Category Archives: Grades

Does Instruction Matter?

For me, the pandemic era (and semi-post-pandemic era) of teaching has included some of the longest periods in my 39-year career as an educator when I have not been teaching.

The first half of my career as a high school English teacher for 18 years included also teaching adjunct at local colleges during the academic year along with always teaching summer courses (even while in my doctoral program).

Currently in my twenty-first year as a college professor, in addition to my required teaching load, I have always taught overloads during the main academic year, our optional MayX session, and (again) summer courses.

Teaching has been a major part of who I am as a professional and person since my first day at Woodruff High (South Carolina) in August of 1984.

However, during pandemic teaching, I have experienced several different disruptions to that teaching routine—shifting to remote, courses being canceled or not making (especially in MayX and summer), and then coincidentally, my first ever sabbatical during this fall of 2022 (in year 21 at my university).

One aspect of sabbatical often includes the opportunity to reset yourself as a scholar and of course as a teacher. As I was preparing my Moodle courses for Spring 2023, I certainly felt an unusually heightened awareness around rethinking my courses—an introductory education course, a first-year writing seminar, and our department upper-level writing and research course.

Here is an important caveat: I always rethink my courses both during the course and before starting new courses. Yes, the extended time and space afforded by sabbatical makes that reflection deeper, I think, but rethinking what and how I teach is simply an integral part of what it means for me to be a teacher.

For two decades now, I have simultaneously been both a teacher and teacher educator; in that latter role, I have been dedicated to practicing what I preach to teacher candidates.

I am adamant that teacher practice must always reflect the philosophies and theories that the teacher espouses, but I am often dismayed that instructional practices in education courses contradict the lessons being taught on best practice in instruction.

Not the first day, but a moment from my teaching career at WHS.

In both my K-12 and higher education positions, for example, I have practiced de-grading and de-testing the classroom because I teach pre-service teachers about the inherent counter-educational problems with traditional grades and tests.

Now, here is the paradox: As both a teacher and teacher educator my answer to “Does instruction matter?” is complicated because I genuinely believe (1) teacher instructional practices are not reflected in measures of student achievement as strongly (or singularly) as people believe and therefore, (2) yes and no.

The two dominant education reform movements over the past five decades I have experienced are the accountability movement (standards and high-stakes testing) and the current “science of reading” movement.

The essential fatal flaw of both movements has been a hyper-focus on in-school education reform only, primarily addressing what is being taught (curriculum and standards) and how (instruction).

I was nudged once again to the question about instruction because of this Tweet:

I am deeply skeptical of “The research is clear: PBL works” because it is a clear example of hyper-focusing on instructional practices and, more importantly, it is easily misinterpreted by lay people (media, parents, and politicians) to mean that PBL is universally effective (which is not true of any instructional practice).

Project-based learning (PBL) is a perfect example of the problem with hyper-focusing on instruction; see for example Lou LaBrant confronting that in 1931:

The cause for my wrath is not new or single. It is of slow growth and has many characteristics. It is known to many as a variation of the project method; to me, as the soap performance. With the project, neatly defined by theorizing educators as “a purposeful activity carried to a successful conclusion,” I know better than to be at war. With what passes for purposeful activity and is unfortunately carried to a conclusion because it will kill time, I have much to complain. To be, for a moment, coherent: I am disturbed by the practice, much more common than our publications would indicate, of using the carving of little toy boats and castles, the dressing of quaint dolls, the pasting of advertising pictures, and the manipulation of clay and soap as the teaching of English literature. (p. 245)

LaBrant, L. (1931, March). Masquerading. The English Journal, 20(3), 244-246. http://www.jstor.org/stable/803664

LaBrant and I both are deeply influenced by John Dewey’s progressive philosophy of teaching (noted as the source for PBL), but we are also both concerned with how the complexities of progressivism are often reduced to simplistic templates and framed as silver-bullet solutions to enormous and complex problems.

As LaBrant notes, the problem with PBL is not the concept of teaching through projects (which I do endorse as one major instructional approach), but failing to align the project in authentic ways with instructional goals. You see, reading a text or writing an essay is itself a project that can be authentic and then can be very effective for instruction.

My classrooms are driven, for example, by two instructional approaches—class discussions and workshop formats.

However, I practice dozens of instructional approaches, many planned but also many spontaneously implemented when the class session warrants (see Dewey’s often ignored concept of “warranted assertion”).

This is why Deweyan progressivism is considered “scientific”—not because we must use settled science to mandate scripted instructional practices but because teaching is an ongoing experiment in terms of monitoring the evidence (student artifacts of learning) and implementing instruction that is warranted to address that situation and those students.

So this leads to a very odd conclusion about whether or not instruction matters.

There are unlikely any instructional practices that are universally “good” or universally “bad” (note that I as a critical educator have explained the value of direct instruction even as I ground my teaching in workshop formats).

The accountability era wandered through several different cycles of blame and proposed solutions, eventually putting all its marbles in teacher quality and practice (the value-added methods era under Obama). This eventually crashed and burned because as I have noted here, measurable impact of teaching practice in student achievement data is very small—only about 10-15% with out-of-school factors contributing about 60-80+%.

The “science of reading” movement is making the exact same mistake—damning “balanced literacy” (BL) as an instructional failure by misrepresenting BL and demonizing “three cueing” (see the second consequence HERE, bias error 3 HERE, and error 2 HERE).

Here is a point of logic and history to understand why blaming poor reading achievement on BL and three cueing: Over the past 80 years, reading achievement has never been sufficient despite dozens of different dominant instructional practices (and we must acknowledge also that at no period in history or today is instructional practice monolithic or that teachers in their classrooms are practicing what is officially designated as their practice).

In short, no instructional practice is the cause of low student achievement and no instructional practice is a silver-bullet solution.

Therefore, does instruction matter? No, if that means hyper-focusing on singular instructional templates for blame or solutions.

But of course, yes, if we mean what Dewey and LaBrant argued—which is an ongoing and complicated matrix of practices that have cumulative impact over long periods of time and in chaotic and unpredictable ways.

From PBL to three cueing—no instructional practice is inherently right or wrong; the key is whether or not teachers base instructional practices on demonstrated student need and whether or not teachers have the background, resources, teaching and learning conditions, and autonomy to make the right instructional decisions.

Finally, hyper-focusing on instruction also contributes to the corrosive impact of marketing in education, an unproductive cycle of fadism and boondoggles.

In the end, we are trapped in a reform paradigm that is never going to work because hyper-focusing on instruction while ignoring larger and more impactful elements in the teaching/learning dynamic (out-of-school factors, teaching and learning conditions, etc.) creates a situation in which all instruction will appear to be failing.

Reforming, banning, and mandating instruction, then, is fool’s gold unless we first address societal/community and school inequities.

