Tips to improve our PowerPoint presentations

Despite the availability of valuable alternatives, PowerPoint is still the most used technological platform in college classrooms. However, its actual pedagogical potential is rarely achieved and most of the time instructors employ it as a simple visual transposition for their lectures. In order to tackle this issue, Professor Ronald A. Berk wrote an article that summarizes most of the research conducted to identify the best strategies to express the educational potential of PowerPoint, which is, in my opinion, worth learning from.

Berk makes a distinction between “basic features and uses” and “rich media,” where the former indicates those features all the instructors are more familiar with, while the latter designates instructional tools like videos, music, movement.

In reviewing the academic research on the basic features, Berk outlines a series of directions to optimize the learning process and improve the way in which instructors build their slides, which can be recapped in few useful points: 1) minimize the background since it should not distract the students from the content. 2) The length of the text and bullet points should be reduced as much as possible, at the same time it is important to create a conceptual hierarchy using the given visual options (upper lower cases, bold, italics etc.) 3) headlines should be a full sentence as opposed to a single word or a phrase. 4) The best way to make the text readable is to pick up high-contrast color using a cool background and warm text.

According to Berk, those expedients alone can only slightly improve the retention of information by the students. Because without using any multimedia tool, instructors are left with what he defines as “dead words,” which do not evidently improve the effectiveness of the lecture. What instead can surely enhance one’s slides are the multimedia tools that too often are overlooked by instructors, which, for Berk, mostly consist of three elements: movement, music, and videos.

PowerPoint offers a lot of different options when it comes to movement but, as Berk underlines, transitions of slides and animation of letters, words, and graphics, can be counterproductive if not use systematically. The research mentioned in the article shows how animated graphic can increase students concentration, but if it is overdo or not consistent it usually distracts them.

Music can also be a very valuable device since, as many studies have shown, it creates emotional connections. Implementing music in or between slides can activate students attention and, consequently, allow the move of the content into long-term memory. Berk suggests also that the students should be somehow familiar with the music in order to facilitate the processes explained above.

On the last multimedia tool, video, there has been a more extensive research, and Berk notes how, overall, all the investigations agree in underline the positive effects on the learning process of video clips embedded in PowerPoint. The same research stresses the effectiveness of a verbal and visual presentation on low-knowledge and high-spatial learners.

To conclude, I think it can be worthwhile to follow Berk’s suggestions and spend more time on designing effective PowerPoint. But on the other hand, instructors should also be careful not to embellish their slides excessively, if they do not want their students to focus too much on the visual devices and not paying enough attention to the content.

 

References:

Berk, R. A. (2011). Research on PowerPoint®: From basic features to multimedia. International Journal of Technology in Teaching and Learning, 7(1), 24-35.

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gʊd ˈθɪŋkɪŋ wɪˈθaʊt gʊd ˈraɪtɪŋ

æt ði ɛnd ʌv iʧ səˈmɛstəraɪ səˈlɪsɪt ˈfidˌbæk frʌm maɪ ˈstudənts əˈbaʊt ðɛr laɪks ænd dɪˈslaɪks əˈbaʊt ðə kɔrsɪn ðiz ˌkɑnvərˈseɪʃənzwʌn ʌv ðə moʊst ˈfrikwənt kəmˈpleɪnts ɪz ðæt “ðɛr wʌz tu mʌʧ ˈraɪtɪŋ.” ɪt ɪz truðɛr ɪz ə lɑt ʌv ˈraɪtɪŋ ɪn maɪ ˈkɔrsəz-aɪ juz ˈoʊnli ɪnˈfɔrməl ænd ˈfɔrməl ˈraɪtɪŋ əˈsaɪnmənts fɔr ˈstudənt ɪˌvæljuˈeɪʃənbʌtæz maɪ poʊst-səˈmɛstər ˌkɑnvərˈseɪʃənz wɪð ˈstudənts kənˈtɪnjuaɪ ˈriəˌlaɪz ðə pleɪs frʌm wɪʧ ðɛr kəmˈpleɪnt stɛmz: “aɪm nɑt ə gʊd ˈraɪtər.”

