The Pedagogical Value of Failure

Failure and rejection are nothing new to academics. We are constantly pushed to re-assess our research and our teaching to determine what did not work and how we might change our approach to do better the next time. But it’s easy to forget this, in part because of the value that our meritocratic society places on success and the shame often associated with failure. “Failure is not an option” is a phrase that should be taken figuratively as a motivator, not literally as a deterrent. Yet many, in academia and beyond, see failure as a deterring force.

This is part of the reason why I was glad to see so many colleagues sharing this article from last week’s Washington Post. Ignore for a moment the headline, which was likely written to get clicks and not by the author, and its Schadenfreude-laced implication that it “feels good” to read about a successful person’s failures.  And while there are huge problems with this sort of article specifically because, as a tenure-track professor at a school like Princeton the author is more secure in airing his failures than would be an adjunct professor scratching to get by, that is not the subject of this post.

The real value in this article, I believe, is that it reminds us that failure is an integral part of the academic process. We are asked to “revise and resubmit” our articles for peer-reviewed journals, we apply for dozens of grants, we apply for dozens of jobs when on the job market. If we’re lucky, we get one of those grants, one of those jobs, that article eventually gets accepted and published. But it’s only through the sometimes painful act of failing that we make our writing better, that our grant proposals become clearer, that we get better at interviewing and writing cover letters.

Which brings me to teaching. At WAC, we encourage faculty to scaffold their assignments, to make assignment prompts clear, to institute peer review, to assign more low-stakes writing, to comment less but with more thought on papers, to integrate active learning activities into the classroom. But what happens when the students’ work doesn’t improve? What happens when we have all these new structures in place but students fail to listen, to pay attention, to turn in those low-stakes assignments? What then?

In short, what do we do when our WAC pedagogy fails?

Recently, I heard an NPR story about grit, the buzzwordy idea that passion and perseverance are needed to attain your goals. Passion does not just mean excitement, it means “continuing engagement with a pursuit.” And perseverance, of course, means sticking with it, even when met with initial failure.

So be passionate about writing pedagogy. We know that it works, we have the research to support this. As teachers, we should continue to think about and foster the writing tools that we have developed. We should understand that the more we try to refine our assignments, the better off our students will be, and the better their writing will be (which, in turn, will make our lives easier come grading time). We should engage with the literature out there: find out if your field has a pedagogy journal (most do, either in print or online), and peruse journals on writing pedagogy such as College Composition and Communication or the WAC Journal.

And persevere. As the end of the semester approaches, consider doing some free-writing yourself about the effectiveness of your assignments this semester. What had the best results? What had the worst results?  Why do you think you got the results that you did? Moving forward, tweak your assignments. See the places where your students got tripped up and try to address them at the root of the problem — in the assignment itself, in the structure of the syllabus. Did peer review fail? Perhaps it is an issue with the structure of the peer review, rather than the process itself. Did students fail to hand in scaffolded segments of an assignment on time? Consider incentivizing the work in a different way, or framing the importance of these assignments differently.

To borrow another motivational phrase from the world of sports, “never give up.” Don’t be afraid to fail, embrace it, and use it to improve and ultimately succeed.

Workshop on Assisting ESL Writers: THURSDAY 3/31!


At WAC, we often tell our faculty not to focus on lower-order concerns when grading first draft or low-stakes writing: small grammatical mistakes, using the wrong word, subject/verb agreement. Our philosophy, which is backed by a number of studies, dictates that if we help our students grasp the higher-order concerns (argument, organization, use of evidence, following a thesis) then the lower-order mistakes will start to correct themselves.

The question we often hear from faculty, though, is “what about my ESL students?”

The truth is, over two-thirds of CityTech’s undergraduates did not learn English as their first language. Consider that many of them didn’t even learn it as their second language.

Our workshop this Thursday  offers concrete tips and techniques for helping ESL students become better writers without leaving you feeling that you have to “teach English.” Come join us for lunch, coffee, and pedagogy!

