Wednesday, October 05, 2016


Writer's Help at MCPHS

After the first visit to discuss teaching with the handbook, I compiled a list of resources that came up during the conversation. Those are collected here to have in one place.

Teaching with Hacker Handbooks:
  This will have ideas for sequencing the handbook use into writing assignments and/or activities to address writing issues. 

Syllabus 5: Writer’s Help, in Critical Reading and Writing, fall semester   
  This syllabus is from Stephen Bernhardt, who with Nancy Sommers co-authored Writer's Help. His cool idea: he underlines key terms in his syllabus and then has students look those up using the search tool in Writer's Help.

Stuff I've Written Up
How to use Word to turn essay into list of sentences  

With inspiration from Klonoski, Edward, “Using the Eyes of the PC to Teach Revision.,” Computers and Composition, v11 n1 p71-78. 1994.

Since handbooks and exercises use single sentence examples to illustrate incorrect and then corrected sentences, a proofing stage activity, students use the steps in this handout to transfer what they read and exercise to their own writing.  They do this by turning their essay into a list of sentences to match the kind of approach the handbook/exercises use.   See also, for a related activity inspired by Ed’s piece, “One Way to Use Grammar and Spellcheckers Carefully” at

See also, "Schooling Grammar Checkers" for 8 things teachers can do to address the strengths and weaknesses of that tool:

James Lang's stuff from the CHE:
Small Changes in Teaching --

On Transfer
Why Don't They Apply What They Learned, Part 1

Why Don't They Apply What They Learned, Part 2

Why Don't They Apply What They Learned, Part 3


Three core ideas

1. Be explicit with students about the role of Writer's Help in their MCPHS writing career. It's not just a course text, it's a text for all the writing they do. Strategies include letting them know their other professors will know they have the book (and those professors might have access). Stressing for each time you teach them how to use the book on their own that you are teaching them this so that can and will use it on their own in other courses, other writing situations. This kind of explicit teaching of goals and purpose will help students see that what is taught in a writing course -- strategies for drafting, researching, citing, reviewing, revising, proofing, and consulting Writer's Help in all those activities, is what they should bring to writing across the curriculum.

2. Move from Writer's Help to student writing; from student writing to Writer's Help. Teach students how to go from the advice in Writer's Help to their own writing and classmates' writings; and to know how to look at writing and then go to Writer's Help for advice. So space the use of Writer's Help throughout the semester (see Lang on spacing and interleaving), structured so that they move as quickly as possible from Writer's Help to writing. For example, if you're going to ask them to focus on thesis statements for a workshop, they might be told to look up thesis statements in Writer's Help, maybe do some LearningCurve questions, or standard quiz activities, to reinforce what they read. Then in class the next day, have them bring copies of their own writing and work in groups on finding and improving their owns and classmates' thesis statements. The key is make it the next day, so they can apply what they read and exercised to actual writing. Because you are just focusing on thesis statements, they can be in groups of four, and each writer can get three reviews.  Ask them to do this:  Describe to the writer what the thesis statement is (or could be if the reviewer thinks one is not there), and based on Writer's Help -- by citing or quoting from it -- talk about the statement's quality.  If it helps, use this prompt or template for them to complete:
According to Writer's Help, a good thesis statement ____________________________. 
Your thesis statement is __________________________________________________.

And then use either:

Your thesis statement is good because ______________________________________.
Your thesis statement is on the way to good, and will get there if you _________________________________.

3. Never work  harder than your students. 

First, do as much to grow student to student feedback as you can. Micro reviews such as the thesis statement can work wonders, both to help writers learn to see how to improve things on their own and to give them the time, focus, and practice at working those improvements.  No writing instructor should ever take on the burden of being the only person who gives writers feedback they will use. Teach them to give and receive feedback from one another; they will learn more and more deeply.

Second, on sentence level issues,  address only one or two a week, using steps something like above -- students read Writer's Help, do exercises, do the best they can applying to their own writing; in workshops set aside to teach just proofreading and copyediting,  they look at writing and go back to Writer's Help for explaining their feedback. When you address sentence level issue in your written feedback, do two things: one, only address an issue you've taught; and two, don't circle the error in the sentence nor label it. Use minimal marking -- put a check at the end of the sentence. The writer needs to look at the sentence, decide what the error is, and figure a good revision. He or she can ask a classmate for help.  

For example, if you've addressed fragments and subject-verb agreement only, put check marks in margins at lines where one of those two errors occurs. Don't say which it is or where it is. The following week the check mark might also include run-ons if that was taught next. Each week the mark can potentially include a wider array of errors, but only errors that have been taught and workshopped. Let your students use the marks as hints for going back to Writer's Help for advice on figuring out what the error is and how to fix it. You're working hard to mark margins; they're working harder to learn more deeply and permanently what the marks hint at and how to fix those things. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2016


Writing to Learn Aids Learning to Write

One of the challenges for students when they take any course in any discipline, and it is one of the joys too, is learning how to see and make sense of the world through the lenses -- ways of thinking and sharing ideas -- a discipline provides.