fɔr ˈmɛni ʌv maɪ ˈstudəntsðə ˈprɑbləm ðeɪ hæv ɪz nɑt ði əˈmaʊnt ʌv ˈraɪtɪŋ aɪ æsk ʌv ðɛmɪts ˈrɪli ðæt ðeɪ drɛd ˈraɪtɪŋ əˈsaɪnməntsˈraɪtfəli ɔr nɑtðeɪ bɪˈliv ðeɪ ɑr pur ˈraɪtərz ænd ðʌs wʊd ˈræðər əˈvɔɪd ˈraɪtɪŋ ˈɛksərˌsaɪzəz kəmˈplitliðeɪ ˈwɜri ðæt ðeɪ “sʌk æt ˈspɛlɪŋ,” hæv ˈtrʌbəl aɪˈdɛntəˌfaɪɪŋ ə ˈsɛntənsɪz naʊn ænd vɜrbhæv pur ˈgræmər skɪlz ɔr fɪr ðə ˈdɪfərəns ɪn ˈraɪtɪŋ əˈbɪləti bɪˈtwin ðɛm ænd ðə prəˈfɛsər wɪl ˈoʊpən ðɛm ʌp tu ɪmˈbɛrəsməntɔl ðɪs ˈmɪsəz ðə pɔɪnt ʌv waɪ aɪ tæsk ðɛm tu raɪt ɪn ðə fɜrst pleɪs.

aɪ du nɑt praɪˈmɛrəli ˈɪmpləmənt ˈraɪtɪŋ əˈkrɔs maɪ kəˈrɪkjələ bɪˈkɔz aɪ wɑnt tu ˈkʌltəˌveɪt gʊd ˈraɪtɪŋ (ən əˈʧivmənt ðæt əˈkɜrz ˈsloʊli ænd θruˈaʊt ə ˈstudənts ˌækəˈdɛmɪk ˈtɛnjər). ˈækʧuəliaɪ ˈɪmpləmənt ˈraɪtɪŋ bɪˈkɔz aɪ wɑnt tu ˈkʌltəˌveɪt gʊd ˈθɪŋkɪŋaɪ juz ˈraɪtɪŋ æz ə tul fɔr ˈlɜrnɪŋaɪ doʊnt wɑnt ˈstudənts tu frɛt əˈbaʊt ˈwɛðər ɔr nɑt ðɛr ˈraɪtɪŋ ɪz gʊdaɪ wɑnt ðɛm tu kənˈsɜrn ðɛmˈsɛlvz praɪˈmɛrəli wɪð ˈwɛðər ɔr nɑt ðɛr ˈθɪŋkɪŋ ɪz gʊdaɪ wɑnt maɪ ˈstudənts tu trit ˈraɪtɪŋ æz ə weɪ tu ɒbˈʤɛktɪfaɪ θɔts soʊ ðæt ðeɪ kæn məˈnɪpjəˌleɪt ðɛmˈraɪtɪŋ skɪlz ɑr ʤʌst weɪz tu ˈmænəˌfɛst ˈkrɪtɪkəl ˈθɪŋkɪŋ skɪlzbʌt haʊ maɪt aɪ prəˈvoʊk ðɪs ˈkɑgnɪtɪv ʃɪfthaʊ kæn aɪ gɛt maɪ ˈstudənts tu ˈriəˌlaɪz ðæt aɪ kɛr mɔr əˈbaʊt ðɛr ˈθɪŋkɪŋ ðæn aɪ du əˈbaʊt ðɛr ˈraɪtɪŋ?

ɪn ðə pæstaɪ hæv traɪd ˈvɛriəs ˈɛksərˌsaɪzəzðɪs səˈmɛstəraɪ wɪl ˈmɑdəˌfaɪ ən oʊld əˈsaɪnmənt ɪn ˈɔrdər tu meɪk ɪt ˈsʌmθɪŋ nuaɪ ˈrɛgjələrli əˈsaɪn ə ʃɔrt ˈstɔriwɪʧ wi ˈleɪtər ˌdikənˈstrʌktðɪs səˈmɛstərwɪð ði ɪnˈtɛnʧən ʌv ˈprɛsɪŋ əˈpɑn ˈstudənts ðæt ˈminɪŋ kæn bi kəmˈjunəˌkeɪtɪd θru wɜrdz ɪn ði ˈæbsəns ʌv “gʊd ˈraɪtɪŋ,” aɪ wɪl prəˈvaɪd ðɛm ə trænˈzleɪtəd ˈvɜrʒən ʌv ðə ˈstɔri ˈjuzɪŋ ði ˌɪntərˈnæʃənəl fəˈnɛtɪk ˈælfəˌbɛt (aɪ-pi-eɪ). ˈmɑdəˌfaɪɪŋ ðɪs (ˈstændərd hjuˈmænɪtizəˈsaɪnmənt ɪn sʌʧ ə weɪ wɪl əˈlaʊ mi tu ˈæˌdrɛs tu ˈkɑmən ˈɑbstəkəlz wi feɪs wɛn ˈɪmpləˌmɛntɪŋ ˈraɪtɪŋ ˈɪntu ˈaʊər ˈkɔrsəz.