Introduction to Failure: Why Grades Inhibit Teaching and Learning

When Beckie Supiano, for The Chronicle, examined the debate surrounding a NYT article, At N.Y.U., Students Were Failing Organic Chemistry. Who Was to Blame?, this jumped out at me as I read:

Students struggle in introductory courses in many disciplines, but failure rates tend to be particularly high in STEM. Those introductory courses “have had the highest D-F-W rates on most campuses for several decades at least — in fact, most of them persist back into the ‘30s and ‘40s,” says Timothy McKay, associate dean for undergraduate education at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor’s arts and sciences college. “To me, this is a sign that they’re unsuccessful courses.”

At N.Y.U., Students Were Failing Organic Chemistry. Who Was to Blame?

I have multiple connections to this controversy, including two decades of navigating college students who often find my courses “hard” and my feedback “harsh” as well as almost four decades of resisting a traditional education system that requires testing and grading.

For the record, students are not as happy with courses absent tests and grades (where grades are delayed until the final submission of grades required by the university) as you might imagine.

And despite how conservative politicians and pundits characterize higher education as filled with leftwing radicals, higher education in practice is extremely conservative and traditional—including a mostly uncritical use of so-called objective tests, grading students on bell curves, and not just tolerating but boasting about courses and professors with low grades and high failure rates.

Departments and professors who have students succeeding with higher grades are routinely shamed by department chairs, who have been shamed by administrators. We receive breakdowns of grade distributions by professors and departments and the unquestioned narrative is that high grades (“too many A’s”) are a sign of weak professors/departments and low grades are a sign of rigorous professors/departments.

And here is something I think almost no one will admit: Anyone can implement a course with multiple-choice tests designed to create a bell curve of grades that insures some students fail each course session.

In fact, that is incredibly easy (I would say lazy and irresponsible), and teachers/professors who adopt that model of instruction will almost always be praised as a “hard” teacher and the course will be lauded as “rigorous.”

This is academic hazing—not teaching, and it inhibits both teaching and learning.

I want to extend McKay’s comment above that low grades and high failure rates in introductory (or any) courses is a sign of “unsuccessful courses” because of negligent teachers/professors who hide behind a traditional system of grading.

This debate about who is to blame for students failing a course is a needed discussion, but I fear it will not focus where it should—just what is the purpose of education?

The high-failure-rate introductory courses in colleges are intentionally designed to “weed out” weak students and recruit good students for departments and disciplines.

Again, academic hazing.

I started de-testing and de-grading as a high school English teacher because I found both tests and grades did not support my students’ learning and tests/grades contributed to a hostile relationship between students and teachers. As well, tests and grades are elements in a deficit approach to how we view students and learning.

However, since this debate is grounded in a college professor, I want to focus on how grading practices are particularly egregious in higher education.

As a junior in college just starting my courses in education (my major), I had my first experience with a very modest challenge to traditional grading. My advisor and professor, Tom Hawkins, noted in class one day that college students are a mostly elite subset of all high school students, and since a bell-shaped curve is relevant to representative samples, he anticipated students in his college courses to fall on the A-C range of grades, not A-F (unless of course a student simply did not do the work, etc.).

At that moment, I began to interrogate grades and concepts such as “objective” in multiple-choice and standardized testing.

I, like Dr. Hawkins, anticipate that my students will not only engage seriously in my courses but that they will likely produce A or B work if they trust and follow my guidance. This is reinforced by my teaching at an academically selective university.

Another element of this concern about college courses, professors, and grades must acknowledge that college students are adults.

The teaching/learning dynamic among adults must have consent, cooperation, and common goals.

This brings me back to the problem with antagonistic dynamics among students and teachers/professors.

Building a reputation as a professor or department that many or some of the courses offered are guaranteed to have students fail is establishing antagonism and eroding teaching and learning. Period.

Whether intentional of not, The Chronicle’s headline is almost perfect: What Does It Mean When Students Can’t Pass Your Course?

The key here is “can’t” because there are many courses across the U.S.—disproportionately in the so-called hard sciences and hard-science adjacent disciplines—that predetermine how many students receive specific grades and monitor that grades fall in a proportional way across the entire spectrum of grades from A to F.

That sort of a-statistical nonsense is not just common, but almost entirely unchallenged even though it is being imposed on non-representative populations of students.

To be specific, in my first-year writing seminar with 12 students at an academically selective university, where several of the students were valedictorian/salutatorian (and almost all of them graduation in the top 10% of their classes), a final grade distribution of 1 A, 2 Bs, 6 Cs, 2 Ds, 1 F would be pure orchestrated nonsense, but would almost never be challenged.

When my classes routinely have all As and Bs (because they submit work, have conferences with me after receiving written feedback, and then are required and allowed to revise), however, I am repeatedly challenged for those grades—directly and indirectly—and framed as “easy” or that I “give” As and Bs.

The NYT story about Dr. Jones will be fodder for “kids today” lamenting and the failure of higher education to hold students accountable. Some will likely drag out the tired “grade inflation” nonsense that has been voiced for 100 years (when, o, when, were grades not inflated?).

But the real story is that grades inhibit teaching and learning, but remain a central feature of traditional schooling—yet even more proof that higher education is mostly conservative, not the leftist indoctrination factory conservatives rail against.

The Good Student Trap: Research Paper Edition

I teach good students.

I write that with no sarcasm, or cynicism.

For the past 20 years, I have been teaching at a selective liberal arts university, and the students are mostly high-achieving young adults who graduated high school as A or B students.

Like me, my students also have a tendency toward the often ignored consequences of being gifted or smart—anxiety, depression, imposter’s syndrome, perfectionism.

While “good student” is a compliment, I remain convinced that performing as a good student is also, as Adele Scheele argued, a trap. Scheele posed that students learn good student habits in high school that they then apply in college, but often find those behaviors no longer are successful—or even valued by professors:

We were learning the Formula.
• Find out what’s expected.
• Do it.
• Wait for a response.

And it worked.

The Good Student Trap (excerpt), Adele Scheele

But more powerful that acknowledging that good student behavior doesn’t translate into college, Scheele also confronts how the good student trap creates irrational fear:

So what’s the problem? The problem is the danger. The danger lies in thinking about life as a test that we’ll pass or fail, one or the other, tested and branded by an Authority. So, we slide into feeling afraid we’ll fail even before we do—if we do. Mostly we don’t even fail; we’re just mortally afraid that we’re going to. We get used to labeling ourselves failures even when we’re not failing. If we don’t do as well as we wish, we don’t get a second chance to improve ourselves, or raise our grades. If we do perform well, we think that we got away with something this time. But wait until next time, we think; then they’ll find out what frauds we are. We let this fear ruin our lives. And it does.

The Good Student Trap (excerpt), Adele Scheele

I often watch these dynamics with my first-year students, which I anticipate. But the most dramatic example of this tension is in my upper-level writing/research course, notably when students submit this assignment:

Assignment

Students will conduct a research project in which they critically analyze how the above chosen issue is presented in the mainstream media, and write in a workshop format (multiple drafts, conferencing) an 8-10 page essay using APA format (see link above and student resources provided) detailing how well or not the media has presented the research. See Sample APA 7e with comments. NOTE: This cited essays is primarily a critical analysis of media coverage, and not simply an essay on your chosen education topic. The essay should include the following major sections: opening, literature review, media coverage, relationship between research and media, and closing/conclusion.

