The Problem of Student Engagement in Writing Workshop

Imagine you are a teacher who says to students, “You can revise your work as often as you want to learn as much as you can and achieve the grade you want.”

Imagine you are student who replies, “No thanks.”

As a critical teacher and teacher educator, I have spent about 40 years not swimming against the stream but floating, isolated, in an entirely different body of water.

I have not graded assignments or given tests for about 30 of those years, and for nearly all of my teaching career, my students have experienced a workshop format for learning. Distinct from writer’s workshop in creative writing, the workshop I implement is grounded in concepts often associated with Nancie Atwell, who popularized workshop as designing instruction/learning around time, ownership, and response.

The instructional workshop model I practice allows students large blocks of time (during class sessions and between the start and end of an assignment), varying degrees of choice in how to focus an assignment, and ample as well as repeated feedback from me and their peers to foster revision.

When I taught high school English, students spent most of class time engaged in modified versions of reading or writing workshop. For almost two decades at the university level, I have primarily been implementing writing workshop in my first-year writing seminar and more recently in an upper-level writing/research seminar.

Since I don’t grade assignments or give tests, my students submit portfolios at the end of each semester; those portfolios in writing-intensive courses are primarily final drafts of major writing assignments. Also central to having a course that is non-graded, students have minimum expectations for participating in courses that I frame as non-negotiable for being allowed to submit the final portfolio/exam and for being assigned a grade in the course [1].

The short version is that students who do not meet minimum requirements are assigned a failing grade for the course.

Grading from those final portfolios is fairly easy and quick since I have been responding to the assignments throughout the semester; however, part of my process is to review each student’s folder of assignments to note how often they have revised and resubmitted their work.

I am often frustrated, even disappointed, that several students participate only in the minimum requirements although I allow and encourage students to revise and resubmit as often as they want.

Student participation in revising/resubmitting tends to fall into four categories: students who revise/resubmit far too quickly and too often, resulting in me doing more of the revising than them (I do address this); students who eventually “get it” and revise/resubmit with care and purpose while embracing their own autonomy and role in revising; students who do the bare minimum and cannot rise above the role as “dutiful student” to embrace being an engaged writer/scholar; and then, students who actively and passively refuse to participate.

Especially when teaching at the secondary and college levels, those of us practicing non-traditional approaches (non-grading, workshop) are asking (imploring?) students to set aside a decade-plus of learned behavior that is grounded more in student behavior than authentic behavior (seeking grades instead of focusing on learning, turning in paper assignments instead of writing an essay they choose to an audience they imagine or have provided).

Even when I stress in nearly every class session that students are required to revise and resubmit major writing assignments, that students are also allowed to revise and resubmit throughout the course, and that ultimately full engagement in the workshop model tends to result in higher course grades, I find a significant number of students doing the bare minimum and have to nearly drag kicking and screaming a few out of their insistence to fail the course.

As one extreme example, I had a first-year writing student who turned in no essays throughout the semester, even though they attended class, and then submitted all four essays in the final portfolio; that student was stunned and upset at receiving an F.

It is from the barely engaged and not engaged students that I learned the following reasons some (too many) students never fully commit to writing workshop:

  • Misunderstanding the differences between editing and revising.
  • Perceiving formal schooling as product-oriented, not process-oriented.
  • Viewing feedback as criticism.
  • Failure to recognize that when one is becoming a writer, there is no finish line.
  • Misunderstanding the role of teachers (seeing teachers as evaluators instead of mentors).
  • Having little or no sense of autonomy as a learner (or a human).
  • Functioning in the defensive student pose of avoiding mistakes (not submitting work means nothing can be identified as “wrong”); being risk-averse instead of risk-embracing.
  • Viewing the relationship between a teacher and student as antagonistic instead of collaborative.
  • Being trapped in the paralysis of perfectionism.

As I approach the end of four decades teaching, mostly focusing on teaching writing, I am faced with a burdensome paradox about my non-graded workshop approaches to teaching: students learn more and earn higher grades when they are fully engaged in the non-graded workshop approach, but many remain unable or unwilling to make the commitment necessary to realize those advantages.

Teaching writing well in a workshop model is incredibly labor intensive, but also extremely rewarding; however, it is also easy to be discouraged by the students who simply cannot or will not allow the process to benefit them.

For those students, the negative consequences of traditional approaches to teaching and grading have failed them, possibly irrevocably.

[1] My minimum requirement statement from my upper-level writing/research course (recently revised):

Course Minimum Requirements

As a student in an upper-level writing/research course, you are required to meet the following minimum requirements in order to receive credit (have a grade assigned) in the course:

  1. Submit all assignments and meet deadlines throughout the semester.
  2. All major writing assignments (annotated bibliography, cited essay, and public commentary) must be submitted in multiple drafts (first full submission and at least one revision) that include at least one conference per assignment with the professor. 
  3. The second half of the course is a writing/research workshop; all students are required to submit multiple drafts during the course (before the last course session) in order to fulfill the course minimum requirements. Failure to participate fully in the workshop for the major assignments (annotated bibliography, cited essay, and public commentary) will result in an F for the course and students may not submit a final portfolio.
  4. Scholarly work must be properly cited and free of plagiarism; scholarly work should be formatted and submitted as required and should conform to the APA 7e style manual when appropriate.