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As you plan for fall semester, you might want to give some thought to the nature of our incoming students.

This year’s PSU students share the same disadvantages as their peers all over the country: they read less than students did 20 years ago, and their reading skills are weaker; they have less writing experience than high school graduates of 20 years ago, and because they read less, their writing is less competent; they have had less practice in critical thinking, and they are less able to follow a connected chain of reasoning; their attention span is shorter than it was even five years ago, and they have more difficulty understanding and following directions.

This difference holds true across ability levels, income levels, and genders. This is not a change that reflects merely that a higher percentage of high school graduates are attempting college and therefore that the entering college freshman class includes students from ever lower in their high school graduating class. That is also true, but it does not account for the lower literacy levels and shorter attention spans of the students in the traditionally college-bound top ten, twenty, or thirty percent of high school graduating classes.

These students will arrive in college with learning deficits we can’t easily imagine, and somewhere along the way many of them have also lost sight of the connection between education and self-improvement. Instead they’ve learned to think of school as a diploma vending machine: each semester, students buy a certain number of credits and put them in the machine; when they have enough of the right kind of credits, out pops a degree.

It’s easy to assign blame, but once these students arrive on our campus there’s no real point in wondering what went wrong before they got to us. The more important question is what do we do about it? Because in one way this year’s students are just like the students of twenty years ago: they need to be prepared to do work in the real world when they graduate, and they expect to be able to get there in 124 credit hours or less. Most importantly, their students loans are going to be repaid in a much less forgiving debt climate, so they’ll need to leave college with some serious, hard-core intellectual skills.

So here are my goals for the 2010-2011 school year. I hope you’ll consider adopting some of them yourself.

Goal 1: I’ve adjusted my reading requirements downward over the past few years as more and more students struggled to do the reading. This year I’m going to adjust them back up, and I’m going to use reading quizzes to hold students accountable for actually doing the reading.

Goal 2: More and more over the years, I’ve tended to hit the main points of the assigned reading in class lecture to make up for the fact that students don’t read carefully enough to understand it on their own. This year I am going to hold students accountable for getting relevant information from the reading by assessing them on material that was included in the assigned reading and that was not covered in class.

Goal 3: I’ve generally given up penalizing students for failing to follow directions. It seemed so petty to take points off for minor details when I was just glad to see them doing something that approached the assigned task. But it’s not at all petty to create real-world contexts in which students can read for information (the directions for an assignment, for instance), and then test themselves on their ability to understand what they read (by following the directions to the letter), and get accurate feedback on how well they did. So this semester, I’m going to give clear instructions for how to submit assignments, and I’m simply not going to grade submissions that do not follow the instructions. I don’t plan to spend a lot of time on this, but I’m betting it will be one of things that will be of greatest practical benefit to students. A huge part of adult life has always involved being able to understand and follow directions, and if our students arrive not yet able to do that, we’re not doing them any favors by pretending it doesn’t matter.

Goal 4: Because I have a tendency to engage in a certain amount of mind-reading where students are concerned, I often give students credit for understanding more than they’re able to put into words. But since life outside PSU will demand that students be able to say what they mean in language that conveys meaning to the non-mind-reading population, I’m officially going out of the mind-reading business. To that end, my most important goal is to assume that students really mean exactly what they say. I’m going to stop giving credit for the half-expressed idea or the idea that would make sense if I added a missing piece or two. Instead, I’m going to hold students accountable for being able to express the main ideas of the course in sentences and paragraphs that would make sense to an objective outside reader and not just to a someone who specializes in being a good listener.

The most important thing I plan to keep in mind is that this year’s students are just as smart as students have ever been, and if they’re coming to us with less academic preparation, that doesn’t mean they can’t catch up. We just need to resist the temptation to go easy on them.

             The New York Times recently ran a series of articles on anosognosia and the troubling implications of the things we don’t even know enough to know we don’t know. The whole series was worth a read, but it seems to me to have a special relevance to the perennial question of how to get students to care more about their writing and to take more responsibility for improving their writing skills. 

             As faculty, we’re very much aware that the time and money students invest in a college education will do nothing for them if they leave college without the advanced literacy skills they need in order to put their degrees to work.  And we’ve done a  good job of communicating this to students.  If you ask students if writing will be important for their future success, most of them will say yes.  And often they’re able to back that up with pretty convincing reasons why.

             But in spite of the fact that we’ve succeeded in convincing students that writing matters, they still don’t write very well, and—even more frustratingly—many students still tend to approach writing assignments in a half-hearted way that suggests they don’t really care about improving their writing skills. 

             I’ve been thinking a lot about this bizarre and inexplicable slippage between what students believe (that being able to write well matters to their future success) and their apparent lack of interest in doing anything about it, and for a long time I’ve been completely at a loss to account for it.  If you know you need to be good at something in order to succeed, and if somebody offers to help you get better at it, wouldn’t you grab the opportunity?  And if not, why not?

             The answer, I think, is that you wouldn’t follow up on that opportunity if you didn’t know that you needed to improve.  You might believe very strongly in the importance of good writing, but if you think the writing skills you already have are good enough to get by with, then it wouldn’t be too unreasonable to let writing slide and save your energy for something else.  And that, I think, might be the key to unlocking student attitudes toward writing. 

