Monday, July 7, 2014

Better Student Writing -- Through Chaos

I’m grading my students’ research papers right now, and am wondering if there’s a better way to do this.

And by “this” I mean student peer review.

Here’s what I already know about peer review: The second I, the teacher, jump in with a comment, any other peer review stops. My word is the law. Students are obviously used to having the teacher have the final word – classes have been set up that way for a very, very, very long time. I do have, each semester, a few students – I can count them on less than five fingers – who challenge what I have to say regarding their papers. For the most part, they’re right. They catch me being inconsistent with the syllabus, or missing something that on second reading is obvious. 

The obvious solution seems to be to have a session of peer review, have me grade the paper, and then have another session of peer review following revisions.

But again that leads to another problem: In peer review, my word might be law, but I’ve noticed an interesting trend in revisions after I’ve graded: More often than not if a student is satisfied with the original grade, the “revised” paper typically contains revisions for grammar and punctuations, leaving the more fundamental feedback unresolved.

So: I can grade lower on the rough drafts and see, over time, if students remain satisfied with the lower grades rather than do the additional work, or if their work improves for better grades.

Another obvious solution: Provide examples.

But examples are limited in their uses. I can see, for example, an example of stop-motion animation. I can appreciate its beauty:

I can even watch tutorials on how to do my own stop-motion animation:

But proof is in the pudding. Even if I have the tools, do I have the experience?

I do not.

The example and the tutorial provide good frames of reference and good tools and instruction, but when it comes down to translating those references and instruction into my own stop-motion product, there is a lot lacking. Particularly the time needed to produce a good bit of film on a tight deadline.
So I need to find another solution for my writing students.

Maybe there’s a solution in what Clay Shirky says about open-source programming. I could try an experiment on open-source paper writing.

(There’s more on Shirky’s TED talk here.)

So what am I thinking?

For each essay, the students provide the example. And that example comes the same way open-source programming provides software: Open collaboration, with tracked edits linked back to individual authors (and the number of edits and the reasons given for the edits counting toward individual grades, with a portion of the individual grade coming from the end product, not from individual contributions.

Now, this sounds like a really odd thing coming from a person who despises co-authored books and committee writing. But that’s only because of that vision of the individual artist sitting alone and cloistered, writing a masterpiece. For some authors, that works.

But the students I’m working with, for the most part, are not authors. They’re looking for a grade. And that’s fine. We can’t all be Aardman Animation, after all.

We could obviously use GitHub for such writing, but any tool where a paper could be centrally-accessed and where changes could be tracked and attributed automatically would work. Microsoft Word has such capability, with Dropbox or iLearn being the repository. GitHub might eliminate certain training problems (though it might introduce others).

And, as Shirky says in the video, “More media always means more arguing.” We might see the collaborative writing process rile students up.

But maybe they’d learn more – because they’d be forced to justify their changes and concede when others make changes they might not necessarily agree with, due to deadline and grade pressure.
The longer I teach, the less I’m convinced that the key to better writing is more writing, but seeing the processes involved in good writing. As a writer myself, I know that it’s through reading and re-writing and letting writing simmer and then reading for the purpose of analyzing writing that is making me a better writer, not necessarily the act of sitting down to write long strings of stuff that might turn out to be a short story or a novel or what have you.  I’ve learned a lot just by studying the processes. My recent reading of the Pratchett/Baxter collaboration on The Long Earth sure taught me a lot.

Mere criticism isn’t doing a thing.

That’s what Nate Schumate at Lousy Book Covers discovered. So he created another website, Cover Critics, where people can submit book covers before they’re published, benefitting from critiques before the books end up at the other site.

Maybe a collaborative effort where I was able to chime in from time to time without halting any and all other edits by the students. Possibly the edits could be made anonymously, with numbers assigned to individuals rather than names (with those numbers being translated into names for grading purposes on the teachers’ end. They might not know it was me they were arguing against. Or for. If I played it right.

This is a deeper collaborative process than our current peer-editing model. With that deeper process, they might see how a “good” paper or essay comes together and actually learn as they go about things.

To take it a step further, maybe one assignment could be a collaborative effort, followed up by a solely individual effort in which they were graded on what they learned from the previous collaboration.

I’ll need to think more about this.

No comments: