Wow, thanks for the enthusiastic response!

Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU to all the faculty who came out to our workshop today; so many, in fact, that we couldn’t fit you all comfortably in the tiny conference room we had reserved. We apologize to those who couldn’t stay because of space constraints, but we hope that won’t dissuade you from working with WAC this fall!

If you weren’t able to make it or weren’t able to stay for the entire time, check out our PowerPoint presentation and the handout on our workshops page. Feel free to be in touch with Justina or Roy if you have more questions for them or if you’d like them to meet with you to go over any content you missed, they did a great job on today’s workshop. And check back here on Monday for our recap of the workshop.

We promise a bigger room for our October 14 workshop, Effective Grading and Minimal Marking.

Notetaking by Hand, Writing-to-learn

A few weeks ago, this article crossed my social media feeds, and it initially piqued my interest because I ban the use of laptops in my classroom.

I ban phones, tablets, and laptops in class because I find them distracting as an instructor, and I know from some of my students that they find it distracting to see other students surfing the web or using social media during class. For some classes, this is obviously impractical, especially for those in technology, science, engineering, math, or design that rely on student access to a computer and collaborative work. Of course, we must also accmmodate students with learning disabilities who use adaptive technologies to learn. And as this article makes clear, “laptops do in fact allow students to do more.”

However, as the scientific study cited in this article shows, there is perhaps a practical reason to ban or, at the very least, limit the general use of laptops in the classroom. And this is because

those who wrote out their notes by hand had a stronger conceptual understanding and were more successful in applying and integrating the material than those who used took notes with their laptops.

Our WAC experience certainly reinforces this concept. We know that using¬†low-stakes writing assignments helps¬†students learn through the very act of writing. When we ask¬†our students to write short, informal assignments based on course content, they must synthesize a variety of different types of learning—what they’ve read, what they’ve learned through lecture, what they’ve learned through experience—into generating an original product. Even if students are just asked to summarize the day’s lecture, they must still find a way to process¬†all the information, pick out the salient points, and describe¬†them using their own language.

Notetaking is another kind of informal writing. It requires the same type of cognitive processing as low-stakes writing assignments, that is, students must “listen, digest, and summarize so that they can succinctly capture the essence of the information.” It requires active reading (or for lectures, active listening) in which students are being asked to question and process information, rather than passively take it all in. ¬†Students are certainly capable of doing this on laptops.

The trouble is, because students can type much faster than they write, they¬†often copy classroom content verbatim, and they can “easily produce a written record of the lecture without processing its meaning.” Many of our students think that the best way to study is to review the lecture as it was given, or that the more notes they take, the better off they are, as though the content will magically transfer from a transcription of lecture into their knowledge base.

The same speed limitation means that students taking notes by hand are forced to do the same things that we ask when we give low-stakes, informal writing assignments: they summarize, they pick out the most important points, and they put concepts into their own words that they can understand. They are creating new neural pathways through writing, learning the content in a more holistic way that by simply transcribing a lecture. In this case, it really is quality over quantity.

The other major impediment to our students taking notes by hand is that¬†many of them have never done it! This may come as a shock to those of us¬†for whom taking notes by hand was the norm, but many students are terrified of the idea that they might “miss something important” by handwriting their notes rather than transcribing everything verbatim. As instructors, it is our responsibility to make sure students have these skills, even if we don’t think it’s “our job” to teach this.

A few notetaking tricks can help ease students into the new habit of taking notes. Some ideas include:

  1. Introduce a notetaking method, such as the double column method or the three-section “Cornell method.” These formats require¬†reflection, summarization, and questioning, all forms of informal writing that better reinforce course content.
  2. Require students to turn in their notes, or do an occasional in-class “notebook check.” This can be¬†graded, not for content, but simply whether the students did it or not, giving the students an incentive. Many will be relieved, in fact, to learn that they can earn points towards their grade simply by taking notes!

Let us know Рdo your students take notes by hand? Do you ban laptops in class for notetaking? What do your students think?

Welcome back! Fall 2014 WAC Workshops

We at WAC hope that you had a relaxing and productive summer! We’ve got a ton of great writing ideas and pedagogical tools and strategies to present to you in four workshops this fall semester. Workshops are open to all faculty and staff, are free, and include lunch (and cookies!). Location TBD, but please save the dates and times below for our WAC workshops

  • Tuesday, September 16, 1pm: Effective Assignment Design
  • Tuesday, October 14, 1pm:¬†Effective Grading and Minimal Marking
  • Tuesday, November 11, 1pm:¬†Avoiding Plagiarism
  • Tuesday, December 9, 1pm:¬†The Creative Classroom

Check our¬†workshops page to find details about the next workshop, and also to peruse¬†last year’s workshops. All this year’s workshops will be updates of previous ones, so even if you attended last year, you’re bound to learn something new this year. And follow our Fellow’s Corner¬†page to see weekly blog posts on writing strategies, assignment design, and other writing across the curriculum¬†philosophies written by our talented¬†Writing Fellows.

If you would like us to present a workshop to your department on one of these or a related topic, or if you would like to work one-on-one with a Writing Fellow on¬†improving your students’ writing and your feedback, please contact our co-coordinators, Rebecca Devers or Marianna Bonanome.

Grading as Coaching, or, How to Spend Less Time Marking Papers

Recently, I sent a draft of some writing to my adviser with the comment, “the writing still needs some work, but please look at the overall points and let me know if you think I’m going in the right direction.”

Isn’t this precisely what all writers want? And doesn’t that include undergraduate students too?

