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Undone

posted: 12.6.11 by Steve Bernhardt

At the University of Delaware, only a single semester of IntroComp is required of first-year students, so activities are compressed and course goals need to be well focused. As we move quickly through the final week of fall term, I reflect not only on what we were able to accomplish in my class, but on what we were not.

I usually have at least one collaborative writing assignment that requires students to compose with another student or as part of a team, but because this term I was trying not to overload students, I decided not to include it. I like collaborative assignments, because students must talk together as they plan, research, and draft, learning from each other in the process. I tend to favor assignments that move writing from an individual task toward a more social activity. It’s important to learn how to work toward a shared outcome and a shared reward in a well-constructed text. I suspect that more often than not, when we talk about collaboration in Intro to Comp, we have in mind peer review, but not full-fledged collaborative authoring. On the single assignment where I suggested collaboration as an option, only one pair of students took me up on the offer, and they produced an excellent text. Next time, I’d like to find a way to require more collaboration.

Another thing I experimented with this term was using learning lists: having students self-identify problems, errors, confusing points of usage, things they know they need to learn. This assignment was to stretch across the semester, with students keeping a table of their targeted learning and documenting what they were working on and what the outcome was. My goal was to encourage students to take some control over their own learning, and in the process to figure out how they learn best—through using the handbook or rhetoric, doing exercises, working with a tutor, or taking some other approach. My reminders to the students that they ought to be working on their lists felt more like nagging than teaching. And I was never sure if my marginal comments (“You need to figure out how to use a semicolon. Put it on your learning list.”) hit the mark. I am not done with learning lists; I just need to figure out how to help students develop them incrementally and to really take ownership.

Every year, I end up feeling as though I failed to make sufficient use of our textbooks. This term, though, we frequently used Writer’s Help in class, and when students asked questions, I tended to deflect them with a question of my own: “Where would you look that up?” Students would laugh and say “Writer’s Help.” And we’d pursue the answers in class, using my projected laptop to search or to find an answer in the table of contents. I used tags to push content toward them, both individually and as a full class. I also assigned chapters in our rhetoric textbook, and I pointed students to various chapters that would offer them useful advice for particular assignments. Yet it did not seem that we got to the point where students would naturally turn to these resources without prompting. I don’t mean to sound too glum, because I could see some students applying advice or models to their writing, and others took it upon themselves to work on exercises to improve their control. But not everyone. I’d like to figure out how to help students realize the value in their textbook purchases by becoming expert users. I want them to know where to go to learn.

Semesters always close like this, at least for me. I think about potential, and I think about what actually happened, and I start imagining what to do next time around.


Categories: Campus Issues, Classroom Challenges and Solutions
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