In Our Students’ Shoes

A few days ago this 2014 article from the Washington Post came across my social media feed, and even though it’s about high school students, much of what the author writes is highly relevant to our students at City Tech as well. To summarize, this educational consultant spent a day shadowing two high school students and found that her experience going through the school day in their shoes had a significant impact on how she viewed her own pedagogy. In a kind of “if I knew then what I know now” moment, she mused on the things she would do differently in her teaching had she known what it was like to be a student.

Her two big takeaways that I find most relevant to college teaching are that 1) students spend much of their day sitting, and 2) students spend much of their class time passively listening to their teachers.

Of course, the first issue is not quite as big of an issue for college students. Unlike high schoolers, our students are not arriving by 8am every day, five days a week, and sitting in class after class into the mid-afternoon. Our students take maybe 3-5 classes depending on their schedules, and these are distributed across the week and throughout the day with longer breaks in between.

Still, our students likely spend much of their day sitting. Whether they’re in class, in the library, or sitting at a table in the atrium with friends or doing work, our students might not be moving around as much as we think. One way we can combat this is to build group work activities into our classes that require students to move around. The simple act of having our students move their desks a little to work in groups can help to break up the otherwise static mode of learning that our students experience just sitting in one place for 75 minutes.

You can use group work to assist in writing activities such as brainstorming, thesis formation, or a close reading of an article. For example, when teaching students about choosing a topic for their papers, I like to give them a form borrowed from The Craft of Research (3rd ed., 2009) by Booth, Colomb, and Williams, which is available as an e-book to all CUNY users. The template is described on pages 46-48 of this edition, and presented with blanks on page 51:

thesis template

I’ll begin by giving students a paper topic and have them fill this out, and then have them start to brainstorm their own topics in groups. To make sure that students are moving around, I will have everyone change seats halfway through, to re-arrange the groups. This can be done with many kinds of quick low-stakes writing exercises intended to get students brainstorming or generating some rough, general ideas or questions. Best of all, students leave the class with a number of viable topics that they can then start to craft into thesis statements.

The second issue the author of this Post article brought up is that students sit passively, and again, writing pedagogy can help us here. Try to incorporate at least one short writing assignment into every class. Many professors will start a class with a quick “free write” or other informal writing activity, but a great way to break up the passive learning is to have an informal writing activity in the middle of class. For example, if you are learning a new skill or topic, lecture about the example from the textbook, and then give students an example they haven’t seen before and a few direct and simple questions to answer in writing. A few minutes in the middle of class like this doesn’t take away from your time devoted to content either, rather, it enhances the understanding and knowledge retention of your students.

Workshop Recap: Effective Grading and Minimal Marking (11/19)

Our semester rolls on as we held the third of four faculty professional development workshops dealing with Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) teaching and planning strategies. If you missed our workshop last Thursday on Effective Grading and Minimal Marking, read our recap below to learn about strategies that not only can save you time in the grading process, but will help to produce better student work. Follow along with the PowerPoint and Handout.

WAC fellows Pamela Thielman, Drew Fleming, and Emily Crandall led an informative and diverse workshop that covered many aspects of the grading process, from planning assignments and grading structures in advance to how to reduce the sometimes-daunting paper load once those assignments have been turned in.

Emily began by outlining that the most effective grading requires two steps: 1) planning before the assignment is given, and 2) practicing efficient marking techniques once the papers come in. We identified a variety of kinds of “higher-order” concerns (those dealing with content, organization, argument, evidence, and other “big picture” issues) and “lower-order” concerns (those dealing with spelling, grammar, citation style, sentence structure, word choice), and noted how students will respond to whatever we as instructors mark on their paper. So, if we mark twenty lower-order issues on a page but only one higher-order issue such as organization or argument, it’s likely that students will only focus on those grammatical issues in revision, rather than the oftentimes more important problem of organization.

Emily then discussed how laying a good foundation before the papers come in can be beneficial to the instructor after the papers come in and it’s time to grade. Scaffolding an assignment into its constituent parts and other good assignment design practices are crucial at this step, as is transparency in the grading criteria. By letting students know what we’re grading for (either by using a rubric or by having class discussions about expectations), we can expect better results.

