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College of Arts and Sciences

The IPFW writing curriculum relies on the following assumptions about students and writing. These principles inform not just the W131 curriculum, but the curricula for all writing courses and all the writing program's policies and procedures. They are laid out here as an invitation to share them with your students, and also as an invitation to consider what kinds of assumptions underlie the activities and handouts you design for your students.

Curricular Assumptions

Writing is a complicated social activity which takes many forms and which involves many processes. The rhetorical context for any given writing task determines what forms and processes may be most effective. Accordingly, the curriculum offers various approaches to working through assignments, and we encourage students to become aware of and to develop the strategies that work best for given situations and for given audiences. Students are also encouraged to see that the forms and processes which are effective for one situation may need to be modified for another. Consequently, writers need to learn flexibility and adaptability.

Students need time to work through the writing and thinking tasks that assignments require. Time to write means time to think about what they have read, to think about different approaches to what they will write about, to make false starts, and to begin tentatively on drafts. It also means time to consult with peers and the instructor to develop drafts in ways unimagined initially. Time allows students to write and revise, and to discover the sorts of responses that are useful. Time allows teachers to intervene in students’ writing processes, to offer techniques, suggestions, and feedback that can help shape formal papers. With this in mind, a class should be structured so that students have time to make false starts, to try new and different approaches, to receive immediate feedback on their efforts, and to revise before submitting work for evaluation.

Students need to make choices as they write and they must be involved in the assessment of their work. Writing involves choices at various stages in a writing process. As they work on their writing, writers offer their work to others with comments and questions about what has been completed thus far and with requests for specific sorts of feedback. Teachers need to help students learn to do this.  Once they have had a chance to work on their writing and receive feedback, students must choose from their work, reflect on it, and then assemble it for graded evaluation. 

Student writers must learn to reflect on their work. Writers make good decisions about their texts when they are aware of what they are trying to do and how well they are accomplishing their purposes. As a result, the organization of writing courses should include opportunities for students to pause, look back, and then look ahead; opportunities for reflection should be an important part of any writing course. The use of writer’s statements, reflection essays, revision activities, and peer response activities promote reflection, and help writers learn to understand their work.  Successful writers set goals, and then take steps to meet those goals; the writing course provides a structure within which students can do that.

Language is a fundamental human activity. Writers come to understand themselves and their world through language. In our writing classes, we think, write, discuss, and form ideas; we work with language and through language in order to understand ourselves, each other, and the subjects we explore through writing. As students learn about academic expectations for language use, they better understand the full range of language uses in their lives. Our textbooks, assignments, and class discussions help illustrate formal expectations for language and format, while also introducing students to the richness of informal language, regional dialects, professional languages, and formal public dialects. Language rules are determined by context and audience, and our work with writers’ statements and analyses of rhetorical situations introduces students to these concepts.

Reading and writing are related activities, each of which is crucial for the other. Reading and writing involve similar activities and similar processes, and the more we understand how these processes work, the more we can control our efforts with both. As they work on reading and writing assignments, students need opportunities to understand how inquiry and curiosity are at the heart of good reading and writing experiences. An instructor can provide such opportunities by having students practice reading and writing in tandem. Experiencing reading and writing in tandem will help students to see that when they write from a basis of inquiry and curiosity, they become better readers; when they read as curious inquirers, they engage with the strategies that lead to improved writing.

The preceding assumptions were adapted from the IUPUI ENG-W131 Curriculum Guide


Responding to Student Writing

When we say that we teach writing, people often look at us sympathetically and say something like, “Too bad, you have to grade all those papers.”  Unfortunately, that myth has its basis in the attitudes of some teachers. Responding to papers, however, can be in many ways one of the most important and satisfying aspects of the job. Note we say “responding,” not grading. There is a difference. Grading is most often thought of as assessment–deciding who has done outstanding work, who has failed, and where to distribute those in between.  But we argue that assessment is only secondary, an institutional requirement, not a very good pedagogical tool. Responding, however, is the foundation of sound writing pedagogy. The good response nurtures student growth and establishes dialog critical to the writing enterprise. It is part of the fun of teaching writing.

At the college level, we highly educated and literate adults often feel a sense of superiority which leads to contempt for student efforts and despair at their improvement, but such feelings are our problems and should be carefully examined. Teaching, as William Zinsser observed, is one of the healing professions and it is in our comments that we should manifest our nurturing, curative powers rather than boredom, snobbery or exasperation. Like many other professionals, we must try to keep our personal problems and anxieties out of our work. Neither  student failings, nor student uncertainty are signs of intellectual incompetence; they are also not the fault of the teacher, but inadequate responses to these problems are.

