An early rubric

For the last 15 years or so, I’ve been a big fan of rubric grading. I got the bug after reading a column by my colleague Robert Runte in our faculty association newsletter. Over the years, I’ve developed a variety of different rubrics, several of which have been adopted and adapted by my own colleagues (see here and here). Read the rest of this entry »


On the dangers of thinking you are indispensible: English professors’ edition

Apparently in 1917 people had a different view of the centrality of English professors…

When we consider our educational position, we teachers of English composition are in a fair way to become conceited. In view of certain featuresof our daily experiencethe dangerof becoming conceited may not seem imminent. But the outstanding feature of our position among pedagogues surely spells danger in that very direction. The practically universal assumption that our work is educationally indispensable is truly ominous (William Hawley Davis. 1917. “The Teaching of English Composition: Its Present Status.” The English Journal 6 (5) (May 1): 285–294. doi:10.2307/801590).


If you ever need an argument on why it is harmful to focus on mechanics in student writing…

From George Hillocks 2005, “At Last: The Focus on Form Vs. Content in Teaching Writing,” Research in the Teaching of English 40 (2) (November 1): 238–248. doi:10.2307/40171704.

Hillocks-2005-AtLastTheFocusonFormvs.ContentinTeaching

Based on a review of “500 quasi-experimental studies of writing instruction between 1963 and 1983” concentrating on those with strong research design.

 


Timeline of the History of the Five-Paragraph Essay

16th Century France – de Montaigne develops what we call the essay, a group of works defined by critical thinking and their attempt at questioning.

16-18th Century Britain (Extends to 19th Century America)  – Theme Writing – A type of writing giving explicit instructions for the formulation of an argument on a specific theme with an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion.

1870-1920 – Current Traditionalism – A period of study that was characterized by a favouring of rules and regulation, especially in teaching methods, and resulting in increasingly standardized methods of assessment, often using versions of the five paragraph essay.

20th Century Germany – Essays are used as a tool to grade students on their understanding of a topic, in a form similar to what we would term short research papers.

Mid 20th Century – Standardized testing emerges across the Western world as an easily regulated method of assessment. Rather than teaching the skills that the tests measure, instructors begin a shift towards teaching students how to write from the standardized formula on the test.

Mid 20th Century to Present Day – Five Paragraph Essays have virtually replaced the open form of Montaigne’s origin. They are taught as the base on which to build an argument throughout a student’s school years, a process which most often carries over to secondary education. They have moved from being an assessment of knowledge to an assessment of writing.


The Ideas Create Themselves

I began this week’s rather broad  search under the blanket of the question “How to we teach students to have good ideas?” This is not a very straightforward question, or answer, for that matter. Upon embarking on my search, I discovered this interesting fact: there is a lot of information on teaching creativity. However, there is almost none on teaching innovation or critical thinking. Is this a distinction, or a synonym? Does it matter? It is a subtle nuance, but I believe it represents the distinctions of our society and what it values.

Teaching innovation to students usually comes packaged in the outfit of the sciences. What does this suggest? That innovation is only valued in the practical and practicable arenas of the science world? But does this type of innovation help students write essays? We need them to be able to disassemble something, and rather than build something new, they need to be able to figure out a way to creatively tell you how it was built.

There seems to be a generally accepted theory that states that every child has within himself the ability to generate good ideas, and these ideas will naturally come forth if given the proper outlet, which, fittingly, is exactly what the Unessay suggests. Strategies for promoting creativity in students generally focuses on an open output formula, where the results are not specified and discussion and assignments are student driven. This would suggest that good ideas are generated from the individual, and it is within every students’ power to come up with them.

But, as most instructors have probably noticed,  just because an idea is creative, that does not mean it is necessarily a good one. Are creativity and critical thinking the same thing? I think probably not.

But the consensus seems to be that if you give students the reins to discuss and question, they will figure out which are the good ideas and which are the bad ones. The simple act of discussion and engaging with the material lets a student know whether a topic is worth exploring or if it will be easily exhausted. But as the Unessay proves, students fare far better when given the chance to question and examine.

The most poignant truth I discovered when researching was simply this: we learn by imitation. We seem to believe that students come up with brilliant ideas from within themselves. But they must have learned what questions to ask and where to go for inspiration somewhere.  As one theorist suggests, “when allowed to do what we want to do, we are most likely to revert to whatever we previously found enjoyable and/or successful”.

So what is the solution here? If we learn by imitation, yet students can also to a certain extent create innovation from within themselves, I think the answer is that we need to give them something good to imitate, that they can run with. The Unessay does that by allowing students to explore the areas that interest them while channelling the results and discussion  into a scholarly format. If instructors could find a way to be more transparent about their own idea-generating process, and put more emphasis on teaching students how to tell good ideas from bad ones, and then let students run with it, I think the seeds of critical thinking would easily be born.