ˈstudənts wɪl ˈlaɪkli ˈstrʌgəl æt fɜrst tu dɪˈsaɪfər ðə tɛkstbʌt-ʤʌst æz ju hæv bɪˈkʌm ˈkʌmfərtəbəl wɪð aɪ-pi-eɪ hir-ˈstudənts wɪl kʌm tu ˌʌndərˈstænd ðə ˈfɔrən ˈraɪtɪŋ ˈsɪstəm ðeɪ ɑr ɛnˈkaʊntərɪŋ ænd faɪnd ðɛmˈsɛlvz ˈrɛdɪŋ ðə tɛkst wɪð ɪnˈkrist fəˈsɪlɪtiðɛr maɪndz wɪl ʃɪft əˈweɪ frʌm ðə ˈspɛlɪŋ kənˈvɛnʃənz ðeɪ ɑr juzd tuænd muv θru ðə tɛkst wɪð ði əˈbɪləti tu rɪˈtriv ɪts ˈminɪŋboʊθ ˈlɛsənz ɑr ˈloʊˌkeɪtəd hir.

fɜrstən ˈɔθərz θɔts kæn bi ɪmˈbɑdid θru tɛkst wɪˈθaʊt “gʊd ˈraɪtɪŋ.” soʊðeɪ tu kæn ˈproʊdus ˈminɪŋfəl ænd proʊˈfaʊnd ˈrɪtən tɛksts wɪˈθaʊt “gʊd ˈraɪtɪŋ.” ˈsɛkəndði ˈɛksərˌsaɪz ʌv riˈtrivɪŋ ˈminɪŋ-æz əˈpoʊzd tu ɪˈvæljuˌeɪtɪŋ ˈraɪtɪŋ-ˈpɛrəˌlɛlz ðə ˈprɑˌsɛs ʌv ˈgreɪdɪŋ ˌʌndərˈgræʤəwət ˈraɪtɪŋsoʊˈhævɪŋ lɜrnd ðɪsðeɪ wɪl trit ðɛr oʊn ˈraɪtɪŋ əˈsaɪnmənts wɪð lɛs strɛs ˈnoʊɪŋ ˈraɪtɪŋ kənˈvɛnʃənz ɑr ʌv lɛs əˈtɛnʃən ðæn ˈminɪŋfəl ˈraɪtɪŋ.

aɪ wɪl kənˈtɪnju tu plæn ðɪs əˈsaɪnmənt ˈoʊvər ðə nɛkst fju wiks ænd ˈɪmpləmənt ɪt bɪˈfɔr ðə ˈmɪdˌtɜrm ˈsizənɪn maɪ nɛkst poʊstaɪ wɪl rəˈflɛkt ɑn ænd ɪˈvæljuˌeɪt haʊ ɪt wɛnt.

ˈælbərt

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Is there a place for WAC philosophy in introductory foreign language courses?

One of the key principles of Writing Across the Curriculum is the use of writing as a learning tool, or “writing to learn” as opposed to simply “learning to write.” It is our belief that the use of writing in the classroom can extend critical thinking and deepen learning (see Bean, part 1). Our goal is to assist in integrating more writing into the curriculum, even where it hasn’t traditionally been present or where it doesn’t seem to fit.

There is at times a natural resistance to adding further writing components to some classrooms; after all, not every course or department is a humanities course, and many don’t seem to be an obvious fit. As writing fellows, it is our goal to think creatively and to help faculty search for ways to incorporate more writing into their courses, but I’ll be the first to admit that the “how” isn’t always obvious.

The particular domain I’ve decided to turn my attention to came up in one of our weekly meetings, where it was suggested that I might be assigned to work with a language instructor who teaches introductory language courses within the City Tech system. This didn’t end up happening, but the problem interested me from the outset, as I often find myself in a similar position as a French instructor. Anecdotal resistance on the part of similar faculty members brought with it what I feel to be a very interesting line of inquiry, which can be summed up with a single question: How are we to integrate writing into a course in which the students are just learning the language?

These language instructors have a point. At first blush, it appears that the current trend in language acquisition courses is in some ways at odds with our goals. In the end, that might prove to be the case, but it certainly won’t prevent me from trying my best to determine some practical methods that can be complimentary to both approaches.

