Student Agency and Responsibilities when Learning to Write: More on the Failure of SETs

As anticipated and predicted, my student evaluations of teaching (SET) included what has become a classic contradiction; in my first-year writing seminar, I received strong praise for my feedback and diligent support for students revising their writing along side a student who proclaimed that I provided no valuable feedback.

I typically share this recurring evidence that SETs are deeply flawed on social media, and I also reached out to students in my upper-level writing/research course since the SETs from that course had a much higher number of negative comments than is typical (again including contradictory responses about my feedback and support for revising).

Several comments on social media—including those by former high school students from decades ago and current colleagues—helped me work past the frustration of anonymous and misguided comments. In short, I want to stress that while SET data lack validity, student comments may offer more insight into the students themselves than the quality of instruction or the teacher/professor.

Students who are critical of a course or a professor are often failing to confront their own agency as learners and likely did not follow through on their responsibilities in the teaching/learning process. This, however, still deserves consideration by teachers/professors who are seeking ways in which to shift the responsibility of learning from the teacher/professor and to the student.

That shift has been a point of tension for my entire career, approaching 40 years, focusing primarily on teaching writing for secondary and college students.

My frustration lies in the disconnect between the enormous amount of time I spend supporting students learning to write (giving detailed feedback, providing resources and support material for writing and revising, and conducting conferences) and those students who both do not fully engage in the workshop model and insist on characterizing their lack of engagement as a failure on my part to provide adequate feedback.

Some of that tension also lies in students conflating my not grading assignments and not being overly prescriptive in writing assignments (few or broad prompts and no rubrics) with “not providing feedback” and “doesn’t give clear directions of what he wants.”

For context, here are the support materials I provide students in order to support their agency as learners:

Based on these materials alone, I think no reasonable person could accuse me of failing to provide enough feedback; certainly “no valuable feedback” seems unfair.

But I need to stress that these support materials are just that, support, and they are provided concurrent with direct instruction in class, textbooks on writing, and my own feedback on their writing and in conferences.

One of my primary goals as a teacher of writing over four decades has been how to foster in students the ability to write and revise when independent of me or any teacher—their agency and autonomy.

Over my career, I have become less and less prescriptive and offer fewer and fewer direct marking on student writing. One strategy I have used throughout my career is highlighting areas needing revision/editing and prompting students to use the support material in order to revise/edit.

I also have increased significantly using questions in my feedback, including asking directly if students have used the support material when drafting or revising.

Something I had not anticipated is that more students are offended by that question, interpreting it as passive aggressive and even “mean.”

In order to teach well, however, I need to know if the student writing is a result of the student choosing not to use the support material or the result of the support material not being effective (note the “REV” and “UPDATED” on many of the materials above since I am constantly revising based on feedback from students).

When I conferenced with my high school students, for whom I had prepared a textbook for revising (now somewhat reproduced here) that allowed me to respond very quickly by placing numbers and highlighting where students needed to revise and edit, I always asked if they used that text that explained the issue and provided revision strategies; if the student said “no,” I sent them back to their desks to work on their own before I provided more feedback.

I want students to revise and edit independently because otherwise I am revising and editing the essay for them.

With my college students, I typically provide feedback and note that they need to address similar occurrences throughout the essay, noting the need to review the writing beyond what I have marked (often, however, I simply highlight recurring areas needing revision).

None the less, I repeatedly stress to students that they are encouraged to request a conference with me if they are uncertain how to revise or edit based on the highlighting or my comments.

At this juncture, I am noticing another tension—students shutting down because they find feedback “negative”; this is the source of students saying that I am “mean” or that the feedback makes them feel “not smart.”

My university is a selective college, and these students have been A or nearly A students throughout high school; they also tend to suffer from the paralysis of perfectionism.

For these students, one of the most difficult responsibilities of them as students learning to write is having to re-imagine what learning is.

Some students want to submit perfect work only so the concept of revision is difficult for them because they are uncomfortable with any of their work being marked “wrong” or needing “correction.” Of course, learning to write means embracing the reality that all writing can and should be revised and edited, even by the most seasoned writer.

For students learning to write, however, feedback and revision/editing are necessary, preferably several drafts over an extended period of time.

One senior from the upper-level writing/research course provided what I think is an extremely perceptive observation about the role of the student learning to write: “There must be a dialogue and extra steps that students must take if they want to excel.”

Some of the tension expressed in my SETs this spring is likely due to the reduced bandwidth we are all experiencing mid-Covid-19. But the difficulty many students face embracing their own autonomy and their role in learning to write is nothing new.

Ironically, while my university and most other universities use SETs to evaluate professors, the best use of that feedback may be as mirrors for students who seek ways to place blame for their not learning at anyone else’s feet except their own.

My job remains finding ways to help students take ownership for their writing and to foster in them the skills and confidence to draft, revise, and edit independently.

That job will continue to be a painful one for me and my students.