 

Works Consulted

http://people.goshen.edu/~marvinpb/arted/tc.html

Gary, William L. “Letting Students Teach Themselves.” Community College Week 15.7 (2002): 4. Web.
McLester, Susan. “Student Gamecraft.” Technology & Learning 26.4 (2005): 20–24. Web.

 


Journal Incubator Poster (Digital Humanities 2013)

There was a lot of interest in the Lethbridge Journal Incubator project poster yesterday at the Digital Humanities 2013 conference poster session at the University of Nebraska.

A thumbnail image of the poster comes below (there is also a letter-sized version). You can get the original PDF here

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The Importance of Student Motivation

I’ve gone in several different directions with my research for the unessay project, because as a writing tool I think its results are significant and varied. I’ve looked at the general principles that underlie it–scaffolding and metacognition; I’ve tried to understand what qualifies as good writing, and whether or not the unessay promotes that; and I’ve looked at how the unessay might fit into an increasingly mechanized educational system, where machines are marking papers. The main thing I’ve found is that the rules constituting the unessay promote good writing. Dan and Michael have both expressed the uncanny differences between the essays they mark and the unessays they mark.  Student writing, when liberated from the stringent way essays are taught, becomes something completely different. The ideas are better, they flow better, and they can help the student build a foundation upon which he/she can come at the essay with more flexibility. The whole basis of education is to provide a space for students to push existing skills to their limits, with the intention of having those skills overlap with new skills, and so on and so forth. Read the rest of this entry »


Scaffolding and The Zone of Proximal Development

Two of the most important terms in a teacher’s repertoire, and two of the most popular teaching ideologies in education right now, scaffolding and the Zone of Proximal Development are simple yet elegant ways to describe how teachers build on a student’s current knowledge so they can ascend to ever higher plateaus. The unessay is nothing if not a product of scaffolding and the ZPD.

 Using Wikipedia’s definitions, which are more than adequate for understanding these terms, scaffolding is ” a learning process designed to promote a deeper level of learning. Scaffolding is the support given during the learning process which is tailored to the needs of the student with the intention of helping the student achieve his/her learning goals. Instructional scaffolding is the provision of sufficient support to promote learning when concepts and skills are being first introduced to students. These supports may include the following: resources, a compelling task, modeling a task, providing coaching. These supports are gradually removed as the students develop autonomous learning strategies, thus promoting their own cognitive, affective and psychomotor learning skills and knowledge. Teachers help the students master a task or a concept by providing support.

And the Zone of Proximal Development is ” the difference between what a learner can do without help and what she or he can do with help.” Beginning as a small circle in the middle, signifying what the learner can do unaided, and branching out in concentric circles of increasing size, with each circle further from the center denoting the need for increasingly more aid for the student.”

 The terms are so similar they have come to be used almost interchangeably, so for the sake of clarity I will use the ZPD to describe both. Further defined in “Vygotsky, Tutoring, and Learning” we can see the theoretical principles of the unessay at work: “Vygotsky’s definition of the ZPD leaves open to us the task of identifying the nature of the guidance and collaboration that promotes development and a need to specify what gets learned during the course of a given history of tutor/learner interaction” (Wood 5). The nature of guidance in the unessay operates off of an assumption: that university students are capable and proficient writers. The results of the unessay as well as blog assignments have demonstrated this, according to the both Michael and Dan. Michael and Dan assumed that the writing itself was not the issue, rather, it was the form the writing was forced to adhere to which gave student’s difficulties.

 The traditional essay is foreign and awkward to many, meaning it is not a part of a student’s ZPD, and if it is part of her ZPD, it is to such slight degree that she is unable to perform adequately without guidance. This is where the unessay comes in, as the bridging device between a student’s ZPD and the plateau the teacher wants her to be at. You don’t go from walking up a hill to scaling Everest, nor do you go from writing rigid five-paragraph essays to the intricate and nuanced essays expected in university. ZPD and scaffolding ” emphasize that learning is a complex process that depends, in large part, on changes that occur in a learner’s strategic knowledge, domain-specific knowledge, and motivation” (Harris 297). Once these skills are fostered and added to the student’s current body of knowledge then the ZPD expands and you can slowly pull off the ‘writing-trainin-wheels,’ so to speak.

Works Referenced

 http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Instructional_scaffolding&oldid=548517392

 http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Zone_of_proximal_development&oldid=558276245

 Harris, Karen R., Steve Graham, and Linda H. Mason. “Improving the Writing, Knowledge, and Motivation of Struggling Young Writers: Effects of Self-Regulated Strategy Development with and Without Peer Support.” American Educational Research Journal 43.2 (2006): 295–340. JSTOR. Web. 26 June 2013

Wood, David, and Heather Wood. “Vygotsky, Tutoring and Learning.” Oxford Review of Education 22.1 (1996): 5–16. JSTOR. Web. 29 June 2013.


