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Peer Workshops and Grades

posted: 5.10.13 by archived

In my last post, I wondered about the possibility of peer-workshops being productive without the initial motivation of students to want to work to improve their writing…because they care deeply about what they are writing about. I shared stories of my own experiences with peer-workshops at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) in the early 1990s, in courses where I was given the freedom and flexibility to write about topics of interest to me. (It’s worth noting that I probably participated in workshops in classes where the papers I was writing were of less interest, but I don’t seem to remember those workshops as well, if at all).

The process of writing my last blog post led me to question whether peer workshops could succeed if students didn’t feel some level of intrinsic motivation to work at their writing (as opposed to the more common grade-based motivation). By the time I finished, I was worried that I was coming to a conclusion that intrinsic motivation likely mattered–matters–a lot to the potential success of peer workshops.

But grades matter a good deal, too, and they are a strong motivator for many, if not most, students.

In the first-year writing (FYW) classes I teach today, I accept that grades are what motivate my students to write, but try to create assignments that students will also find engaging and motivating as well. The essays I ask students to write are not like those that I wrote in Freshman English when I was a student at UNH. My assignments these days are born out of the writing-about-writing (WAW) approach, pioneered by Doug Downs and Elizabeth Wardle. Unlike the papers I wrote–papers that could be on just about any topic that I happened to find interesting–the papers my students write are highly structured and sequenced affairs, often in conversation or dialogue with concepts or frameworks that have emerged from course readings.

And while there are opportunities for students to “own” the content of their writing in my FYW courses (e.g., “we’re going to write a summary of an academic article that reports on writing research, but you get to pick the article you summarize” or “we’re going to conduct a rhetorical analysis of a writing experience you have, but you get to choose the experience you want to analyze”), it is definitely not the case that students in my courses can write about anything they want. While I miss that other type of teaching and writing, that wide-open and personal kind that I experienced as a student and enjoyed a great deal, I think that the assignments I give help students learn about writing itself and more closely approximate the types of academic writing assignments that they are likely to encounter in other academic courses, where they will rarely be given the opportunity to write about whatever they want. In sum, my assignments are one way I attempt to honor the belief that FYW is supposed to function as preparation for further academic writing (as problematic as I know that position may be).

Interestingly, despite the fact that the papers my students write for me these days aren’t of the free-wheeling, choose-your-own-adventure variety, I find that peer workshops in my classes are still productive.Because I pair peer-workshops with so-called “fish bowl” activities, where the whole class looks at one paper together with me, students often report at the end of the term that in my class they were able to answer that age-old question that has plagued all students since the dawn of time: What does the professor want? (read: how can I get a good grade?) As long as students are asking this question, and as long as I can make the case and provide the evidence that peer workshops improve both writing and course grades, I believe that students will feel motivated to contribute.

As I wind down this post and reflect on my most recent experiences with peer workshops in The Paperless Writing Class, I am feeling less worried than I was a week or two ago about the viability of this practice. At bottom, students seek to know what professors want and professors seek to communicate to students their expectations in as clear a manner as possible. Well-structured peer workshops can help clarify these expectations, create a feeling of community in the classroom, and work to show students that we are doing everything we can to help them succeed. Ideally, peer workshops can also help students ascertain whether or not they understand a given assignment, and help them to think more about audience and purpose in writing. In many cases, knowing that participating in peer workshops is likely to improve their grades may be motivation enough for students to take this practice seriously. At this point in my career, with certain classes, including required ones like FYW, that’s good enough for me.

Categories: Michael Michaud
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