For 8-10 pages, a proposed structure:

Opening – about 1 page (2-4 paragraphs); be sure to include essay focus on media

literature review – 2 pages; focus on *patterns* in the sources (write about your topics, not the sources)

media coverage – 2 pages; focus on *patterns* in the media and include several examples

relationship between research and media – 2 pages; this is the most important goal of the essay so connect research and media examples

closing/conclusion – about 1 page (2-4 paragraphs); must emphasize essay focus, media analysis

Assignment for EDU 250, Paul Thomas, Furman University

Despite the highly structured details in the assignment, and despite students having several class sessions devoted to workshopping the assignment (and two scaffolded assignments—submitting a working references list and submitting annotated bibliographies for their sources), they struggle with completing the assignment as assigned, resulting in intense and negative responses to the feedback I provide on the first full submission.

The good student trap experienced by students here is that instead of conducting, writing, and submitting a media analysis project, students fall back to writing a high school research paper.

The reductive and inauthentic research paper students learn in high school is essentially behaving and writing like a student—collecting and writing an overview of “sources,” typically plowing through those sources one at a time and heavily quoting from each source.

The assignment I ask students to engage in requires that they move away from student behaviors and toward writing as scholars; that shift means that they gather and student scholarly sources in order to provide themselves a lens for writing an original essay (in this case, becoming expert on an educational topic in order to analyze the quality of media coverage of that topic).

For example, students tend to write “research papers” that explicitly state “my sources” and “my media articles” in order to detail “what I learned about X topic” instead of analyzing how media covers that topic.

My feedback includes nudging them (again) not to write like students, stressing that they are not doing the assignment (I refer them to the outline provided and the need to focus on “media analysis”), and warning them about citation concerns (including carelessness that rises to technical plagiarism).

With my feedback, the fear and negative response cycle kicks in. Students seem unable to trust a workshop environment in which draft submission, feedback, and revision are not only expected but required.

The good student trap has also trained students to see all feedback as evaluation, judgment, and to fear that not being immediately perfect is a signal that they have failed, or that they are going to fail.

Anticipating their fear and expecting they received my feedback negatively, I emailed them and assured them that revision was expected and that everyone was still capable of making an A in the course regardless of how well their initial submission had fulfilled the assignment.

In the first class after returning their essays with comments, however, they were mostly frantic; many of their comments were dramatic distortions of the feedback they received.

None the less, once they had their draft in front of them, they admitted seeing the gap between the assignment and what they submitted was much clearer to them.

So here is what my good students teach me over and over.

First, they confirm that prescriptions and templates are not nearly as effective as many people believe; I have always rejected prescriptions, templates, rubrics, and prompts for teaching writing—despite their all being common in traditional classrooms.

Students respond better to direct instruction once they have an artifact in front of them for context.

Next, they demonstrate for me the negative power of prior behavior that is successful, regardless of the credibility of that behavior. In this case, students struggle mightily to let go of the research paper.

And finally, they embody the paralysis of fear of not being good enough, not being perfect.

Unless traditional schooling changes—and I suspect it will not—I am faced with this reality continuing, and ultimately, I regret that the ones who suffer most in the good student trap are students themselves.

On Positive and Negative Feedback to Student Writing

Several students in my literacy course in our MAT program chose to read Donna Alvermann’s Effective Literacy Instruction for Adolescents. While the initial discussion around Alvermann’s essay focused on those students struggling with the density of her academic writing, they emphasized the importance and power of her addressing student self efficacy in the fostering of student literacy development:

Adolescents’ perceptions of how competent they are as readers and writers, generally speaking, will affect how motivated they are to learn in their subject area classes (e.g., the sciences, social studies, mathematics, and literature). Thus, if academic literacy instruction is to be effective, it must address issues of self-efficacy and engagement.

Effective Literacy Instruction for Adolescents

That discussion led to some very insightful comments about the importance of providing students feedback, as opposed to grades, on their writing as part of the drafting and workshop process (anchored in their reading Graham and Perin’s 2007 Writing Next analysis of research on teaching writing).

As a long-time advocate of feedback and someone who practices de-grading the classroom as well as delaying grades (assigning grades for courses but not on assignments), I strongly supported this discussion, and was impressed with the thoughtfulness of the students.

That discussion had a subtext also—a concern raised by several students about the need for teachers to provide students positive feedback (so students know what they are doing well), and not just negative feedback. (Some of that subtext, I am sure, was an unexpressed feeling among some of these graduate students that they received mostly or exclusively “negative” feedback from me on their first submitted essays.)

After several students worked through this argument for positive feedback, I asked them to step back even further to consider, or -re-consider, what counts as “positive” or “negative” feedback.

In the sort of way Alanis Morrissette perceives irony, I found on social media Your Essay Shows Promise But Suffers from Demonic Possession posted at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency—a brilliant portrayal of the tensions created by teachers giving students feedback on their essays, which begins:

I appreciate the hard work that went into this essay. It has many merits, but it also has something profoundly and disturbingly wrong with it. In fact, I’m writing this feedback on my phone, cowering in the bathtub with my wife, after your essay terrorized and nearly destroyed us….

The essay was formatted correctly, and each sentence was more or less intelligible in itself. But altogether, the effect was—disorientation. Worse, actually. Pure senselessness. The Void.

Your Essay Shows Promise But Suffers from Demonic Possession

This satirical piece does exactly what my MAT students requested, blending positive (“many merits”) with negative (“something profoundly and disturbingly wrong with it”) feedback; and I think, herein is the problem with the dichotomy itself.

Once dramatically while I was teaching high school and often since I have been teaching at my current selective liberal arts university, I have encountered students who perceive all feedback as negative and reject having to revise their writing.

My argument to my MAT students was that actionable feedback on student writing is not inherently “negative” even though it does suggest something is “wrong” and needs “correcting” (perceptions grounded in students’ experiences in traditional classrooms that focus on the error hunt and punish students with grades).

However, I am well aware over almost four decades that part of my challenge as a writing teacher is how to help students see and respond to feedback as supportive and not an attack on their work or them as people (we had a great discussion about whether or not students can or should see their writing as inextricable from them as people).

In other words, affect matters.

Throughout the past 20 years teaching in higher education, I have been struggling against the perception by students than my written feedback is “mean,” “harsh,” “negative,” etc., while they simultaneously find my face-to-face feedback supportive and “good.”

I continue to seek ways to make feedback on student writing more effective as a key aspect of helping students grow as writers and thinkers as well as fostering their independence as writers and thinkers (learning to revise and edit their work on their own).

Students persist, however, in finding the feedback “negative,” and occasionally shutting down.