Drew then built on Emily’s points by going into detail about how scaffolding an assignment into smaller parts can ensure that you are spreading out the grading workload over the course of the semester. You can also address student issues earlier in the process as you catch them, so that the final product has already gone through a number of revision steps and is therefore a more polished paper (and therefore easier to grade!).

Peer review is another useful tool to alleviate the grading load, because you are “outsourcing” some of the assessment process onto the students. We included a number of peer review templates in the handout for this workshop, which as Drew pointed out are crucial to a successful peer review, giving the students structure and specific criteria for which to grade.

Finally, to help remember what it’s like for our students to receive a paper filled with tons of red ink corrections, we watched a short video made by students at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, MA, that really hits home the effect that our grading can have on our students. Even though we are often trying to be helpful, we forget that students often take our markings as negative criticism, and that it discourages them from wanting to revise and do better. Faculty in attendance seemed to get a lot from this video that reminds us of the power we have when we grade.

In this respect, we’re reminded that our role as instructors when grading a paper is not just to evaluate the students, which is the traditional role of grading, but also to communicate with our students and to motivate them. We should think of ourselves more as a coach than a judge, since the goal of writing a paper should not only be for students to convey what they have learned, but to improve their writing and organizational skills over the course of the semester. As their writing improves, so too does their mastery of course material, and so we should remember to take an active role in helping that progression.

Finally, Pamela covered a variety of specific strategies for minimal marking, a process that seeks to reduce the overall amount of marking on students’ work while increasing the potency of specific comments and annotations. In other words, write more less often. She stressed that as instructors, we shouldn’t feel the need to necessarily have to do all of these minimal marking techniques, but to pick and choose as suits the assignment and your style.

For low-stakes assignments, Pamela recommended either no grade or check grading. As we’ve covered in previous workshops, simply getting students to write helps them in the learning process, and so we don’t need to grade everything we assign. She recommended also putting the pen down on your first read through a student’s paper. This way, rather than feeling the need to mark every misplaced comma or subject/verb disagreement, you can concentrate on bigger picture issues. Then, at the end, we can comment on global patterns of error in lower-order concerns.

We also discussed selective line edits, for those instructors who want to make sure that they are pointing out specific lower-order problems. Rather than covering an entire paper in markings and corrections, consider only doing one paragraph, or one page. This way, the student sees their mistakes but is not overwhelmed by them, and the onus of correcting falls on them. Frequently, when we mark a student’s paper up completely, the student will only make the corrections that we suggest! This encourages the student to take it upon themselves to identify their errors.

Finally, as Pamela noted in her blog post last week, use any color pen except red!

Above all, we stressed supportive responding that not only assesses the student’s work, but motivates them towards revision and communicates new ideas or questions to them. Asking questions in margins or end comments is a great way to both communicate and motivate students further without “giving them the answer.”

Join us for our last workshop of the semester, “The Creative Classroom” on December 10, 2015, in Namm 1005. WAC Fellows Emily Crandall and Julie Hollar will cover ways to incorporate non-traditional and technological assignments and activities into the classroom that combine with writing assignments to make class time dynamic, varied, and fun.

The Importance of Varied Modes of Teaching

Earlier this summer, one of our WAC co-coordinators shared this article by Paula Moran that aims to debunk the “Learning Styles” myth. The topic of the various ways in which students learn is something we think about a lot in WAC philosophy, since one of the things that we preach is how writing assignments can vary the mode of course content delivery and therefore provide a break from lecture-based teaching.

To be clear, we ourselves have never used the phrase “learning style” in our workshops or other projects, yet the idea is quite similar to much of the ideology behind what we promote and encourage instructors to do. Have we been wrong all this time? Is there no difference between class content delivered orally through lecture and written assignments?

The answer, thankfully, is no. Moran links to another article by renowned educational theorist Howard Gardner who further argues that his famous “multiple intelligences” theory is not the same as “learning styles.” The real issue here is the lack of sound research to show that teaching to different learning styles has any impact on student performance.

However, as Gardner is quick to point out, that does not mean that students all learn in the same way. Student do learn in different ways, and as Gardner notes, “all of us exhibit jagged profiles of intelligences,” meaning that we process different kinds of information differently in our quest to understand something.