To do this, we know from insights in gleaned from the science of teaching and learning, students need to learn content and processes. Learners also need to grapple with those ideas -- not just cram them before a test, not just remember enough to pass a course -- to learn them deeply. Writing remains one of the best tools for idea grappling, for learning.

And through writing about what is being learned, students build more fluidity writing about the things they will write about as emerging thinkers and researchers in that discipline. It's kind of cool when you think about.

And here are some sources to help you think about it.

Page includes links to reviews of the book or articles inspired by the book. Key insights in the text as captured by the publisher's description:
Many common study habits and practice routines turn out to be counterproductive. Underlining and highlighting, rereading, cramming, and single-minded repetition of new skills create the illusion of mastery, but gains fade quickly. More complex and durable learning come from self-testing, introducing certain difficulties in practice, waiting to re-study new material until a little forgetting has set in, and interleaving the practice of one skill or topic with another.
  • Small Teaching by James Lang

    This delightful book combines insights from the science of teaching and learning (SOTL) with small changes that can make a difference. A lot of the ideas dovetail well with writing because they use writing to learn strategies. For more on small changes, see also Lang's collection of articles on the topic at the Chronicle of Higher Ed:

  • From publisher: Drawing on an array of findings from cognitive theory, Lang analyzes the specific, often hidden features of course design and daily classroom practice that create opportunities for cheating.
    What you find when you look at the case studies of classroom practices, is how often the use of writing to learn activities help with deeper learning and help to mitigate against the need to cheat.

Aside: Plagiarism happens for two broad, complicated and often overlapping reasons: fear and loathing. Students are afraid they cannot do the work and will fail. If the stakes are high, the grade is needed, cheating becomes an option out of fear of failure. Loathing describes an almost opposite situation: students don't care about the course, don't like the subject, maybe resent having to take it. For them the stakes are so low, then, that out of disdain or animosity or boredom or indifference, they cheat as short cut to finishing.

Writing to learn mitigates against plagiarism because it gives students the time and practice to write about ideas that will be used later in their more formal writing assignments. That's very powerful learning and very powerful mitigation against plagiarism practice: getting ideas in words before setting words to an essay, lab report, or major assignment.

The works above all help illustrate how writing can help foster that power. So can this resource:

  • Plagiarism 101 by Nick Carbone --
    This site collects resources used in plagiarism workshops, including links to handouts, language you can add to your syllabus about plagiarism, readings and a video you can assign students to view and read as part of discussing the issue.

A collection of teaching ideas

Ideas for Writing to Learn with Discussion Boards

  •     When you place a reading on reserve at the library, have students use a discussion board to post their responses or notes on the reading. Since most all libraries have computers, students can do this in the library as they read.
  •     Use the discussion board during class as way for students to write and post responses to writing prompts (which you can post in the board in advance). 
  •     Put text you want students to read in a message; ask students to use the reply key and to quote the original message--the text you posted. They can insert comments and annotations in the text.
  •     Have students copy and paste drafts of their writing in a board. Create separate strands for peer review groups or study groups. They can reply and comment on one another's paper.
  •    Create a discussion board devoted to sharing research sources. Require students to post full citations for a source they discovered an annotation or abstract to go with it. 

 Writing to Learn, Writing to Write and Managing the Workload

You don’t have to comment or grade every piece of writing--you can do a lot by simply reading. Here are some ways to think about workload:

  •    Read and comment on posts in aggregate. "I notice a lot of comments are saying ..." or "Three of you -- student, student, student -- have pointed out X, what do others of you think?"
  •     Make sure to reply to every student's writings at some point, however.
  •     Use your discussion leading skills to get students to respond to each other--point out when they have ideas in common, or opposed, and invite responses. (Good for face to face as well as discussion boards.)
  •     Don't get caught up doing tech. support. Urge students to help one another whenever possible--if you introduce online tools in face-to-face settings, you can move this along by having students who complete a step or task move around the room to help those who are still working at it.
  •     Peer review. Teach it, and help students find the value in it. Treat peer review comments as what they really are -- micro essays -- that, like any essay, can be improved by rewriting, feedback, and discussion. Spending more time on teaching students to do peer review in the early weeks -- even if that leaves less time to work on essays -- can pay off in the end. The skills they learn writing comments -- being a close reader, writing full, descriptive comments, offering a writing choices, learning to read writing like a writer -- all transfer and support what writing is about. There's no loss to spend more time on peer review and a little less on actual essays early on.
  •     Conference with students--read writing cold, on the spot, in conference. Conference online in chat spaces and have students describe what they're doing. Talk about the writing. As the semester goes on, make more of your comments orally, in mini-conferences, and let peer reviews be the comments of written record.
  •     Don't try to grade everything. Have students periodically write reflections and self-analysis (have them quote from class transcripts, discussion, peer review comments to make points); remember you're reading and skimming and keeping track that works getting done, but you don't have to grade every jit and jot.
  •     Set office hours and keep them.
  •     Set times for your own work and don't let students intrude.
  •     Set rules for when and how frequently you'll answer student email.
  •     Keep students on schedule--nothing like extensions to stretch your work out.
  •     Don't be afraid to cut down on work you assign from time to time.
  •     Teach computer skills as writing skills. For example, how to save a file in rich text format might seem computer skill, but it's an essential writing skill if writing's to be shared among platforms. Realizing this helps put that necessary teaching in perspective--it's work worth doing, and saves time down the road.