How are these intro language courses at odds with the writing-to-learn approach? The most evident reason is that in many cases, the students in these courses simply do not have a strong enough grasp of their new language to write anything more than the most rudimentary sentences at first, later very short paragraphs. Their vocabulary is naturally quite limited at first, their comprehension of the foreign syntax is still deeply overshadowed by that of English, and often their access to the variety of verbal tenses needed for self-expression is being introduced to them one piece at a time, a process than can go on for months. As instructors, how are we to expect students to use writing to learn when they are not yet equipped with the tools?

A second difficulty that will arise in many language departments is pedagogical in its origin. Many language programs currently bring to bear a pronounced emphasis on oral over written. For example, while French instruction is historically built on grammatical models such as conjugation drills and workbook exercises, there is a strong current these days that shies away from the grammatical and linguistic model, looking to reach the student in a more conversational environment. Some departments will go as far as to minimize purely grammatical instruction. Coupled with this, there is also a strong push for faculty to use and permit as little English as possible during classroom time, which further minimizes the time students spend writing. While this is in keeping with Bean’s stance against over-grammaticizing the writing program, we must of course be conscious of the difference between helping students learn to write in a language the linguistic foundations of which were laid in early childhood, and the different necessities of second-language acquisition as an adult.

How then are we to implement additional writing into an instruction model that at least on a superficial level tends to avoid it? While I have a few ideas that I’ve been considering, I’ll readily admit that this is a complex question. Further reading and research will be required before I’m comfortable putting my own ideas forward, as I would prefer to bring some supporting research into the argument. As such, I’m not quite ready to offer any suggestions at this time.

If this line of inquiry is of interest to you, please check back later this semester and again in the spring, as I will do my best to offer some practical compromises in my follow-up posts. And of course, if you have considered this before, have any ideas or suggestions, or have come across any literature on the topic, please post below or contact me directly via the Writing Across the Curriculum team.

Chris Clarke
WAC Fellow, City Tech

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Knowledge Transfer

I was asked to give a workshop last year to a group of grade school teachers on the issue of knowledge transfer. The reason for the workshop was teachers’ perceptions that students moved from grade to grade and subject to subject apparently treating each grade or subject in isolation and not applying the skills and knowledge from one grade or subject to the next.

This issue necessitates redundancy in teaching, and worse, lost chances to build and expand on students’ skills and knowledge across their academic development.

In thinking about this issue as college educators, consider the following two questions:

1) When you meet your students at the beginning of a semester, what expectations do you have about the knowledge the students should bring to your classroom?

2) What expectations do students have about the knowledge they should bring to the classroom?

The answer to the first question might be extensive.

For example, I want my students to know how to make an argument, what constitutes evidence for an argument, why things like labeling and generalizations can be problematic, how to study and take notes, and the list goes on!

The answer to the second question might be “None!”

So you see one of the first things we can do is set clear expectations about knowledge transfer for our students.

The reason a student’s list might be shorter than her teacher’s is that students might expect each new classroom to be a brand new challenge. There is a new instructor to figure out, a new set of concepts to learn, a new style of testing, a new form of classroom discussion. To a student, understandably, each new class and each new instructor might feel entirely new! So, why would they apply knowledge from prior classroom experiences to this one?

That your expectations and your students’ expectations might differ is not inherently a bad thing, but it does call for you as the instructor to make your expectations clear!

Once expectations are better matched, the next step as instructors is to find ways to promote knowledge transfer across classes and disciplines.

Some ideas:

1) Portfolios
Within disciplines, students might develop portfolios that will be carried over from one course level to the next. A second-year calculus (or second-year writing, etc.) teacher could see some of a students’ work from the first-year calculus (or first-year writing, etc.) class. Students and teachers could include goals and feedback to facilitate development rather than re-starting from one course level to the next.

2) Teach-Backs
A component of an advanced course in any discipline could be to teach-back foundational concepts to students in first-year courses in that discipline. This could be done verbally through mini-lessons, or in writing, through summary sheets.

3) Previewing
In your classroom, make a point to elicit prior knowledge, and “preview” subjects as you move through course content.

4) Inter-disciplinary collaboration
Talk to other instructors – in other disciplines!
Perhaps a writing course could team up with a math course to partner students for a project that integrates narrative and mathematical formulation. The possibilities are endless!

Special thanks to the 2015-2016 WAC Fellows at Brooklyn College with whom these ideas were developed!