If there is a path to moving past the dichotomy of negative/positive feedback to student writing, I think it lies in the following concepts and practices:

  • Having explicit discussions with students about the inherent need for all writers to revise writing, ideally in the context of feedback from an expert and/or supportive writer/teacher. I often share with students samples of my own work submitted for publication with track changes and comments from editors.
  • Rejecting high-stakes for low-stakes environments in the writing workshop format. This is grounded in my commitment to de-grading the classroom that honors that writing is a process (see More Thoughts on Feedback, Grades, and Late Work).
  • Adopting strategies and rhetoric that rejects deficit ideology and the error hunt (Connie Weaver). It is important for teachers and students to prefer “revising” and “editing” instead of “error,” “mistake,” and “correcting” as the language surrounding the writing process. The pursuit in writing must be grounded in the recognition that all writing can be better even when it is currently quite good (and especially if is is somewhat or deeply flawed).
  • Clarifying for students that challenging and critical feedback is intended as actionable by students as writers, and thus, inherently positive. One of the recurring tone issues I experience with students viewing my written feedback as negative is misreading questions; students often read questions as sarcastic or accusatory when I am asking in order to elicit a response (for example, when I write “Did you look at the sample?” how I move forward with helping a student depends on that answer). As my MAT students expressed in the context of Alvermann, students absolutely do need to see themselves as writers and do need to trust they will be successful, but they also must embrace the need to revise and the awareness that no one produces “perfect” writing in one (or even several) drafts.

Feedback and the dynamic between teachers and students (including trust) are the lifeblood of the writing process when students are young and developing. As I noted above, affect matters and the teacher/student relationship inevitably impacts how effective the teacher is.

As teachers providing feedback, we must be careful and purposeful in our feedback, focusing on actionable feedback and creating/maintaining a culture of support and encouragement.

To that end, I believe we cannot reduce feedback to a positive/negative dichotomy that serves only to reinforce the cultures and practices we need to reject, deficit ideologies and the error hunt.

In the McSweeney’s parody above, the writing teacher and their wife are ensnared in a demon-possessed student essay, but the more horrifying detail of this piece is the ending—the realization that teachers and students are actually trapped in an even greater hellscape:

“I did it,” she sobbed. “I killed it. I killed it.”

“You did it,” I said, climbing into the bathtub with her, holding my wife close. “It’s over. It’s all over now.”

Silence.

Then she said, “It’s not over.”

“What—”

“You still have to grade it.”

80%

Your Essay Shows Promise But Suffers from Demonic Possession

Yes, let’s work on feedback and the affect created around the writing process, but let’s not ignore that their are larger dynamics (grades and testing) at play that erode the teacher/student relationship as well as the effectiveness of teaching and the possibilities of learning.


See Also

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

The Problem of Student Engagement in Writing Workshop

Teaching and Learning as Collaboration, not Antagonism

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.

Grades Tarnish Teaching as well as Learning

Recently on social media, a professor asked if others used rubrics with graduate students. Since rejecting rubrics has been a central component of my career-long efforts to de-grade and de-test teaching and learning, I chimed in.

My posts in the comments explaining why I don’t use rubrics were significant outliers because the thread of comments was overwhelmingly endorsing rubrics, almost entirely in terms of making grading easier or more transparent as well as providing teachers/professors protection against (hypothetical) students challenging their grades.

One immediate response to my comments is also worth highlighting since a person who doesn’t know me made fairly nasty assumptions about me being like the professors they had in grad school, the “gotcha” professors who use grades to ambush and punish students.

While most of my public (see here and here, for example) and scholarly work rejecting the use of rubrics—especially when teaching writing—has focused on their negative impact, along with grades, on students and learning (see this example), the recent social media thread highlights that grades also tarnish teaching.

Early into my first 18 years as a high school English teacher, I stopped giving tests; a bit later in that position, I also stopped grading assignments (although I had to assign students quarter and course grades). Over my on-going 19 years as a college professor, I have always delayed grades (feedback but not grades on assignments but course grades assigned) and never given traditional tests (midterms are often class discussions, projects, or reflections; and final exams are always portfolios of the work over the entire course).

My syllabi have no grade scales or policies, no weights for calculating grades, and no late policy even; I do have an explanation of my no grades/no tests approach to teaching, and I do share with students some broad patterns often correlated with course grades. [1]

While reading the thread on social media, I recognized a pattern of fear and a need among teachers/professors to justify grades but also to guard against a hypothetical complaining student.

This pattern struck me as a non-grader because over the 19 years I have been teaching in higher education full time, I have zero official complaints by students about grades. And only one student has ever confronted me about a course grade, a student who failed their FYW seminar for not participating in the minimum requirements (the student submitted all four essays once at the end of the course without submitting them throughout the semester and fulfilling the drafting and conferencing requirements).

That student left our meeting with the understanding that they in fact earned the F by not meeting the minimum requirements and expectations listed on our syllabus, and never pursued any official complaint.

While I remain deeply concerned about the negative consequences of grades, tests, and prescriptive structures such as rubrics on students and learning, I am also convinced more than ever that grades, tests, and rubrics detract significantly from effective teaching and actually create the problems many teachers/professors seem to be inordinately worried can occur in the hypothetical.

Rubrics as a subset of the traditional grading culture are often justified in terms of transparency as well—a very compelling argument.

As I have examined before in terms of the backwards design movement associated with Wiggins and McTighe, I have taught for almost 40 years while the focus on teachers and students has shifted from learning objectives to student assessment, and I do recognize that the shift to backwards design was in part an acknowledgement that students deserve transparency in expectations and goals for learning and student behaviors (artifacts of learning such as essays, projects, or performances).

Grade policies, rubrics, and templates are one type of transparency, prescriptive and authoritarian, but they all prove to be teacher/authoritarian-centered and to be mechanisms that reduce student autonomy and engagement in their own learning. Codified transparency is demanding compliance over student agency.

Despite the assumptions of at least one person commenting on social media, I am not a “gotcha” professor, and I am transparent about learning goals and student behaviors. However, I see transparency as a conversation in a learning community and an evolving, not static, state of any course bound by the limits of the academic calendar. That transparency must support my authoritative role as a teacher (as opposed to authoritarian).

I have posted many times that my transparency is in the form of minimum requirements (see below) and providing for students a wealth of resources that include detailed models of their assignments with instructional comments and checklists for preparing and revising their work.

By not grading assignments, I provide students low-risk environments that remove the “gotcha” element entirely since students are required and allowed to revise their work as well as engage with me in an ongoing conversation (conferences, feedback provided on the assignments) that helps them construct their own learning (individualized rubrics, in other words).

And since course grades are linked to a final portfolio of their work, assigning a grade occurs after students have had the entire course to learn, and considering the amount of feedback and conferences students have experienced along with class sessions grounded in their artifacts of learning (I teach based on the strengths and needs their assignments reveal), neither students nor I are surprised by the final course grade assigned.

I must emphasize again that I have been de-grading and de-testing my teaching since 1984 (the first year) and that these practices have been implemented in a rural public high school as well as a selective university. I developed and practiced not grading assignments and not giving traditional tests while teaching public school in a right-to-work (non-union) state and during my non-tenure years as I began my career in higher education.