Use Portfolios to Transition Writing to Learn (WTL) to Writing in the Disciplines (WID) 

For writers, careful record keeping, reflective essays, research logs, copies of sources used, annotated bibliographies, and so on-- are essential skills and practices that scholars and researchers follow. Writing to Learn activities are part of the thinking record your young scholars should learn to save and use. If you require WTL activities and especially, but not only, if they are precursors to WID projects, requires your students to save all their work in an e-portfolio. An e-portfolio can be as simple as folder where all work is kept or as rich as full on e-portfolio tools. 

But to make these work, set for students incremental deadlines (collecting items as the weeks progress) and help students to keep their portfolio organized, accurate, and useful for these reasons:

  • It helps you teach students how to manage time and set a series of smaller goals and deadlines. Setting deadlines helps students stay on course, and if you make it explicit that you're setting deadlines to model the kind of planning they need to learn to do when they engage larger writing projects on their own, it helps them to see the value of planning the project that way.
  • It lets you tie the use of the portfolio to the issue of plagiarism and honesty. Make it clear and explicit that such a portfolio benefits students should there ever be any question about the origins of their work. Portfolios help students show the work that goes into their writing, and that helps them should there ever be a question about their honesty. And of course, by collecting the work incrementally and seeing how students are doing as they go, it helps you to teach source management (avoiding inadvertent, technical plagiarism), and makes it harder for students to cheat (avoiding intentional plagiarism).
  • One of the best ways to start any project is to use this WTL idea: have student to create a knowledge of inventory, a list of everything they know or think about  their given topic, as well as tracing where they learned what they know or how they derived the opinions they have. From this, students can generate two very useful things: one, some early essays that help them structure their own initial thinking, and two, research leads. 
  1.  Essay Drafting Benefit: Using WTL before research helps students get their voice on paper. It gives them a document that they can weave their sources and research results into. This helps avoid the get-a-stack-of-sources-cobble-quote-cite-and-then-patch-a-paper-together-thing that often results in voiceless, bland, unengaged research writing. By writing first, you can help students move back and forth between research and writing. They write to get started; research to explore their thinking, answer questions, solve a problem or learn more. They work what they've learned from research into the evolving draft, as research helps them revise their thinking 

  2. Research Leads Benefit: If students remember having read an article in the dentist's office six months ago, or recall hearing something on the news, had a textbook a few years back which addressed the issue, or took another course where a teacher discussed the topic, and so on, then they have leads, places to begin their research.  They can look up those articles and call or e-mail those teachers.
  • An incrementally collected portfolio lets you see how students research, and how their research and writing strategies are unfolding. These views into their process let you intercede and find more teachable moments than can arise when you only get a paper on a due date
  • You do not need to comment on everything you collect. Just the act of collecting work in increments still helps students because it gives them deadlines. Just skim if you've a need to, looking for broader issues that might be addressed to the class as a whole or in consultation with a research librarian This is also a good way to find class-wide issues that might be addressed by consulting your writing center and arranging a workshop on some particular research writing skill. That is, collecting portfolios does not necessarily have to entail a lot of extra work reading and responding.  But still the benefits are immeasurable and merely skimming opens up opportunities for working with your local writing center and library.
  •  Seeing work from the start -- brainstorming, searching for topics, finding a thesis, and so on -- makes the chances of plagiarism "vanishingly thin."
  • By collecting work in increments, from WTL activities to WID processes --and regularly checking portfolios and research logs to see that work accumulate, teachers can sooner find struggling students. If a student's not doing the work, is falling behind, you know that student is in some trouble. Students who get behind and in trouble are often the ones tempted to cheat. The chance to intercede and help them sooner is much more useful  -- and less agonizing -- than trying to catch them at cheating later.
  • Failure to do the portfolio and/or to meet its incremental deadlines, can be a reason to refuse a student's final paper or to consider the research project incomplete. Thus, if you feel students have plagiarized, but can't find the source materials they may have used, and they don't confess to plagiarizing, despite all the circumstantial evidence you present before them, you can still give them a low, perhaps failing, grade because they don't have a research portfolio. To do this, however, you have to make it clear in your syllabus and research assignment that a complete, and incrementally developed portfolio is part of the project. And it needs to be part of of the assignment's articulation that missing --or incomplete -- portfolios will result in no credit for the project.