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Deadlines and Empathy

“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”
—Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

     This blog post was supposed to go up on Monday. It didn’t. Time, holidays, ennui, other commitments, other deadlines, not knowing what to write, not wanting to write, wanting to write other things, not wanting to think: certainly these are some of the reasons it did not go up. Or rather, these are the reasons why I put off writing the post—but they are not necessarily the reasons why no post went up on Monday. The reason I was able to put off writing until I had something I really wanted to write about (this meta-analysis of deadlines that you are reading, hello and welcome to the post itself!) rests far more on my understanding of the academic community of which I am a part. No post went up on Monday because I knew that the WAC project would not crumble if a post went up a bit late; I knew that the WAC coordinators would generously allow that the ideas are more important than the timestamp, and I knew that the readers would, hopefully, understand. Or not notice. I know very few academics who have not sent in a conference abstract just under the wire, or spent part of a conference in their hotel room furiously editing the paper they are giving the next day, or used their commute to go over the assigned reading on the way to class. I would be skeptical of anyone who claimed they have never sent an email that started with “Sorry this is so late!”

     Deadlines, then, like dinner reservations, have varying levels of flexibility. But somewhere in the liminal space between the deadlines we have and the deadlines we set, a part of the academic community seems to have been lost in the shuffle. Late papers, or never-turned-in papers, or last minute emails with missing attachments; for professors, incompletes and unofficial withdrawals are the end of semester disappointments that seem to come out of nowhere. But what if we approach student deadlines like we do our own—with the expectation of empathy on the other end? At what point do we invite a student to join us in the academy as equals?

     My late work policy when I teach is as follows: all major assignments must be turned in to pass the class, but late work will not receive credit. This is a firm policy, to which I’ve made very few exceptions. However, included on my syllabus and reiterated in every assignment page and student conference is my policy on extensions—I will always grant an extension, with no reason (and certainly no ‘official note’) necessary, as long as the student asks for it before the assignment is due. I’m transparent with students about the hard deadlines at stake: when grades are due, when I expect to finish grading, when my other classes are turning things in. Most extensions are a process where I push the student to take slightly more time than they ask for, but where they understand the consequences of the new timeline they have undertaken, as opposed to the ‘ideal’ timeline I have built into the assignment due date. How can I ask students to behave with the scholarly rigor that I expect—and require—of them if I do not also extend the humanity and understanding that the scholarly community extends to me? How can I expect students to understand that I am human (and not a grading or knowledge machine) if I do not understand the same of them? How can I prepare them for a world in which staying up all night to hit a deadline will probably be less important than turning in work that satisfies them, and that means something?

     I hate to use the “now, more than ever” phrase—but now, more than ever, we must foster a sense of kinship and commonality in the university. We must use our curriculum to teach more than theorems or grammar. Empathy and humanity are not radical ideas, but they can be (and have been) used in radical ways, to re-shape the world and the people inhabiting it. As we prepare our syllabi for next semester, or remind students of their final assignments, consider how small acts can change the shape of the academy, expanding its borders and ensuring that it remains a space where everyone is someone.

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Writing Vs. Penmanship

At a recent holiday gathering I overheard a group of people from an older generation than myself lamenting about the decline of writing in the younger generations. The complaint went something like this:

“When I was in school we were taught reading, writing, and arithmetic. Kids these days aren’t even able to write. The schools are too focused on the common core that they don’t teach script anymore! Can you believe it! Too many of these kids are not able to read cursive script!”

Yes. It is true that penmanship has taken a backseat to other concepts within the common core requirements and student handwriting has suffered as a result. There have been numerous times that I have received handwritten assignments back from students and had to spend time deciphering the squiggles to make sense of their papers. However, hearing this complaint raised a series of questions for me.  What is the purpose of teaching penmanship in the 21st century? In a world that is increasingly moving away from handwritten communications, in what way does penmanship serve our students?

As instructors we must be very careful not to conflate penmanship with writing. One of our main ideas in the Writing Across the Curriculum program is that writing is more about the exploration, organization, and expression of IDEAS. We divide the evaluation of writing into higher order and lower order concerns. Higher order concerns consist of a strong thesis statement, development of a strong argument using valid evidence, and the clear and concise organization of thought that carries the reader through the argument; meanwhile, grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, and the like make up lower order concerns when it come to writing across the curriculum. Lower order concerns need to be addressed but it is more important to foster the student’s development as a critical thinker than as a grammar machine. I argue that penmanship, in our increasingly digital world, is an even lower-level concern.

