Monday, January 25, 2016

Advice on College Writing Expectations from a Secondary Teacher

As I’ve simply been a disembodied voice for the past semester courtesy of the CETL blog, you should know that before I decided to attend graduate school full time this past year I worked as a middle school English teacher.  During my time as a secondary teacher in a low income school district, I was faced with the predicament of providing adequate classroom instruction on topics that were geared towards the Common Core Standards.  I learned quickly that this meant following a curriculum geared towards standardized test scores, which took away from the time I would have liked to be spending on developing the important writing skills I knew my students would be needing in their high school, college, and career experiences later on in life.

In turn, I took a lot of time to consider what sort of questions students would be required to answer on standardized tests so that I could prepare them in the best ways for the problem-solving required to adequately work their way through problems of vocabulary and reading comprehension.  I wasn’t surprised to notice that nearly all of the standardized exams that students took were multiple choice, as they were cheaper to develop, administer, and score than tests that included essay responses.* 
The repercussions of these purely choice-driven testing elements are extreme, and are often noticed among college instructors when papers or written exams are assigned.  College teachers tend to have a resounding collective complaint that their college students “can’t write.”  And they aren’t just talking about incoming college freshman.  The poor writing skills that instructors are flustered over are sometimes carried with students all the way through receiving their bachelor’s degrees and beyond.

Why does this happen?  

Some of these struggles are widely due to the nature of K-12 education and its transformation into an exam-based structure of learning since No Child Left Behind went into effect for the 2002-2003 school year.  It’s no question that due to these extreme changes in the ways that America’s public schools have been operating under since then, there has been a substantial decrease in emphasis on writing for assessments or other work outside of an English classroom.

In fact, despite the repetitive quality of common “literary standards” across all disciplines in public K-12 schools, many teachers are struggling to implement writing-based practices for their students, and mostly rely on English teachers within their building to be the sole providers for these skills.  Often times, this idea is mirrored in college when instructors expect students to move directly from an intro to writing course into becoming a developed and grammatically affluent writer.  This is not the case.

What can be done?

Take writing for your classroom into your own hands.  Different instructors have different expectations for writing within their courses, so it’s significant to point out that while you may expect a traditionally structured, multiple-drafted, grammatically flawless piece of writing, other instructors may be placing a broader emphasis on getting thoughts out on paper with a looser, more casual style.  Make your expectations clear and provide examples for your students to look to when they are writing their own papers.  Yes, this could mean going through citations for APA format, discussing how paragraphs should be structured for optimum readability, or discussing the difference between a narrative and research voice throughout.

If you find that students in your class are performing substantially below your writing standards, provide them with some resources they can utilize to improve their writing.  Suggest (or even require) that students make appointments at the Center for Writing Excellence on campus to review their written work with a trained writing tutor before handing in their work.  (They can even make appointments online!)  Or, you might require a first draft to be written as part of their assignment.  Then provide a rubric for what you’ll be specifically looking for in their final drafts and pair students up for an in-depth peer review session during class.

*It should be noted that within the last year, this form of testing has been re-evaluated, and new testing forms have been implemented for middle and elementary school students that require them to work through their ideas via short answer responses.  Although a slightly better idea than the multiple-choice heavy testing we're used to, this format does not require students to develop ideas into formulated responses over a few sentences in length.  Thus, not helping them to develop writing skills that are relative to longer assessments.

Tip Provided By: Jessica Moser

Monday, January 18, 2016

Some Notes on Breathing

Recently, Cindy Albert, a wonderful CETL staff member whom many of you already know, brought an article to my attention that had been published to the Chronicle Vitae.  In this article, Aimee Morrison, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo, wrote about her comparative experiences between being a yoga instructor and being a university professor.  This article, entitled “Let It Breathe” made several good points about teaching to the fullest with a ‘less is more’ attitude.

Morrison writes about her experiences as a yoga instructor and her reminders to her students to take time to breathe when they are struggling with a particular pose or are falling out of sync with their stances.  She states, “At the front of the university classroom, by contrast, I am the one who sometimes needs to be reminded to breathe.”

Morrison reflects on her stance as a teacher, the ways in which she was used to preparing classes by over-assigning projects, papers, or reading assignments.  She used to feel that the more she assigned, the less likely she would run out of material to discuss.  She filled empty lecture pauses with more handouts, PowerPoint slides, or explanations than were necessary, and watched as her students began to check out during class, much too consumed with the overwhelming amount of work load they had been assigned to think about much else.

“It didn’t work,” she stated in reflection.  “I was exhausted and tense, and my students were baffled and overwhelmed. […] No one had room to breathe.”  Morrison realized that she needed to be willing to take time in her university courses to become a more present teacher.  One who was involved in the learning process of her classes with her students, utilizing a more mindful way of teaching rather than keeping everyone busy. 

It’s been an interesting transition for Morrison, but the positive results from these changes can’t be overlooked.  “Sometimes we follow a tangent, or we might spend 20 minutes working through one important paragraph in one important article.  Class time finally became student-centered time, and students responded by being more interested and more active.”

It's beneficial to consider Morrison's technique, whether you are a yoga-lover or not, for your own classes.  Think about the ways that you've been implementing workloads, whether your lectures are student-based, and what you can do to more actively involve real participation and thoughtful engagement from your students--not just a scrabbling for answers or spouting off statements read from the hundred pages of reading they'd been assigned.  Simply focus on the centered main ideas you'd like your students to gain from their involvement in your class, and remember to breathe.

Tip Provided By: Jessica Moser

Monday, January 11, 2016

Why Frequent Exams are Better

Implementing exams throughout courses is a necessary evil, and it has been widely accepted by students and instructors alike that the times of midterms and finals are times of panic and disarray.  However, this anxiety might be less about the fact that students are required to take a test and more about the lack of test-taking they’ve experienced previously in the class.

In 2007, a study was completed in which a control group was set to have students only complete two midterm exams and a cumulative final throughout the semester.  This was in turn compared to an experimental group that required the completion of biweekly exams (six in total) as well as the same cumulative final as the control group.  The findings from this study proved very interesting indeed.

Students a part of the experimental group with biweekly exams scored, on average, about 10 percentage points (or one letter grade) higher on exams throughout the semester.  Plus, they scored about 15 percentage points higher on the final than students in the control group.

This wasn’t the only thing that had shown to be different between these two groups.  The control group experienced a decline in student enrollment when more than 11 percent of the students withdrew from the course.  Not a single student withdrew from the experimental section.  The improvement frequent exams made on the course was also seen in course ratings, as students who were a part of the experimental group rated the course and instructor higher overall in each.  In fact, 71 percent of students in the control group rated their instructor as “one of the best” they’ve had, vs. just a 36% rating from the control group.  (Note that both of these courses were taught by the same professor.)

So why was so much improvement seen between these two groups?  What is it about frequent exams that make the class more valuable to students?

Students are consistently exposed to information.  This paired with less material to learn at a time for the biweekly exams helped contribute to overall retention and understanding of course material.  This also amounted to receiving feedback more frequently and earlier on in the semester, allowing students to gauge what they should change about their learning habits in order to improve their scores.

Tip Provided By: Jessica Moser

Myers, C.B., and Myers, S.M. (2007). Assessing assessments: The effects of two exam formats on course achievement and evaluation. Innovative Higher Education, 31, 227–236.