How many times have you provided feedback in the margins of students’ papers, only to find that you’re providing the very same feedback on the next set of papers? As a new faculty member, I was left dumbfounded by this experience. I couldn’t understand why my students continuously made the same errors and why my feedback did not improve their papers. I was also surprised by the number of students who requested meetings to discuss why they felt their papers warranted a higher grade. My colleagues assured me that I wasn’t alone in these experiences, but I knew there had to be alternatives to this unproductive cycle.
After some time, I realized that if I wanted better writers and my students wanted better grades on written assignments, then I had to teach them the qualities of effective writing and empower them to improve their written work. Now this may sound like a daunting task to some, but it’s not as time consuming as you might think. Let me explain the approach I’ve developed.
In advance of the first major writing assignment each semester, I provide students with a benchmark paper from a previous semester. (I secure the students’ permission to use their papers and remove all the identifying information from them.) In class we read this paper with “the eyes of a writer.” In other words, I ask students to notice what the author did to make the piece effective. If students have difficulty identifying these qualities, I point out things like a clear statement of purpose, a strong organizational structure, and effective use of sentences and paragraphs. Next, I share a piece of work that doesn’t have these characteristics. Again, we collaboratively mark up the text and observe what the writer did well and where the paper fell short. After comparing the two papers, I ask the students to assume the role of editor and provide the second author with specific feedback and suggestions to improve the paper. At the end of class I collect this feedback so I can gauge how well the activity worked. Such an activity could also be given as a homework assignment.
Since implementing this approach, I have seen a measurable improvement in students’ written work and an increased sense of agency among them. One student recently remarked, “The rubrics you provide tell us what you expect, but the benchmark texts show us.” Another student said, “I am less overwhelmed about assignments when you show us a benchmark text, because I know what you expect and I say to myself, ‘OK, you can do this.’”
Even though this approach helps many students, some still struggle as writers. For those students, I have developed an extension of the first activity. I meet with these students, but before we get together, I ask them to do some reflection. They reread the benchmark paper for that particular assignment and list at least five things that make the paper successful. Next, I have them reread their own papers, including my comments, and make another list of at least five things they noticed about their own work (i.e., strengths and/or challenges). Finally, after comparing the two papers, they use a graphic organizer I’ve provided to develop a list of specific things they need to work on to improve their writing.
When students come to our meetings having done this analysis, it changes the overall tenor and efficiency of our meetings. Rarely do students contest the grade, although some do ask to rewrite the assignment—a practice I don’t generally encourage. However, I do want students to learn from this experience and stay motivated to improve their work, so I encourage them to apply what they’ve learned to their future papers. When grading those papers, I make a point of noticing their improvements and they earn credit for their efforts. This practice reinforces that learning is the goal and it honors students’ growth over time.
In sum, providing students with benchmark texts and teaching them to read with the eyes of a writer helps them internalize a rubric for effective writing. It also moves the responsibility from faculty having to defend grades on written work to students being empowered to positively affect the grades they earn. Making the transition from expecting good writing to teaching the qualities of good writing has improved not only students’ engagement and written work, but also my relationship with them and my sense of efficacy as a teacher.
Dr. Kristin M. Gehsmann is an associate professor at Saint Michael’s College.
Reprinted from Learning to Read with the Eyes of a Writer. The Teaching Professor, 25.1 (2011): 1,3.