We are now living in uncertain times where digital literacy– the ability to navigate the digital world and question the validity of the “facts” presented there– is more important than ever. We have a responsibility to teach our students how to think critically about the worlds, both real and virtual, in which they live. As handwritten communication is evermore replaced by the digital, we must push beyond a mere nostalgic impulse to teach penmanship and prepare our students for the times that lie ahead.

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The “Problem” of English Language Learners at City Tech: Strategies to Include All of Your Students in the Conversation

It is no secret that City Tech has a large population of students who are English Language Learners, as the questions and concerns from faculty members at WAC workshops and in meetings constantly remind us. Here are some strategies I’ve found help, as someone who has not been directly trained to work with this specific student population:

  1. Refrain from passing the ball; assuming others are somehow more trained or qualified to help than yourself; and giving insensitive recommendations. Often, and understandably, instructors feel powerless to help students struggling to learn the English language. It’s easy to refuse to grade a paper; recommend the writing center where, more often than not, tutors are just as unequipped to help these students as instructors are; or make recommendations based on harmful assumptions, for example: “start speaking to your friends in English to practice.” It’s incredibly hard to navigate worlds in which you do not speak the language fluently, and it’s often not a matter of working harder or only speaking the language you want to improve in—many students don’t have the luxury of only speaking English, as they are often translators for family members or in intimate relationships with people who don’t speak English. To ask students to suffer and isolate themselves in order to get a better grade on a formal assignment disrespects this experience and suggests that they aren’t working hard enough, when often they are working much harder than native speakers to succeed.
  1. Create a rubric from which you can grade their writing assignments honestly and fairly alongside their classmates, that gives them every opportunity to succeed. Holding English language learners to different standards than their classmates, in the long run, doesn’t help students strive to become better writers, nor does it improve their confidence. Instead, these allowances suggest English language learners are incapable of doing good work, which is not just a dangerous assumption to have—it’s simply untrue. These students are smart enough to know a pity grade when they see one and while receiving a B that should’ve been a low C might provide a temporary sense of relief, it does nothing to help students improve. Here is an example of a rubric I use for papers that incorporates grammatical and stylistic concerns, but does not warrant an F by these standards alone. If students are grasping content; articulating ideas that you can understand, despite patterns of error; and organizing these ideas in ways that make sense, then they should have their ideas responded to and engaged with, and allowed the opportunity to continue to practice their writing without fear of of failure.
  1. Assign a variety of writing assignments that allow students to be part of a conversation. It is not surprising that many students are not motivated to continue to practice joining academic conversations when they are perceived as a problem or burden as opposed to part of the conversation. In my classes, I make sure there are many low stakes writing assignments that are not graded on punctuation, grammar, or spelling, and that the ideas articulated in these assignments are taken and responded to seriously (here is a link to example syllabi descriptions for readings quizzes and blog posts). Whether it’s a brief reading quiz that asks students to articulate memorable moments, questions they had, or key concepts (here’s an example), or weekly blogs and responses to their peers’ blog posts that offer a space to have discussion about the course materials outside of class (some prompts), the more students feel comfortable conversing with each other and their instructor, the more their writing will improve.
  1. Remind students that many native speakers also struggle to get through reading and writing assignments. I remember one case in which a husband of a student of mine, who was a native speaker unlike his wife, e-mailed me concerned about the difficulty of the reading—suggesting that it had no place in an introductory level class because even he could not understand it with “multiple degrees.” (Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams). I did not respond, of course, but this incident is just one example of the general assumption that many English language learners have—that grasping course content is easy for native speakers. Keep in mind that many students who are learning English sit and read with dictionaries in hand, often unlike native speakers who encounter many words they don’t know but have the confidence to assume the reading is “too hard” or continue to skim until they get the gist. I make sure to articulate to all of my students, but especially to my English language learners, that they do not have to look up every word they don’t know, to wait until words repeat consistently or they are completely lost to go back and translate, and that it’s OK to read a summary before and to contextualize and then attempt to read through the text.
  1. Remind students that there are no quick fixes, and appreciate that assignments do often take them longer to complete with less return on their time and effort. Often high achieving students who have put intense time and effort into their work will come to me after receiving the grade on their first draft or paper in tears. I let them know that, while I ethically cannot grade them using different standards from their peers, I acknowledge and appreciate the hard work they put into the course and assignment and that the next draft and assignment will be better for it. I do not promise them that going to the writing center; working harder next time; or any other quick fix will guarantee an A on an assignment. I do design my courses, however, to allow them to succeed while practicing and, consequently, create the space for all of my students to be an integral part of the class and conversation. A C- on a formal assignment does not ruin their chances of an A in the course, should they complete all of the low stakes writing assignments—assignments built into the course that allow them—as any student—to converse without judgement. These kind of spaces, ultimately, are what allow for any writer to improve.
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Why We Grade

At a recent WAC meeting, we watched this video of students relating their feelings about receiving graded papers back from instructors. The general theme among the students was that getting comments (often somewhat inscrutable negative ones like “Bad” or “No”) scribbled in red ink all over their papers feels demoralizing.

