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Reading Student Work in the Paperless Writing Class

posted: 6.10.13 by archived

In their book, The Elements of Teaching Writing, Katherine Gottschalk and Keith Hjortshoj argue that along with the actual instructions we create to guide our students through the writing assignments we give them, the feedback we provide on their written work is among the most important kinds of writing we produce in our classes. It’s hard to disagree. In our comments to students, we construct a persona for ourselves–one that may or may not match up with our actual, face-to-face classroom persona–and we establish the terms by which we will relate to or interact with our students. In short, there is a lot riding on the ways in which we talk to students about their written work. Grading papers is never just “grading papers.”

One might also argue that there is a lot riding on the means by which we talk to students about their writing. Do we give feedback on paper copies that students have printed out and handed to us in class or on digital copies that students have uploaded via the Learning Management System (LMS)? If the former, do we use pen or pencil to comment, black or blue or red or even a highlighter? If the latter, do we use the “track changes” or the “insert comment” tools in MS Word or do we create elaborate commenting schemes using the highlight tool (e.g., “green means you said something interesting here”, or “blue means that this is an awkward sentence,” etc.)

And what about face-to-face feedback? At the University of New Hampshire (UNH), in the early 1990s, when I was an undergraduate there, all instructors of Freshman English were required to meet with every student in conference on a weekly or semi-weekly basis to discuss his/her writing. I’m sure these instructors wrote comments in the margins of their students’ papers and probably edited them, too, but what strikes me now about this rare and enormously time-consuming conference-based approach is the extent to which it was focused on oral conversation or talk–a kind of feedback most college faculty rarely give but which, ultimately, may be of the most use to developing writers who are often challenged to interpret and understand the many things teachers write on their papers.

It’s hard to imagine, at this stage of my career, designing a weekly schedule where I would conference for 15-20 minutes with each of my students. For most college faculty, writing faculty included, meeting with students weekly is simply not feasible. I’ve been learning, over the past several years, how to build conferences into my teaching at different moments during the semester, usually during class meetings, and in this way, I’m finding it’s possible to retain a good deal of the pedagogical usefulness that comes from the conference method without drowning in outside-of-class responsibilities.

What about other ways of providing feedback–for example, screencast videos or mp3 files where you can literally speak to your students about their work and then share the recording you’ve made with them?  Bits Blogger Jay Dolmage did a post a little ways back on using video to give students feedback. I’ve recently stumbled onto a technology that, among many college faculty, continues to be novel and perhaps under-utilized: screencast recordings, using a website called Jing.  (Jing’s novelty is given further credence by the fact that when I share screencasts with students, few, if any, report that they have ever received feedback on their writing in such a fashion before). Screencasts are an interesting hybrid, somewhere between the standard method of marking papers and the perhaps ideal but less manageable practice of weekly conferences. Screencasts via a technology like Jing offer great possibilities for writing instructors who want to personalize their feedback and deliver that feedback in novel and interactive ways that meet the needs of 21st century learners. While I don’t use Jing to give feedback on every assignment my students hand in, I do use it at some point in the term in almost every course I teach. In my next post, I’ll talk a bit more about Jing and my experiences creating screencasts to provide students with feedback on their writing.

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