             So here’s my question for you.  To what extent does your grading system allow students to misoverestimate (to paraphrase the education president) their writing competence?  Does an A on a writing assignment in your class mean that this student can congratulate himself or herself on being an outstanding writer?  Does a B mean that the student is genuinely performing at a level that you, in your heart of academic hearts, believe to represent better-than-merely-adequate academic work?  Does a C mean that you would be willing to put your seal of approval on that student’s ability to write?

             If you answered not always, not really, and not so much, then perhaps you would be willing to join me in my New Year’s resolution for 2010-2011: being honest with students about their writing. 

             I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been the queen of grade inflation when it comes to student writing.  I like my students, and I like how hard they work in class, and—in the past—I’ve fallen over and over again into the trap of confusing good classroom citizenship with academic achievement.  However, I’ve spent this entire year owning up to my addiction to rewarding good citizenship with good grades, and I’m finally beginning to make some progress toward giving grades that represent the quality of the written product and not merely the goodwill the student brought to the task.

            I still like my students, and I still like how hard they work, and now that I’ve started to break this addiction to grade inflation, I have the satisfaction of seeing, every single day and with every single assignment, how much more students can do if we hold them accountable for doing it. 

            Breaking the cycle of addiction to grade inflation is not easy.  It requires changing a lot of comfortable old habits and learning new ways to talk to students about their writing.  But it doesn’t have to be painful—not for us and not for our students.  And although students might sometimes miss the bad old days of getting good grades for mediocre work and mediocre grades for work that really doesn’t meet our standards for college writing, they’re smart enough to know that you can only get something for nothing if you pay for it.  And the price they’ll pay for getting grades instead of an education just doesn’t bear thinking of.

Summer is the perfect time to turn your writing assignments into publication opportunities. Every academic discipline has one or two journals that focus on teaching practices, and articles that present discipline-specific writing assignments or describe ways to use writing to teach course content are usually of great interest to journal editors.

Typically, an article of that kind includes the following sections:

problem definition (what students need that the course doesn’t yet provide);
theoretical explanation of why a writing assignment is the solution;
your methodology (your assignment);
results (how it turned out in your course, students’ reactions);
discussion (your response, why it worked, what you would change,).

Start your article today and join us on July 8, 15, and 22 for an opportunity to share your work in progress.

Rubrics Revisited

As I’ve listened to faculty across the University talk about how they evaluate student writing, I’ve been increasingly interested in the many different ways we arrive at value judgments, particularly in the difference between analytical and holistic scoring guides.

Typically, an analytical scoring guide (or rubric) includes a list of features the finished product must include (e.g. “introduction that defines the problem” or “references to at least two articles from peer-reviewed journals”) and assigns a point value to each one. A paper’s grade is then determined by adding the points awarded to each feature. By contrast, a holistic scoring guide describes the target qualities of the finished product collectively, often in a form like this: “An A paper will . . .” “A B paper will . . .”

While analytical scoring is friendlier to number crunching, it can introduce some frustrations for faculty who see students technically fulfilling the requirements of the scoring guide but still not producing finished products that meet teachers’ overall quality goals. By contrast, holistic scoring supports overall quality goals but in a way that makes it difficult for faculty to design a grading system that responds directly to students use of specific writing skills.

One solution to this dilemma might be to choose analytical scoring for situations in which you are teaching new writing skills and want to be able to focus on students’ success in using those particular skills when you grade the assignment, and choose holistic scoring for situations in which students are meant to be demonstrating a collection of skills they should already have mastered.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that lower-level courses will always use analytical scoring and upper-level courses would always use holistic scoring, but it might mean that you would be more likely to use analytical scoring in evaluating assignments early in an instructional sequence (when you have just introduced a new concept or skill) and holistic scoring later when you want students to demonstrate mastery of that skill in a larger context of other writing skills they have already mastered.

I would be very interested in hearing more about your own experience using analytical or holistic scoring.

If your course includes a formal paper or semester project due in the last week or two of the semester, now is the perfect time to start thinking about what you can do in class to support the writing students are doing out of class. Here are four things you can do to improve student writing in fifteen minutes or less.

1. Review your expectations for source citations and tell students what source citation system you want them to use. To save yourself aggravation when you grade final papers, review source citations in class early in April, and have students turn in at least a partial bibliography the week of April 12. Fear not—you don’t need to spend time correcting formatting errors in the bibliographies. Grade them pass (no glaring errors you could see at a glance) or fail and hand them back the next class period with a reminder of the importance of using the assigned format.

2. Are you frustrated by papers that don’t actually do what the assignment requires? Review your expectations for the final product in an interactive discussion/demonstration. To do this, hand out another copy of the assignment sheet (ideally they would still have the one you gave them originally, but there are always one or two people who have lost it), and give them a few minutes to reread it. Then have students help you generate a list on the board of what the paper will include (content) or do (function).

3. Do students tend to make claims but fail to support them? Take five minutes in class one day to show them the kind of unsupported claim you often see and then the kinds of reasons and/or evidence you want their papers to include. Then start over with a second claim and have students generate the appropriate reasons and/or evidence.