So why teach through writing assignments? Because students have different strengths and weaknesses in processing material, it is crucial that we present them with various modes of understanding the class content. How many times have you heard a colleague say, or said yourself, that “I learn better when I write things down.” This is why we take notes and sometimes don’t ever look at them again. This is why we understand a concept more holistically when we teach it rather than just reading or writing about it. This is why we teach “inquiry-based” lessons, where students acquire knowledge through their own questioning. It is because speaking, writing, reading, and listening are all part of a series of interconnected brain processes, rather than all part of the same mono-process.

While we don’t have to go buy the textbook’s eight different versions, “one for every learning style,” we still do our students a service by teaching in different ways. Using writing assignments to deliver course content is one of the most effective tools we have not only to improve our students’ writing by having them do more of it, but also to encourage a deep understanding and retention of the material. Of course, there is a practical reason to teach with writing too: it breaks up the flow of the class and prevents students from losing focus or getting bored. It’s tough to listen to an hour-long lecture intently, even on a topic you are passionate about!

One of my students, who is also a teacher himself, remarked after being asked to free-write about a topic at the beginning of class, “that was nice. I didn’t think about the topic like that until you asked me to write about it.” Exactly.

Welcome Back! First workshop this week!!

Welcome back CityTech faculty for the 2015-16 year! We in the Writing Across the Curriculum program are excited for another year of working with you to incorporate stronger writing assignments into your classes and help to foster an environment where students learn about their subject through the process of writing. Whether you teach math, engineering, architectural technology, dental hygiene, hospitality, history, or English, the WAC program can help you foster a culture of writing in your classroom that will get students engaged and still deliver all the course content you need teach this semester.

We are once again running our Writing Intensive Certification program this fall. This program, started last year, is a way for faculty who are teaching WI courses or who would like to teach WI courses to get some professional development and hands-on training in writing pedagogy, and includes a course release if the program is completed (pending department approval). Our first workshop, on Designing Effective Assignments, is this week, Thursday September 24, from 1-2:15pm in Namm 521 (with FREE lunch). Open to all faculty, it is a requirement if you are participating in the WI certification program. Not sure if you’d like to participate? Come to our workshop and talk with our fellows and coordinators about the program.

We are also available for one-on-one help or to come in and give a workshop presentation to your classes. Browse our workshops page to get an idea of what we do, scroll through the Fellow’s Corner blog to be inspired by some innovative writing ideas, and learn more about who we are. As we update the site over the next few weeks, come back often to find a weekly blog post on writing pedagogy written by our fellows, and check for updates on our events!

Our Fall 2015 workshops are listed below, all are on Thursdays, 1:00-2:15pm, room TBA:

  • “Designing Effective Assignments” – September 24
  • “Avoiding Plagiarism” – October 22
  • “Effective Grading and Minimal Marking” – November 19
  • “The Creative Classroom” – December 10

We hope to see you there! And feel free to leave questions below in the comments or email us.

Tackling the Paper Pile

Spring Break has come and gone. Every instructor had their wish list of things to get done during break, when suddenly not having to prep for teaching freed up what seemed like days of free time. And yet…if you’re anything like me, you probably didn’t get through all of that wish list. Now that school is back in session, that big pile of midterm essays you collected before break is on your desk, staring at you, (still) waiting to be graded.

Many of the principles that we espouse with WAC philosophy require advance planning before the semester begins, as they deal with assignment design and syllabus organization. But there are things we can change and implement mid-semester, and one of these is the approach to grading.

We covered much of this in detail in our minimal marking workshop last fall, but let’s revisit just a couple of the most important points that can help alleviate some of your grading woes.

1. Focus on higher order concerns

When we try to catch every grammatical and usage mistake that our students make, we can end up with an overgraded paper. The student will see their paper full of corrections and suggestions and will do one of two things: 1) get overwhelmed and just ignore everything, or, 2) only make the corrections that you’ve marked and then consider their “revision” done. Neither of these are optimal. We want our students to read and seriously consider our comments on their papers, and we want them to take the initiative to improve their writing. Consider only marking one important, content-based error per page. Choose the one thing that the student could do that would vastly improve that section of their paper (it’s likely not fixing that run-on or semicolon usage). And write out your comment/suggestion in a full sentence that doesn’t leave the student wondering what you mean.