I fully acknowledge and have worked in the so-called “real world” of traditional schooling that requires grades. Therefore, I have conceded that at best I am delaying grades, but I must emphasize that I also forefront significantly student learning and my teaching while complying with assessment, evaluation, and grades last, as a mandate that must not negatively impede student learning or my teaching.

Many justifications of rubrics are placing grades first, sacrificing learning and teaching.

Once we prioritize student learning/agency and teacher professionalism as well as teaching, structures such as rubrics can be recognized as traps that center the authority for a course in those structures (rubrics, templates, grading policies) instead of in the teacher/professor.

A syllabus is a legal contract, and once we codify how grades are determined, we as teachers/professors are bound to those codes regardless of how valid they prove to be for each student.

Well designed rubrics must be highly prescriptive (see Popham, Chapter 7), and thus, they do much of the work for students, choices and experiments that would better serve the students as learners; poorly designed rubrics (open-ended, vague, etc.) are neither fulfilling the goals of using a rubric or satisfying the standard justifications for using rubrics.

In rejecting rubrics, I am not rejecting transparency or fairness.

I am advocating for teachers and professors to step outside those traps and to make commitments to transparency and fairness grounded in student learning and teaching, not assessment, evaluation, and grades.


Notes

[1] [First-year writing seminar example; detail vary by course]

Student Participation in a Course without Grades or Tests

While you will receive a grade for this course per university policy, I do not grade individual assignments, and I do not administer traditional tests in any course I teach. We will comply with university expectations for midterm and final exams (see the assignments in the course overview), and I will submit either an S (satisfactory) or I (incomplete) for the midterm grade to designate whether or not you have fulfilled assignments as required through midterm.

Instead of traditional grades, I expect students to meet minimum requirements; in this course minimum requirements include completing all assignments (see the final portfolio sheet) fully and on time, and submitting, conferencing, and resubmitting all four required essays (a first full submission and a revision after receiving feedback and/or conferencing).

Assignments in my courses are not designed primarily for assessment (grading), but are designed as learning experiences. By completing and revising assignments, you are learning, and thus, you should expect to receive challenging feedback, and should also embrace the opportunity to revise work when allowed.

If you could complete an assignment perfectly the first time submitted, then there would be no reason for me assigning the work. All academic work can (and should) be improved through multiple efforts and feedback.

Since I require all work must be completed, and even though the expectation is that students meet due date deadlines, I must accept late work if and when students are unable to turn in work when due (see More Thoughts on Feedback, Grades, and Late Work). However, students should strive to be punctual with work unless circumstances beyond their control interfere (note that there are reasonable excuses for work being late, and I appreciate honest and upfront communication when students are unable to meet deadlines, even if the excuse isn’t urgent).

All four required essays must be revised at least once, but you are allowed and encouraged to revise as often as you wish to produce a high-quality essay.

At the end of the course, once you have been given ample opportunities to learn and can do so while taking risks and not worrying about your grade, I evaluate the entire portfolio of course work to assign a grade for the course.

Completing all work and submitting that work in the portfolio are mandatory (incomplete portfolios will be assigned an “F” for the course) and your course grade will be impacted by completing work fully and on time as well as the quality of the assignments (notably the four required essays). Proper citation (APA), quality of references, diligence in revising, and the sophistication of the writing and thinking in your assignments ultimately inform that final grade.

I recommend you read some or all of the following to understand my approach to grades and tests:

Minus 5: How a Culture of Grades Degrades Learning

Delaying Grades, Increasing Feedback: Adventures from the Real-World Classroom

More Thoughts on Feedback, Grades, and Late Work

Grades Fail Student Engagement with Learning

Note:

When I think about final grades, here are some guiding principles:

  • A work: Participating by choice in multiple drafts and conferences beyond the minimum requirements; essay form and content that is nuanced, sophisticated, and well developed (typically more narrow than broad); a high level demonstrated for selecting and incorporating source material in a wide variety of citation formats; submitting work as assigned and meeting due dates (except for illness, etc.); attending and participating in class-based discussion, lessons, and workshops; completing assigned and choice reading of course texts and mentor texts in ways that contribute to class discussions and original writing.
  • B work: Submitting drafts and attending conferences as detailed by the minimum requirements; essay form and content that is solid and distinct from high school writing (typically more narrow than broad); a basic college level demonstrated for selecting and incorporating source material in a wide variety of citation formats; submitting work as assigned and meeting most due dates; attending and participating in class-based discussion, lessons, and workshops; completing assigned and choice reading of texts and mentor texts in ways that contribute to class discussions and original writing.

Making the Transition from Writing in High School to Writing in College

Three behaviors have over the course of about 40 years come to constitute a significant percentage of who I am—writing, teaching, and cycling.

Of those three, I have received the most formal education in teaching, completing all three of my degrees (BA, MEd, EdD) in education; in many ways, I am self-taught as a writer and a cyclist even though I would argue that I have developed a level of expertise in all three that are comparable.

Recently, I bought my first gravel bicycle and have been making the small but noticeable transition to gravel riding that has forced me to experiment with decades of cycling knowledge built on road and mountain bicycling in order to ride gravel at a level comparable to road cycling (my first and deepest cycling love).

This, I think, is at the core of all of my personas as writer, teacher, and cycling—behaviors that are all journeys and not aspects of my life that I can (or should) finish.

Even though, as I noted above, teaching is my primary career and what I have the most education in, I am perpetually learning to teach; and I count on my students to guide me along that path.

My teacher Self is grounded and guided by critical pedagogy; Paulo Freire‘s concepts of the teacher/student and student/teacher have always resonated with me since I started as a tinkerer in my first days as a high school English teacher and continue to depend on my students by inquiring at regular intervals “Is this working?” and “What can I do better?”

While the primary focus of all my teaching is the student, of all the content I teach, I remain most enamored with and frustrated by teaching writing.

I have now spent about equal amounts of time teaching high school students and first-year college student to write.

During the pandemic, I have also shifted one of my assignments slightly (from their final portfolio to their final essay)—requiring first-year writing students to submit as their final essay a reflection on what they have learned as writers as well as what they think they need to continue to address moving forward in their college careers.

I have read the first submissions of those reflections (and will blog about those in a week or so), but I also use the last class session to brainstorm on what worked for students in the seminars and what I can do differently (in this case, for spring 2021).

Several students during the brainstorming session requested that I provide some of the key elements of the course—those addressing their transition from high school writing to college writing—earlier.

One of the foundational lessons I learned about teaching, during my years as a high school English teacher, was the need to reduce upfront teacher-led instruction and replace that with students producing authentic artifacts of learning (essays, for example) combined with direct instruction grounded in their writing after the first submission of their work.

The feedback I received this fall suggests I have moderated too far, and thus, I am including below the first draft of a checklist I will provide students on the first day of class this spring, encouraging them to keep this throughout the semester as a focal point as they revisit these lessons and come to understand them better.