A Review of “A Machine Learning Approach For Identification of Thesis and Conclusion Statements in Student Essays”

A Review of “A Machine Learning Approach For Identification of Thesis and Conclusion Statements in Student Essays”

 I’ve become quite interested in the idea of machines grading papers ever since I read the New York Times Article Dan posted in the group library: “New test for Computers: Grading Essays at the College level.” For now I am just going to concern myself with the article in my title, but I am working on a much larger piece which combines several scholarly articles as well as a few editorials, on an educational issue that I feel will become increasingly relevant as technology expands: grading machines. Read the rest of this entry »


What Makes Writing Good?

The whole point of the unessay project, as I understand it, is to further develop and understand tools that enhance good writing. The unessay is one such tool. My early research has been dedicated to the dissection of the unessay: what principles underlie its composition? how does it fit into current theories on teaching writing? And how and why is it an effective tool? Much of this research is centered around the theories of meta cognition and scaffolding. The unessay requires that its user consider every aspect of the writing process (metacognition): form, argumentation, style, topic etc., It also attempts to bridge the gap between the formal essay and free-writing, by giving the writer complete control, allowing them to utilise the skills they already have in a form they are comfortable with. The end goal is always the formal essay, but the achievement of that goal is through the slow addition of knowledge to a student’s pre-existing knowledge (scaffolding). It sounds almost painfully obvious that learning is simply the expanding framework of an existing body of knowledge, but the formal essay often disregards this concept. A student is given a framework, and it is assumed she already understands how to utilize it. I think what many teachers find–myself included during my brief stint in the education program–is that many students do not understand the form, nor do they feel particularly inclined to utilise it.

With a decent framework through which to understand the unessay, and its place in the contemporary teaching of writing, I shifted the focus of my research, broadening it slightly, to try and answer what I feel is the most significant question when assessing any writing tool: what makes good writing? If we can compile a series of attributes that constitute good writing then surely we can come up with a tool which fosters those skills. Read the rest of this entry »


Unessay and Standardized Testing

In studying the origins of the five-paragraph essay, I stumbled across an article called “Teaching Writing in the Shadow of Standardized Writing Assessment: An Exploratory Study”, by Hunter Brimi. His article begins to dissect the relationship between standardized testing and the writing skills of students. He suggest that the standard format of a five-paragraph essay originated as a marking rubric for the markers of the state-wide tests, to determine the success of the essays written by the students (Brimi 53) And while it appears to have originated as a general standard to assess writing and argumentation skills, it quickly evolved into being the method by which writing and argumentation were taught (Brimi 54). As is typical with standardized testing, teachers begin to teach the material from the test directly to ensure that their students are successful, as well as to make sure they remain free from the trouble that may ensue if their students’ grades fall too far below the line standard set by the tests (Brimi 55). Read the rest of this entry »


Teaching Grammar

As a supplement to the unessay, Dan asked me to take a quick look at whether or not teaching the formal rules of grammar has any use; Does it improve a student’s writing?

The short answer is an unequivocal no. In the article “Responses to Error: Sentence-Level Error and the Teacher of Basic Writing” Foltz-Gray argues, through a series of studies spanning several decades, that teaching grammar has no positive impact on student writing, and in may cases is detrimental. Below are a few of the studies. Read the rest of this entry »


The unessay: A contructivist approach to developing student writing (formalisation and dissemination)

This is the original application for the Unessay Grant.

Project Overview

The goal of this project is to formalise and further develop work that Michael Ullyot of the University of Calgary, graduate student Heather Hobma, writing centre tutor Virgil Grandfield, and I have been carrying out on an innovative approach to teaching undergraduate writing: the Unessay.

The unessay is based on the premise that students do not understand formal essays the same way their teachers do: as a powerful and flexible means of exploring intellectual problems. Instead they see them in much the same light figure skaters see “compulsory figures”: as an artificial set piece designed primarily to test their ability to meet arbitrary rules. Read the rest of this entry »


Introduction to Unessay Research

There appears to be a fundamental discord in the way students are taught to argue and the what professors view as a “good argument”. High school students are taught that a good argument is a point that can be evidentially proven, but professors are searching for a more open-ended approach. Students are taught to answer, while professors want them to question.

Yet, the essay seems to be a loose term in regards to genre and its conventions, with variations being prevalent across disciplines. Does “anything go” when it comes to formulaic standards? Some scholars make a distinction between the “essay” and the “article”. But how many students are taught and become truly aware of this distinction? Students read articles, yet are told to formulate essays. This distinction is one that is not often communicated to students. Upon beginning my research of the subject, I myself had never entertained the distinction. Read the rest of this entry »


Oops: Somehow my blog is now capturing every twit…

Oops: Somehow my blog is now capturing every twit I make. Like a fool in amber #livetesting


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