This prompted a vigorous debate within our WAC team: Do students just want to be coddled? Or should we heed these pleas for kinder and more constructive feedback?

As instructors, we want our students to improve the quality of the work they turn in to us. How can they learn to improve if we don’t show them where they are failing? This drives the spilling of much red ink. But as our discussion unfolded, we realized that the underlying debate about how much marking and “correcting” is appropriate had to do with differences in the kind of work that students are turning in. Before we even begin to grade, we need to ask ourselves why we are grading. Yes, to help students improve. But to improve at what?

If you teach math, some of what you’re grading might be proofs; getting the details of a proof right might be the very thing you want students to learn, so marking up all the details that are incorrect might be the appropriate way to grade that sort of assignment. The same goes for subjects like introductory foreign language instruction, in which the learning objectives are about grammar and proper word usage.

If the overarching goal of the assignment isn’t about the details, however, a different kind of grading might be more appropriate. I teach political science. I would like for my students to be able to write using polished prose. I used to take that goal to mean that I should mark up all of their grammatical and stylistic errors in order to help them identify and avoid them in the future. But I’m not actually teaching them grammar or style in my class; of greater concern to me – and what I spend most of my course trying to work on with them – is that they learn to engage deeply and thoughtfully with readings and concepts, and to formulate informed arguments about them. So now that’s what I mostly grade for – deep, thoughtful engagement and informed arguments. And my feedback tends to come not in the form of marks all over the page, but an acknowledgment at the end of what they did well and two to three concrete suggestions for improvement.

That doesn’t mean I ignore mechanical errors altogether. But filling a paper with red marks does have a tendency to overwhelm rather than to inspire, so I try to pick out just one or two recurring issues the student seems to have (semi-colon usage, for example) and demonstrate and/or explain how to fix them.

Of course, this “minimal marking” approach is not just a way to help students get more out of my grading – it’s a way to help me be a more efficient (and less frustrated) grader. For more discussion about grading strategies, come to the next WAC workshop for faculty and staff on Tuesday, November 15 at 1pm in Midway 205 – or if you can’t make it, check back in afterwards to our Open Lab page for the Powerpoint slides and handouts, which will be posted under “Workshops.”

 

 

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Is Clear Writing Always Good Writing?

From struggling with final papers as an undergraduate to drafting my dissertation, I have striven for clarity in my academic prose. I felt badgered by my teachers when they told me to work on clarity in my papers. Slowly I learned to use simple language to explain my arguments. I learned to stop relying on a thesaurus when writing and that, in fact, it is really true that big words do not amount to big ideas. I would have to take the long way to the latter by actually thinking through my argument, rather than dressing up my writing as if I had. My sentences became tight and succinct, like little rockets of meaning that will take off, with every aspect of their composition mechanically gathering the force of exactly what I meant to say. As an instructor, I dutifully underline passages of my students’ papers and write ‘clarity?’ in the margins. Sometimes I am even so brazen to write the same thing in the margins of the library books I borrow. (Forgive me.)

 

But is clarity necessarily a virtue of academic prose? And what do we really mean by it? While writing that comes across as deliberately evasive and pedantic is – clearly(?) – meritless, wordiness, embellishment, and extended metaphor has dropped out of academic writing conventions. And I am unconvinced that this has been a boon to our profession. Some good ideas are vague, such that their written form will invariably reflect the vagueness; the prose about it will be difficult. Additionally, prose that is not expansive – does not make room for metaphor and a bit of meandering – does not strike me as effective. In fact, it strikes me as dull and manly. It’s as if all academics are trying to impress Hemingway’s ghost. A reader requires about a decade to build an analytic toolkit for reading for ‘information retention’ and ‘probity of argument.’ Let’s be honest: it takes an enormous exertion of will to learn to read academic prose, where only argument and evidence matter, where concepts are introduced, challenged, sharpened. A strange intellectual culture for sharing ideas. For thinking thoughts by first blunting them.