Here, then, is my Checklist: Making the Transition from Writing in High School to Writing in College:

Writing Process and Drafting

  • Writing a couple quick drafts the night before an essay is due is not genuinely engaging in the drafting process, and likely will not be effective in college (even if you received high grades in high school for this practice). Last-minute essay writing is behaving as a student (dutifully preparing an assignment as the teacher as required), and not as a writer or scholar.
  • Drafting from an approved, direct thesis (common in high school) may be a less effective writing strategy than other drafting approaches, such as the following: (1) “vomit” drafting (free writing as much as you can to create text you can reorganize and revise) or (2) discovery drafting (writing with a general idea of your topic and focus, but allowing yourself to discover and evolve your topic and focus). One commitment to the drafting process that may be different than when in high school is making the decision to abandon large sections of drafting, or even entire essays. Starting over after a discovery draft is not wasting a draft, but coming to see that writing is a way to better understand even if the text you created is not directly included in the submitted draft.
  • Committing to several days for drafting is necessary, and establishing a routine for revising that focuses on one revision strategy at a time (diction and tone, paragraphing, etc.) is often effective.
  • Reading and using as models published academic and scholarly essays along with public and creative nonfiction essays increases your toolbox as a writer. The symbiotic relationship between reading and writing should become more purposeful during college—notably that the reading and writing are for you and your learning, and not simply to complete an assignment.

Essay Writing

  • A five-paragraph essay with a one-paragraph introduction (and direct thesis), three body paragraphs, and a one-paragraph conclusion that restates the introduction is inadequate in college; the form is simplistic thinking (most topics do not have only 3 points) and writing, and guarantees you will under-develop your discussion. The essay form is far more complex that a template, and your thinking as a college student needs also to rise above reducing all arguments and explanations to a direct statement (thesis) supported by three points.
  • Write to a clear audience (not your teacher or professor), recognizing that academic writing often has a well-informed (expert), specialized audience and that a public audience can range from being poorly informed or misinformed to being highly experienced and knowledgeable (public writing, then, may require you to navigate a much more complex audience than your academic writing).
  • Avoid overstatements, especially in the first sentences of the essay and in the last few sentences. Overstatements include “since the beginning of time” (or suggesting long periods of time such as “throughout history”), “many/most people argue/debate,” and “[topic x] is important [or unique or a hot topic].” See this brilliant parody from The OnionSince The Beginning Of Time, Mankind Has Discussed What It Did On Summer Vacation.
  • Your word choice (diction) creates the tone of your essay; many scholarly/academic topics are serious so take great care that your diction/tone matches the seriousness of your topic. The relationship between your tone and your topic impacts your credibility as a writer. Focus on vivid, active, concrete verbs (instead of forms of “get” and “be”), and take care not to write as you talk, avoiding slang and flippant phrases when examining a serious topic.
  • Always prefer active, vivid, and specific/concrete over vague or general. “Anger” instead of “how he felt”; for example: “John was upset that he couldn’t control his anger” is more effective than “John was upset that he couldn’t control how he felt.”
  • Rethink the essay form and paragraphing not as a set number of sentences but as important and purposeful parts of engaging your reader/audience while establishing your credibility. Your essays should have a multiple-paragraph opening the engages and focuses your reader by being specific and vivid, several body paragraphs with purposeful paragraph lengths (sentence and paragraph length variety are effective), and a multiple-paragraph closing that leaves the reader with specific and vivid language that parallels the opening (framing) but doesn’t simply repeat your initial thoughts.
  • Learn to use the tools available in Word (or other word processors): formatting using menus (and not simply inserting spaces, returns, and tabs to manipulate text), running your essay through the grammar and spell check (be careful not to leave your essay with the colored underlinings when submitting an assignment), and saving your text files purposefully (include your last name and assignment type in the file name) and in an organized way on your computer system (making sure you have a back-up process for all files).
  • Most academic essay writing is built from claims, evidence, and elaboration; however, the types of evidence required varies a great deal in writing among the many disciplines of the academy (history, sociology, economics, physics, etc.). For example, direct quotes are often necessary as evidence when writing a text-based analysis (analyzing a poem or an essay in philosophy), but many disciplines (social sciences and hard sciences) expect evidence that is data or paraphrasing/synthesis of concepts and conclusions from multiple sources at a time (synthesis). When writing a text analysis, quotes are necessary, but your own claims and elaboration should be the majority of the essay, and take great care to integrate quotes with your own words (avoid stand-alone sentences that are quotes only and be careful to limit block quoting).; when writing about topics (not specific texts) or making arguments, you should limit quoting.
  • Academic citation (MLA, APA, etc.) is different among the disciplines (you may not use MLA again after entering college, for example), and expectations for high-quality sources also vary among disciplines. Some fields such as literature and history require older sources, yet social (sociology, psychology, education) and hard (physics, biology, chemistry) sciences tend to prefer only peer-reviewed journal articles from within 5-10 years. Across most of academia, however, journal articles and peer-reviewed publications are preferred to books and public writing.
  • Text formatting impacts your credibility as a writer; set your font preferences to one standard font and size (Times New Roman, 12 pt.) and maintain that formatting throughout a document (only using bold or italics as appropriate for subheads or emphasis), including headers/footers.
  • Always submit essays with vivid and specific titles and your name where required on the document itself.

Another aspect of my class that requires students to thing and behave differently is that I do not grade assignments even though I do assign grades for the course (per university requirements)—what I have characterized as de-grading and delaying grades.

On the last day of class, we discussed what would eventually shape their course grades, and below is something I share to help think about grades assigned in a class where assignments are not graded.

When I think about final grades in a writing-intensive course, here are some guiding principles:

  • A work: Participating by choice in multiple drafts and conferences beyond the minimum requirements; essay form and content that is nuanced, sophisticated, and well developed (typically more narrow than broad); a high level demonstrated for selecting and incorporating source material in a wide variety of citation formats; submitting work as assigned and meeting due dates (except for illness, etc.); attending and participating in class-based discussion, lessons, and workshops; completing assigned and choice reading of course texts and mentor texts in ways that contribute to class discussions and original writing.
  • B work: Submitting drafts and attending conferences as detailed by the minimum requirements; essay form and content that is solid and distinct from high school writing (typically more narrow than broad); a basic college level demonstrated for selecting and incorporating source material in a wide variety of citation formats; submitting work as assigned and meeting most due dates; attending and participating in class-based discussion, lessons, and workshops; completing assigned and choice reading of texts and mentor texts in ways that contribute to class discussions and original writing.

This spring, with the guidance of my fall students, I am going to re-think and experiment with some of my core beliefs as a teacher—when to offer direct instruction and how to navigate the tension between my de-graded courses and the reality of grades in formal schooling.

Recommended

Advice on Writing, Trish Roberts-Miller

Confronting the Tension between Being a Student and a Writer

Titian: Sisyphus
Titian: Sisyphus
Sisyphus, oil on canvas by Titian, 1548–49; in the Prado Museum, Madrid.
Heritage Image Partnership Ltd./Alamy

I worry about my students.

