. John Warner allowed me to think of writing as a never ending journey of improvement, rather than one with a final destination and made me realize that despite not feeling like I’m improving, I’m actually making a lot of progress in my writing.

Student 10: Over this semester, I have learned to address writing in a completely new way. The best thing I will take from this course is that my writing should not just be defined by the grade I receive, but by the amount I have improved each time I write. Additionally, I will never become a perfect writer because I can always learn more and improve.

Moreover, I have learned the importance of rewriting essays. In my high school classes, as well as my other classes at Furman thus far, I was not given the opportunity to rewrite essays as many times as I want, so I was never able to see how much they could improve each time. In the future, I plan to write early assigned essays as soon as possible so that I can have them reviewed by my classmates and complete rewrites to make the essay the best it can be.

Student 11: There are no rules in writing, but there are consequences. This idea has nagged at me since it was planted in my mind at the beginning of the semester. The best writers can artfully break or bend the “rules” of writing, but they also are fully prepared to handle the consequences.

Student 12: This class has helped me pay closer attention to how I am writing, as I used to mostly pay attention only to what I was writing. I have learned more things from this semester-long course than I learned in all four years of high school. It is shocking how much I have learned from this class….

Writing essays and then receiving them with comments, not a grade, was very helpful. This is a class solely focused on teaching freshman college students how to write academically, so to grade students without any feedback or opportunities to fix their essays would be pointless and not beneficial.

Student 13: I first notice my style. Back then I was fairly confident I could just write things as they were in my head and that would be enough. That quickly turned out to be false. Apparently not everyone thinks the same way I do and writing in that stream of consciousness sort of way does not work. I have to write to my audience and my audience is not just the voices in my head. Doing this is complex and has multiple aspects but perhaps the most important is writing clearly. I think learning this was one of the most game changing things for me.

Student 14: At the beginning of this course, I was nervous and unsure of my writing abilities.  At orientation, I remember someone saying, “You may think you know how to write, but you really don’t.”  This terrified me, so I was determined to do my absolute best in this course.  In high school, I was very self-conscious about my writing and would become defensive when someone would give me feedback.  The main thing this course taught me was to accept feedback with open arms, since that is the only way your writing will improve.

Student 15: Over the course of the semester I have been pushed in my writing skills through practicing different styles, and continually writing pieces that were much longer than the average of what I used to consistently write. I have enjoyed being able to write about topics that I am passionate about, and I think that it made the transition to college level writing easier, because I had more to say and was not opposed to doing research to learn more about the topic….

I know that I will have to continue writing with citations, so one way that I plan on improving my weakness in them is to go to the writing lab for help and clarification. Going into a science field it is crucial that I master this skill before I graduate. My midterm interview with Dr. Anderson gave me insight as to how important it is in sustainability science. I’ve learned that I can write much more that I thought I could, and the readings helped me to consider my audience much more than I used to.

Student 16: One thing in particular that I think I learned that will be very helpful in the future was through Essay 3. Before this essay, I had never written an APA style research paper. Going into this essay, I had only written one cited paper in the past but did not give much thought into picking specific sources and evaluating their validity. Learning the style of an APA paper will be very helpful in the future, as one subject that I am interested in majoring in is economics. One factor in writing a research paper I still need to work on is synthesizing multiple sources.

I have learned how to organize information well and concisely through Essay 2 and 4. This was my first time writing a hyperlink paper so the idea of writing in short paragraphs was a new to me. Writing these papers taught me how to write in this different style. This was definitely my favorite type of essay to write. It gave me the opportunity to write about something that I was passionate about and also to learn in detail about a specific subject matter.

Student 17: Overall, the main lesson I learned is to give more attention to detail. Every part of an essay should be intentional. The introduction should connect to the conclusion without summarizing the essay completely. Similarly, word choice, sentence structure, and paragraphing can play a major role in the meaning of the essay. Dr. Thomas’ feedback made me realize how important every decision is. It’s also important to maintain the balance between caution and overthinking every decision. In The Writer’s Practice, the author explained that being afraid to write is one of the main inhibitors of good writing. I am still working on finding that balance myself.