When students can handle higher-order mistakes, their lower-order mistakes often improve alongside.

2. Consider offering a revision option

If you don’t already have a draft built into your assignment, consider allowing your students to revise their final paper for a higher grade. This might seem like you’re creating extra work for yourself, but in reality you can mark the first version they hand in less, saving some of those comments for the final draft. Just pick one or two issues per page to comment on (and then consider a global comment at the end such as “there are many issues with your subject-verb agreement throughout”). There’s no point in making tons of corrections to the student’s writing if they’re not going to revise and hand it in again, anyway. Students do not read our corrections and then say “OK, next time I’ll remember not to split my infinitive.” We all know that unless they have an immediate incentive to revise, students won’t do it. So let’s give them that incentive. Grade the papers they hand in fairly but honestly; don’t give a C paper a B. The students will be motivated to revise and improve.

These are two relatively easy ways to help us mark less and allow our students to have some autonomy over their education. It’s not easy – the urge to fix that comma splice is sometimes uncontrollable, especially when students hand in a garbled first draft as their paper! But when we step back and realize that our students have the ability to be good writers who often need a few big pieces of advice, rather than many small ones, to bring their writing to the next level, we help both them and ourselves.

Missed our creative classroom workshop?

We had a great workshop today on active learning, technology, and innovative ideas to use in the classroom, thanks to all who attended. If you missed it, be sure to check our workshops page for the PowerPoint Presentation and Handout, full of excellent sources and ideas to implement in your classroom. Questions? Contact Pam or Jake, the workshop leaders, who can help you out.

What do we mean when we talk about scaffolding?

Scaffolding is a keyword that we are particularly fond of, because it is an essential part of our WAC pedagogy and seems to sometimes function as a cure-all. Students waiting until the last minute to write papers? Try scaffolding. Plagiarism problems? Scaffolding. Want to see polished final papers that have gone through multiple revisions? Scaffolding. You get the idea.

We’ve gone over this concept in detail in our workshops, and you can find lots of literature out there on the web that supports the effectiveness of this assignment design method. But what do we really mean when we talk about scaffolding? Is it just that we should break up a large paper into various kinds of smaller assignments that lead up to the “big one?”

One pitfall we can run into when designing a scaffolded assignment is that we will create a schedule for scaffolding a larger paper, but we might forget to elaborate on each of those steps. Unfortunately, simply breaking a paper up into smaller, cumulative tasks won’t necessarily improve our students’ writing.

Instead of just assigning that one big paper, we might create an assignment like:

  • (Week 3) Brainstorm paper topics in-class
  • (Week 4) Bring three possible topics to class, peer sharing in class
  • (Week 5) Choose a topic and create annotated bibliography
  • (Week 6) Rough Draft
  • (Week 7) In-class peer review
  • (Week 8) Final paper due

While this might be effective in making the paper-writing process seem less daunting and more manageable for students, they are still left with questions. What is “peer sharing?” What’s the point of an annotated bibliography (and more importantly, what does that even look like?). How do I choose my topic?

In particular, we’re asking the students to make a pretty big leap from having chosen a topic and some sources to suddenly writing a rough draft of a full paper without intervening steps. And we haven’t explained what these steps are along the way.

Students want to know why the tasks we’re setting them are meaningful. After all, doesn’t an annotated bibliography seem like busy work? Yet when we explain the usefulness of the annotations, the importance of understanding why we choose particular sources and how those will ultimately shape our paper’s point of view, it might start to be clear. When we explain that they will be forced to consider tough questions that may otherwise go overlooked, such as authority of the source, potential biases, place of publication, etc., the students will understand how this seemingly menial task is an important cog in the mechanics of research and paper writing.

Most importantly, we want to make sure the hallmarks of good assignment design—clarity, expectations, required steps, required formatting, and how students will be assessed—permeate all levels of our assignments. When we hand out that excellent cover page to a paper prompt, but then follow it with a one-line description of the scaffolded step, we undermine the very goal we’re trying to accomplish.