I worry, I think, well past the line of being too demanding in the same way being a parent can (will?) become overbearing.

Good intentions and so-called tough love are not valid justifications, I recognize, but there is a powerful paradox to being the sort of kind and attentive teacher I want to be and the inherent flaws in believing that learning comes directly from my purposeful teaching and high demands.

After 37 years of teaching—and primarily focusing throughout my career on teaching students to write—I have witnessed that one of the greatest tensions of formal education is the contradiction of being a student versus being a writer.

That recognition is grounded in my own experiences; I entered K-12 teaching, my doctoral program, and my current career in higher education all as a writer first.

My primary adult Self has always been Writer, but being a writer has remained secondary to my status as either student or teacher/professor-and-scholar.

The tension between being a student and a writer has been vividly displayed for me during my more recent decade-plus teaching first-year writing at the university level. To state it bluntly, many of the behaviors that are effective for being a good student are behaviors that must be set aside in order to be an effective and compelling writer.

I began addressing this tension early in my career as a high school English teacher by de-grading and de-testing my classes. The writing process, I found, had to be de-graded so that students could focus on substantive feedback and commit to drafting free of concern for losing credit.

But by the time students reach college, they have been trained in a graded system; that graded system implies that students enter each assignment with a given 100, and thus, students learn to avoid the risk of losing points (see my discussion of minus 5).

But equally harmful is that college students have also been fairly and even extremely successful in a grading culture driven by rubrics, class rank, and extra credit—each of which shifts their focus to the grades (and not the quality of their work) and centers most of the decision making in their teachers.

For example, I currently teach at a selective university. Most of my students have been A students in high school.

Yet, they seem paralyzed when confronted with decision making and genuinely terrified to attempt anything not prescribed for them.

In my first year seminars now, students are revising their cited essays, and one student emailed, asking if they needed to cite a YouTube video (of course) and how to do so.

At this last question (although the first is really concerning) is where I find myself often answering: “Just Google, ‘How to cite a YouTube video in APA?'”

A reasonable person of moderate affluence in 2020 with access to the Internet (often on a smart phone) would search anything they didn’t know using a browser. I am convinced that being a student tends to create helpless people out of very capable young adults.

And despite several direct lessons on and multiple comments and examples provided in materials and on submitted drafts, many of my students continue to submit revised drafts with the first few sentences, as they did in high school, overstating nothing; these are from revised essays after I once again addressed overstating nothing in the opening sentences:

Some questions that have been floating around for a while are, is college worth it?

Day to day interactions between different people form the bonds for different relationships in our lives. People have acquaintances, friendships, romantic relationships, familial relationships, and more.

While I want to share some of my strategies below detailing how I confront the tension between being a student and a writer for my students, I must stress that my uniquely different classroom creates an entirely new tension because I must recognize that most of my students’ academic careers will remain in traditional classrooms tethered to traditional grading.

Therefore, I seek strategies that address simultaneously how students can present themselves as careful and diligent students as well as credible, engaging, and compelling writers.

Those strategies include the following:

  • Teaching students how to prepare and submit work (often with Word) that reflects them in a positive way for anyone evaluating them. While I discuss with students that document formatting is trivial, a careless submission will likely negatively impact how any teacher/professor views them as students. I encourage them to learn how to format with Word (using page breaks and hanging indents, for example); to navigate track changes and comments (creating clean documents to resubmit); to set their font to a standard size and font (to avoid submitting work with multiple fonts or font sizes, which they often do), including how to paste text so that it matches the document settings; and to address the Spelling and Grammar function in Word so that they do not submit documents with the jagged underlining noting issues they should have edited before submitting. Students also struggle with naming document files, attaching their work to emails, and emailing professors in ways that represent them well—so I am diligent about not accepting work until they meet those expectations. Important to note here is that in my class, these experiences come with no loss in grades, but I stress to them that in other courses, they likely could receive lower grades and probably will create a negative perception of them as students.
  • Instead of rubrics and writing prompts, we work from models of writing, and I provide for students checklists and examples that are designed so that they become the agents of their learning (and this is particularly frustrating since students still function with fear and thus avoid risk or making their own decisions). Drafting through all the stages of writing, then, are spaces where students are decision makers like real-world writer, but I provide them a somewhat risk-free experience that is unlike being a student.
  • In some respects, students seeking to present themselves well and writers seeking ways to be credible and engaging have some overlap. Therefore, many of my key points of emphasis as a teacher of writing will, in fact, raise their status as students. Some of these include attending to appropriate diction (word choice) and tone that matches the level of the topic being addressed, focusing on effective and specific (vivid) openings and closings (key skills for writers, but students establish themselves when being graded with their first sentences and then leave the person evaluating them with an impression linked to their final sentences), and selecting high-quality sources (typically peer-reviewed journal articles) and then integrating sources in sophisticated ways when writing (avoiding the high school strategy of over-quoting and walking the reader through one source at a time [see the discussion of synthesis in the link above and here]).
  • Students also leave high school feeling the need to make grand claims, grounded in simplistic approaches to the thesis sentence and standard practices by teachers that require students to have their thesis approved before they can draft an essay (see this on discovery drafts). I encourage students to focus narrowly and specifically throughout their essays while leaning toward raising questions (a more valid pose for students) instead of grand claims.

While I struggle, as I admitted above, with my tendency to be too demanding (my tough-love streak), I also recognize that providing only about 3 months in my unique teaching and learning environment faces a monumental hill to crest against more than a decade of experiences as students and student-writers.

More often than not, I do not crest, but descend a bit defeated like Sisyphus to roll that rock yet again.

The tension between being a student and a writer is not insurmountable, I hope, but it certainly must be confronted openly and directly in our classes, especially our writing-intensive classes.

In the world beyond formal schooling, many of the qualities of a good student will prove to be ineffective in the same way they are for young people learning to write well.

The best strategies for being an effective writing teacher include recognizing and helping our students navigate their roles as students—even as we seek to help them to move beyond those artificial restrictions.

The Perfect Trap

Many years ago when I was teaching high school English in rural upstate South Carolina, I taught all three of the district’s superintendent’s children—two daughters and a son.

The older daughter in many ways represented both a uniquely smart and hard-working student and the paradox of the perfect student.

These were the early days of me learning how to teach writing well; these were the early days when I taught with a sort of earnest zeal that can never make up for the horrific blunders I imposed on several years of students.

Setting aside everything I did wrong—reminding us all that learning to write and learning how to teach writing are journeys—I was from the earliest days as a teacher firmly committed to students experiencing writer’s workshop and writing often, authentically, and with multiple drafts for each essay.

Most of my students then and even now have had very little experience with drafting, navigating substantive and challenging feedback, and teaching/learning experiences that sit outside the norm of grading and evaluation.

This older daughter was the top student in her class; she went on to excel in college and eventually eared a doctorate.

But she wasn’t the perfect student because she was fortunate to be so smart and having been raised in a very privileged home.