 

When I read academic prose, I cast a long askance look at anecdotes, adverbs, and adjectives and wonder to myself, what was the author thinking? Telling me the mode that an action happened!? How is that relevant? Under my accusatory gaze the words ‘quite,’ ‘saccharine’ & ‘undoubtedly’ tremble on the page, as if I really were accusing them of corrupting the minds of the youth, little Socrateses made out of bits of grammar. I am unconvinced that as academics we have a sound basis for why they should be excluded from our writing conventions. Saccharine is beautiful word. And I want to know exactly the way an action happened. Sometimes brave authors write a brief justification for their use of metaphor and anecdotes and beautiful words in the introductions to their books. Teaching Rae Langton’s Sexual Solipsism this semester in my Feminist Philosophy class, I was impressed by her unapologetic command of a literary style in expounding her philosophy of love. There are outliers.

 

Yet, I have learned not to let language breathe on the page. In its fecund plurality, complete with run-on sentences and points that aren’t really points and modifiers that add texture to a sentence without clarifying a concept or making an argument. I want to let language be difficult, cumbersome. There. The cold white light of an academic understanding often appears as a desiccating light, burning up what it cannot take in.

 

One might object: clarity is a virtue of academic prose because if you can’t find the right word to carry your thought outside yourself, think of another way of saying it. But who thinks like that? Who waits for the ‘right’ word, all the while holding one’s pen or waiting for the wrinkle in one’s thoughts to smooth out? Often at such moments we just abandon the difficult thought. I’ve done this on so many occasions, thinking to myself, “well, it’s nothing – a bad idea.” It had hardly crossed my mind that the conventions of writing I was trained in have made me impatient with my own thoughts. Language will always be difficult; thinking through writing or speaking words even more so. But how can we make that difficulty count too, incorporating it into the process and presentation of ‘rigor’, ‘argument’ and ‘evidence’?

 

I’ve always believed that there is a joy in struggling with a difficult thought and that the unclear prose it generates is a kind of knowledge. But I do not share that with my academic colleagues and friends. I have squirrelled that away under ‘poetry’ and ‘journaling’. As a philosopher, I dutifully follow the blunting conventions of our profession.

 

Sometimes lack of clarity even lends itself to exactly what we mean to say. This weekend I was talking to a friend and asked him whether another one of his friends had a crush on him. Not being a native English speaker, he said, “No, it was transferred and put away.” Frustrated at not having found the right word, he reached for his phone to look it up in the dictionary. I then said, “Oh, you mean ‘sublimated.’” “Yes!,” he responds.

 

But his long way of describing his thought – and my grasping what he meant in his vagueness – suddenly made us feel closer; we enjoyed that moment of recognition, as we groped for words that approximate our thoughts in the intimate space shared by friends who understand each other, clearly. And I thought to myself, I have a much better sense of what happened to a crush that is ‘transferred and put away’ than one that is ‘sublimated.’

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The Worst Case of Plagiarism

At a recent faculty workshop on Avoiding Plagiarism, Alicia Andrezejewski and Carrie DiMatteo led the participants into a seemingly straightforward, but surprisingly thought-provoking free-write exercise. The prompt read:

Write about the worst case of plagiarism that you have encountered in your own classroom, or heard about from another instructor in your discipline. Make sure to think about the assignment the students were responding to.

In this post, I’d like to revisit this prompt.

For me, the worst instance of plagiarism by one of my students was not simply an instance in which the student copy-pasted entire excerpts of text and presented them as his/her own. Rather, the worst case of plagiarism I’ve ever encountered involved a difficult situation in which copy-pasted experts were embedded within an otherwise original essay that demonstrated the student was engaging with course material in an independent way. That is, this student was treating the course material in a scholarly way, but was not articulating the concepts with which he was wrestling in a way that demonstrated he understood them on his own. The dilemma I faced was how to reward his engagement when it was buttressed by academic dishonesty…

My approach to Writing Across the Curriculum privileges writing as a tool for learning. I care more about my students learning, than I do about academic writing proprieties. Learning is a process aimed toward independent critical thinking that involves wrestling with complex ideas in new and challenging ways. In the end, I was more concerned with my student’s engagement with the material than I was with his unoriginal definition of (well-known) concepts—here I’d like to remind that plagiarism is oftentimes more an indicator of lack of self-confidence when participating in academic discourse than anything else. Thus, I plan to work with the student to re-write those portions of his exam that are not his own so as to cultivate his ability to appropriately paraphrase authors when he engages with course material.

-Albert de la Tierra

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