Student 18: The structure of this class forced independent learning and I believe that is the best type of learning for me specifically. My first essay exposed my overuse of some sayings and structures. In addition, I wrote in a vague high school-like way. By the end of this course, I tried to shy away from my common tendencies and in my opinion, it ended in success. At the end of the last essay, I felt more confident and ready to move on in my writing career.

In addition, the variety in types of papers written helped me explore the types of writing and made me a more versatile writer. Although I found the APA format annoying and tedious, it made me think in a different, yet still creative, way when compared to the personal narrative. Overall, I learned how to write from these specific perspectives and what the goal of each of these types of writings were.

Student 19: Through this First Year Writing class, I have learned the importance of rewriting and continuing to go back and reflect on what I have written. Reflection is important as no matter how good I think a paper might be, there is always room for improvement. Even the greats have to go back and revise. I really liked what Dr. Thomas said, “if Baldwin had another day, he would’ve gone back and changed some things in even his greatest works.”

Student 20: I have enjoyed this course and it has helped me develop in my writing skills. I enjoyed the class discussions that we had, and I really liked the laid-back feel of it. This feel gave me, and my classmates the feeling that we could truly work on developing our writing skills. We did not have to stress about our grade but instead we were able to just work….

One of the first things I learned to do in this class was to create my own writing process. I have my own process now where I plan a paper and the direction that I want to go in by the end of the paper. I have used this process all semester long and in my other classes as well. There have been areas that I have been challenged in this class as well.

Student 21: Throughout the semester, I believe that my writing improved tremendously. The combination of reflecting on the books that teach writing and writing my own works alongside this. I was trying to actively use my learnings from the reflections and apply them to my papers while writing them.

Something specific that I have learned as as writer is considering audience. This may seem fairly straightforward, but deciding whether or not your audience has prior information on the topic is key. For example, in my paper about Pokémon Go, I should have assumed that none of my readers would have much previous Pokémon Go knowledge besides the fact that it was once very popular. Though, in my paper about Amazon, that was probably not the case. Amazon is one of the biggest companies in the world and is commonplace on the Furman campus.

Student 22: The most influential and beneficial skill that I have improved on is my ability to take criticism. When you returned our first essay, I was absolutely mortified because I had expectations that I would not have much to change resulting from the praise that I received throughout high school for my writing. It honestly took until essay 3 for me to get over the feeling of embarrassment I felt due to the critiques on my essays, but it was an incredibly beneficial realization. I now understand that I should not take academic criticism to heart as much as I did in the beginning of the year because being so sensitive just hinders my ability to improve. The thicker skin that I have developed throughout this class has translated into my other classes as well and has allowed me to be more satisfied with my best effort despite criticism.

Student 23: When writing my first reflection I stated, “I have never been a fan of anything I have written.” I was not well informed in the process of writing and never felt fully prepared by any English teacher to write. That statement is no longer true after finishing my FYW with Dr. Thomas. I enjoy writing, I enjoy my peers work, and for once I am proud of what I have written. John Warner’s, The Writers Practice, was instrumental in the development of my writing. I learned that I will never become a perfect writer, and neither will anyone else. A quote in The Writers Practice by Jeff O’Neal stated, “You are going to spend your whole life learning to write, and then you are going to die.” Although the two books in class we have read have provided me with an incredible amount of guidance when it comes to my writing, I will be continuously learning to write throughout my life. I will never reach a peak perfection in my writing and I am okay with that….

This college level writing class has removed most of my preconceived notions about writing that were drilled into my head in high school. Writing is much different than my high school classes were, I was taught a very structured style of writing to obtain all points on a standardized exam. Writing can be more expressional, it does not always to conform to a certain set of standards and isn’t mathematical.