From the beginning, she simply revised her essays and resubmitted them time and again. While other students tried to avoid the revision process or simply submitted a weak effort at the one required revision in order to pass my class, she was all-in on our partnership to help her learn to write well.

In stark contrast to that experience many years ago, I routinely—and once again this semester—have to carefully navigate that many if not most of my students are paralyzed by their own misguided perfectionism; paradoxically, the perfect student is not bound by perfection, but by risk and trust in learning as a journey.

A new partner for me in my quest to move students learning to write away from perfectionism and grade-grabbing is John Warner’s The Writer’s Practice.

My first-year writing students just finished Warner’s book, and we recently brainstormed the big take aways they gained from the book. I was deeply encouraged that many students were quick to focus on a theme of Warner’s:

This book is here to give shape to your practice, and encourage you to work purposefully toward increased proficiency.

While you will quite quickly amass experience, it’s important to recognize that there is no terminal expertise in writing. You will get a little better every time you do it, but you will never reach a finish line after which you will cease to improve.

This is one of the best things about writing with purpose and writing through different experiences.

May as well keep going by next figuring out who you are as a writer….

The first thing to know about writing is, in the words of Jeff O’Neal, a longtime writing teacher and now digital media entrepreneur, “You are going to spend your whole life learning how to write, and then you are going to die.” (pp. 9, 16)

I abandoned putting grades on essays decades ago in order to shift students away from thinking in terms of evaluation and avoiding mistakes in order to be perfect; however, the lack of grades has proven to inhibit student performance as well.

While I still do not grade essays, I invite students at any time to conference with me about what grade their work would be assigned. Several students have had this conversation with me this fall, sharing a common theme: They feel that my feedback suggests they are writing poorly and that they are doomed to low grades.

First, I assured each of them that their current hypothetical grade status is quite good, but more importantly, I stressed that if they continue to revise with purpose and care they certainly were capable of achieving an A in the course. In fact, I tell them, I often anticipate that from students who fully engage in the process.

They all left our conference relieved, but I have to stress to students over and over what Warner emphasizes above: “[Y]ou will never reach a finish line after which you will cease to improve.”

At the core of the perfect trap are some fundamental problems with traditional teaching that are firming linked to grades and evaluation.

The punishment/reward paradigm discourages risk and encourages pale compliance; writing well comes from risk and requires that writers navigate boundaries, both conforming to and breaking them.

There is nothing perfect about the perfect student, and there never will be.

As teachers of writing, we are tasked with fostering in our students a sense of purpose, care, and trust that the educational system has denied them.

While my two FYW seminars discussed Warner, several mentioned the O’Neal quote, which seems a bit harsh, but writing and learning to write, as journeys with no finish lines, are bound only by time.

We must write and rewrite until there is no more time for that piece, and then we move on.

Perfect is a trap that ends that journey, or even worse, never allows the first step.

Who Does Your Instructional Labor Serve?

One recurring theme to many K-12 and higher education institutions moving to remote instruction has been “uh-oh” moments concerning challenges not immediately anticipated. One example is that when my university’s professors have been reaching out to students, they have discovered many of their students left for spring break without their textbooks and notes.

Since the university has discouraged any students returning to campus, professors are now faced with revising courses for remote instruction realizing students may not have the necessary materials or the technology needed.

I want here to pull back from the specifics of teachers and students suddenly shifting mid-course into on-line/remote education in order to pose an essential question for teachers at all levels: Who does your instructional labor serve?

When I first started teaching high school English in 1984, my teaching position for the first 18 years of my career, I was laser-focused on being an effective teacher of writing. Much of those first five or six years were mired in my constantly changing what I was doing because I failed to see in student work (their writing) the growth or positive outcomes that justified my labor as a teacher and their labor as learners.

I was very fortunate, I think, to begin my career with that focus on teaching writing because that sort of instruction is necessarily very labor intensive. Responding to essays takes a great deal of time, and writing as well as rewriting essays is also time intensive for students.

Since I hate wasting time, and wasting other people’s time, I have worked for almost forty years to be extremely efficient—lowering labor while increasing positive outcomes.

Because of those patterns to my work as a teacher, when I was asked to switch to remote teaching of my two courses, I made the shift very easily by being very low-tech and simply revising my daily schedules slightly. Much of my instruction leans toward individualized teaching any way, and my courses are heavily text and writing intensive (and much of the reading students need to do is already provided online).

There remain some problems for my courses, but the only real loss we will experience is that my class sessions are mostly discussion based around how students respond in class. I don’t have lectures prepared, and I am not deeply committed to a fixed set of content that we must cover.

My classes are interactive and extemporaneous, demanding a great deal from me but these are topics I have studied and taught for decades.

Here, I want to emphasize that it is my attitude about teaching, learning, and content that makes this shift less stressful for me; I take a Thoreau attitude about my classes in that it is my obligation not to do everything, but to do something well.

Students who complete four years of college will have 16-17 years of formal education. This accumulated series of experiences likely will afford them a wealth of learning that cannot be narrowed to any single course, teacher, or class session.

While many teachers are making the transition from traditional classes to on-line/remote emergency teaching and learning, I suggest that we all reconsider our teaching labor and the teaching/learning efficiency of that labor.

For example, on a Facebook group about this shift, a teacher noted that they had a stack of essays they had hand-graded and needed to return, but would not see students again.

A key part of this problem, to me, is the teacher framed the need to justify grades with the responses on the essays.

I am a non-grader who does not put grades on any assignments but must record a grade for my classes (per university requirements). My stance has long been that my teaching labor must have some direct learning outcomes; therefore, when I spend time responding to student work, I expect students to do something with those responses—typically revise the assignment.

I, therefore, highly discourage marking student work to justify grades since that teaching labor is not serving the student or learning but bracing for an assumed concern not expressed by the students.

As someone noted, teachers can and should always offer to provide justifications for grades to students who request that (I do this through face-to-face conferences, but would adapt to email or video-conferencing under these unique circumstances).

Here, I would stress that a dialogue around grade justification is a more effective and efficient form of teaching labor than meticulously marking assignments, many if not most of which will never be seriously read or considered by students. (This traditional form of teacher labor is mere martyrdom.)

While this one example represents well navigating the relationship between teaching labor and learning outcomes, I think the entire—and urgent—reframing of classes mid-course is a great time to carry some of these revisions into our classes when (and if) we return to some sort of normal face-to-face teaching and learning.

I am a much better teacher than during my first five or six years, but I remain diligent about who my teaching labor serves and about respecting the learning labor of my students.

Setting aside traditional structures such as lectures and grading have allowed me to focus on my teaching, my students, and their learning in ways that better serve all of us. I think students respect that I am critically aware of what we are doing and why in terms of their learning and not simply serving some bureaucratic or traditional expectation.

As we teachers rush to serve our students as best as we can in the coming weeks and months, I hope we will include several sticky notes on the changes we make in desperate times that can become our new—and better—normal on the other side of COVID-19 in 2020.