Responding to Drafts

In a practical sense, the assignment is the beginning of the process of responding to student papers. If the goals of the assignment are clear and detailed, fewer papers will miss those goals altogether, and those that do can be rescued during the drafting stages. In the syllabus or the assignment itself, it is always a good idea to explain the major criteria of judgment, but for many writers, applying these criteria will only be learned in the draft-response cycle. It is one thing to write, “Papers should be well organized and concise!” and quite another to explain what that means in terms of an actual piece of writing. So, too, mentioning “poor development” in a comment often leaves students without any idea of what might be improved, whereas a suggestion for further specific explanation and support will be concrete enough for the author to understand and revise on his own. Most of the learning takes place in the latter activity; the other statements really assume students already know what extremely abstract concepts such as well organized, concise, and development mean, which, of course, they often do not.

Comments should be designed to do a number of things: point out the strengths of the draft, explain what the problems are and how they might be remedied, and encourage the writer to persist, build on his or her strengths and improve on his or her weaknesses. Well formulated questions that will help students think for themselves can be useful, but often direct statements will get unambiguously to the point and thus be more helpful. The best responses combine a measure of both—clear, directive comments, as well as questions to stimulate more critical reading and writing.

While you may be tempted to mark every error you see on a draft, and point out every inadequacy, research shows that making a few direct, unambiguous suggestions of where to improve the paper is more helpful to the student than a heavily marked-up draft with too many suggestions.

Final drafts raise a number of critical questions because at this juncture, along with the “finality” of the comments themselves, assessment raises its ugly head. On the one hand, we want to provide the writer with ideas he can use to improve upcoming papers and ultimately to write in different venues; but on the other, we feel a necessity to support the judgment we are making in terms of a grade.

The comment at the end of the final draft should emphasize its strengths and the improvements made during the drafting process as well as those compared to previous drafts. Critical comments should summarize major problems in neutral, positive, or even humorous language with an eye on future writing as well as on building a constructive relationship with the writer. They might well include suggested strategies for improvement that link with the strengths of the writer. They should also be specific enough so that students can understand the basis of the grade they received.

Assessing Student Work

Assessment seems to be a problem of avoiding extremes. Calibration of grades within the program is something we occasionally attempt in workshops during the school year or orientation, but perfect calibration is not possible, and probably not desirable—after all, students need to learn that not every audience will respond the same way to the same piece of writing. However, some level of consistency is desirable, and such consistency is impossible when we have instructors who give all A’s and B’s, all C’s or mostly D’s and F’s. Unfortunately, we have also had those who proudly announce on the first day that they don’t give A’s because no one can attain their high standards.

Each of these patterns is problematic. On the one hand, we cannot expect a room full of Morrisons and Vidals and then punish them for failing to write like professionals. On the other hand, since classes are assembled largely by chance, it is highly unlikely that 7 outstanding, 11 very good, but no average students ended up in one section. In short, criteria should be fair and designed to reward achievement. Because of withdrawals, grades will tend to fall in a skewed bell curve, with mostly C’s, B’s and a few A’s. Of course, from time to time, everyone has classes which happen to be fairly heavily shifted toward one extreme.

While there is certainly considerable disagreement among faculty about the weight in course grades of such things as attendance, class participation, peer critique performance, and getting papers in on time, these factors are a measure of student success. If writing is a social activity, and if the class activities are an important part of learning, students should not expect to receive a high grade for the course if they have not demonstrated a commitment to those activities. However, draconian rules seem to be pedagogically unsound, especially in an institution such as ours whose students are often over-committed in a variety of ways.  Student grades should be lowered for poor attendance, for late papers, and frequent tardiness. However,  failing a student for a few absences even though he or she has done all writing assignments with C’s or better seems to send the message that writing improvement isn’t as important as physical presence.  

At the end of the semester, the ultimate assessment question is “Has this student demonstrated the ability to write at the level necessary for success in the university and the community beyond?” If the answer is yes, then a grade of C or above would seem appropriate.

Student Self-Assessment and Peer Assessment

Students often learn a great deal from self-assessment, which can take a variety of forms. Reflective writing in response to specific questions about a paper or portfolio is often useful. Later in the semester, most students will apply fair and reasonable grades to their own work and write insightful explanations for them. As students gain experience in peer critiques as well as revision, they also benefit from comparing their own drafts or different papers, to those of fellow students, noting their progress as well as weaknesses. In some cases, a well designed peer review activity may mitigate the need for the instructor to comment on a draft. Since the ultimate goal of writing courses is to help people become self-actualized writers, helping the student achieve a measure of independence where they can self-assess their own writing should also be a goal for the course. 

Mechanics of Response

Modern technology has made it possible for us to respond to students with tools other than pens and pencils. The comment feature in Microsoft Word, embedded audio files, and e-mail are easy ways to respond to papers when submitted in electronic format. However, be sure your assignments specify the kind of file you expect—a specific version of Microsoft Word, a Rich text File (RTF), or a PDF document.

Papers can be collected either in hard copy, by email or through the Blackboard course management system. Collecting papers electronically makes the briefcase/backpack a lot lighter.

Spoken comments are usually superior to written because they allow more to be said in less time. The best option here is a face-to-face meeting, however that is probably not possible for every draft. Many instructors will cancel class once or twice a semester, and use that time for face-to face meetings to discuss the drafts of a particularly challenging assignment.