4. Are some students still not using the style or tone that is appropriate for the assignment? Bring in a sample paragraph that includes the casual style or careless errors you want to talk them out of, and demonstrate sentence by sentence as you transform it from casual, careless, first draft to the kind of polished prose you want to see in their final papers.

Predict, Observe, Explain

One of the most productive intersections between learning, thinking, and writing occurs when students are asked to explain a technical or theoretical concept from the course, apply that concept to a specific case or instance, draw conclusions about the outcome, and argue for their conclusions using reasons and evidence. Tasks of this kind help students practice and reinforce content-area knowledge while at the same time giving them a context for critical thinking and writing. Predict-Observe-Explain is one version of this task that can be used in almost any discipline. Here’s how it works.

After teaching a concept or principle, introduce a case, scenario, or situation in which that principle applies. Ask students to PREDICT what they think will happen in the scenario. Then continue the demonstration (or allow the scenario to play out) so that students can OBSERVE what actually happens. And finally, ask students to report the outcome as it actually occurred and EXPLAIN the outcome using reasons and evidence.

The Predict-Observe-Explain approach has been widely adopted in the sciences, but only a very little ingenuity is required to develop Predict-Observe-Explain tasks for any field in which the theories of the field are used to explain how things happen.

If you’d like more information about POE tasks in general or for your discipline, or if you have a POE you’d like to share, please e-mail me at jzeperni@pittstate.edu.

If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to more clearly communicate to students your expectations for their writing, here’s a sample scoring guide that might help you get started.

The example below represents something close to a holistic scoring guide. It describes in broad, general terms the qualities that are expected to be present in a paper at each grade level, and assumes that a paper’s grade will be based on its overall merits, taking everything into consideration.

As you decide what to include in your own personal scoring guide, you might want to begin by making the distinction between a passing paper and a failing paper. What does a paper have to do/be/contain to earn the bare minimum passing grade? What qualities would cause a paper to earn a failing grade? Then decide what qualities you want students to strive for in doing the assignment, and make those the defining characteristics of the higher rankings in your scoring system.

As you decide what to include, remember that students will see your grading criteria as a direct reflection of your values for writing. In other words, if it’s in your scoring guide, students will assume it’s important. If it’s not, students will assume it doesn’t matter.

100-90 A
The A paper fulfills the assignment in a way that shows proficient understanding of both the content and the writing task. Development is appropriate in both breadth and depth. The main point is clearly articulated and is more than adequately supported by relevant, clearly-explained reasons and evidence. Outside sources, if any, are used effectively and with appropriate documentation. Sentences and paragraphs are well-developed and show the writer’s control of ideas, structure, and focus. The paper is stylistically and mechanically appropriate for most professional and academic contexts and contains few or no sentence-level flaws.

89-80 B
The B paper fulfills the assignment in a way that shows a competent understanding of both the content and the writing task. It is generally well developed. The main point is clear, and it is adequately supported by logically relevant, clearly explained reasons and evidence. Outside sources, if any, are used appropriately and documentation is correctly formatted. Sentences and paragraphs are well-developed and show the writer’s control of ideas, structure, and focus. The paper is stylistically and mechanically adequate for most professional and academic contexts. Sentence-level flaws, if present, are occasional rather than pervasive and are not noticeable enough to detract from the overall quality of the writer’s presentation

79-70 C
The C paper fulfills the requirements of the assignment in most ways, and shows an adequate understanding of the relevant content and the writing task. Development is sufficient to merit a passing grade, although it may not always reflect the depth or breadth the assignment seeks. The main point is evident, and it is adequately supported by appropriate reasons and evidence. Outside sources, if any, are used in an acceptable way and documented accurately. Sentences and paragraphs generally show the writer’s ability to control ideas, structure, and focus, although that control may sometimes slip. The paper is stylistically and mechanically acceptable for submission in a college-level course. Sentence-level flaws, if present, never interfere with the writer’s ability to communicate and are not significant or distracting enough to prevent the document from accomplishing its intended purpose in an acceptable way.

69-60 D
The D paper attempts the assignment but fails to meet its objectives in one or more of the following ways. It may show inadequate understanding of the content or the writing task, and/or it may show insufficient development. The main point may be unclear, confusing, or self-contradictory. Reasons and evidence may not adequately support the main point, or they may be logically flawed or inadequately explained. Outside sources may be ineffectively or documented in an unacceptable way. Sentences and paragraphs may be inadequately developed and/or may frequently fail to control ideas, structure, or focus. Sentence-level flaws may be pervasive and may sometimes interfere with the writer’s ability to communicate.

59 and below F
The F paper does something other than the assigned task or shows insufficient understanding of the material and/or the writing task. The main point may be missing or outside the parameters of the assignment. Reasons and evidence may be exceptionally weak, irrelevant, or incoherent. Material from outside sources may be used inappropriately or without documentation. Sentences and paragraphs may be undeveloped and/or may show little effort to control ideas, structure, or focus. The presence of many, pervasive errors or egregious stylistic improprieties may make the document unacceptable for submission in a college-level course.