When students hand in a draft, in a sense they are saying this exact same phrase to us as instructors: “here is some writing that I proofread [hopefully!] but it’s still marred by the limited time constraints of the assignment. I hope that the overall points are good and I’m going in the right direction.” Yet, we approach these papers with a copy editor’s eye and red pen, marking up every dangling modifier, incorrect word usage, subject/verb disagreement, or incorrect use of idiomatic English. In a sense, we are doing the opposite of what we hope anyone assessing our own work would do, even though we know from experience that copy editing is the final, not first, stage of professional writing.

We forget that we are not referees, but rather, coaches for our student writers. In her well-known essay on the “overgraded paper,” Muriel Harris writes

like student writers without a thesis or consistent perspective, the teacher who overgrades leaps from suggestion to correction to criticism, from being an editor to a coach to a reader. In noting many things, the instructor emphasizes nothing, and many students…retreat (92).

We fall victim to Harris’s well-placed critique of trying to do too much. And we do it with such good intent (“I want my students to be better writers! I’m trying to help them!) that we are blind to the ways it can be damaging.

The best technique is to mark less. Instead of reading the paper with red pen ready at the draw, try reading the paper with your hands empty. Resist the urge to correct that misplaced comma, or that use of “effect” when they should have written “affect.” After reading it, go back through and find the three or four¬†places where the student author needs to clarify, expand, refine, offer another example, analyze or re-state. Be explicit about exactly what you want in your comments (ironically, simply writing the word “unclear” in the margin is, itself, unclear). After all, these are the things we most want to see improved, and that lead the student not only to write better but to learn the course content more comprehensively.

And all those pesky grammatical mistakes? Save those for a later draft, when the
“big picture” ideas are clearer. Or if you’re only doing one draft, mention them in an endnote: “you have problems with subject/verb agreement throughout,” or “I’ve placed a checkmark in the margin of lines with writing errors.” It turns out that once your students accomplish the higher-order thoughts and cognitive processes, their writing also naturally improves.

This way the student will focus on those higher-order issues you highlighted. I’ve given back papers with 20 or more markings on a page, and only one of them was something that would have seriously improved the content, rather than the execution, of the paper. Nancy Sommers notes that this kind of grading

encourage[s] the student to see the text as a fixed piece, frozen in time, that just needs some editing (151).

On the subsequent draft, my student of course obliged and addressed every marking I had made, except one, the hardest one. If that had been the only marking on the page, she would have been forced to consider the problem I posed, and possibly taken her paper to the next level.

For more, see our workshop on effective grading strategies from December, 2013.


Harris, Muriel. “The Overgraded Paper: Another Case of More is Less.”¬†In How to Handle the Paper Load, ¬†ed. Gene Stanford, 91-94. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1979.
Sommers, Nancy. ‚ÄúResponding to Student Writing.‚ÄĚ College Composition and Communication 33, no. 2 (May 1982): 148-156.

Using Blogs in the Classroom: Some Quick Ideas

As instructors, we frequently hear pleas from our administrators and departments to integrate more technology into our classroom teaching, to meet our online-savvy students on ground with which they’re already familiar. Yet, we often come up short when it comes to actually implementing “technology,” which is itself so broad and varied a term that it suffers from its own lack of specificity. What do “they” mean by “technology”? And more importantly, how do I use this “technology” if I’m admittedly not tech-savvy?

One easy way to incorporate a technological platform into the classroom is with a class blog. Blogs are an interactive place that can serve as a locus for discussion and group study outside of the classroom, allowing you as the instructor the opportunity for creating writing assignments without using up valuable class time devoted to course content. And one great aspect of this is that with a well-designed low-stakes assignment, your students will do most of the work and you can just sit back without taking on a mountain of extra grading.

At CityTech, we have a great blog platform in OpenLab, already available for every class. OpenLab has an excellent introductory guide for faculty, and their staff is also happy to work with faculty to design a site and assignments that can work for them.¬†Once you’ve figured out the basics, there are a number of ways you can make the blog work for you using low-stakes, informal writing:

  • Create a short prompt. This can be a provocative question related to course content, a response to an article or statement made by a public figure, or a response to a particular aspect of the course content.
  • Post a piece of media for the students to “dissect”: either a clip from a film or TV show, a short piece of a documentary, a song or other piece of music, a news report, or a photo.
  • Have students post a critical review of an article, news report, event, museum/gallery/concert visit.

Require every student (or select a small number which rotates weekly throughout the semester) to write a short blog post. Then require every student to comment on at least two posts. This last part is key, because it requires the students to read and engage with each other’s work.¬†You’ll find that¬†the students begin to engage with each other in a highly collegial and productive exchange of ideas.¬†As with all assignments, it’s important to still make sure we’re telling our students exactly what we want them to do and how to do it.

As an example, here’s a blog-based assignment I used when teaching music appreciation at Baruch College, and here are the student responses. I wanted students to use the vocabulary of the course to engage with music that they enjoy and doesn’t get covered in class, thus reinforcing core concepts such as form, harmony, melody, and rhythm.

We know that students enjoy this sort of online interaction for a number of reasons: it varies their mode of learning; it provides a way for them to engage in the class outside of the classroom; it prepares them better for class; it fosters discussion (and can be great especially for students who shy away from in-class speaking); and it utilizes technology that students know and with which they feel comfortable. A post last year from the Metawriting blog shows that one professor’s students responded “with overwhelming strong agreement” that “the instructor uses technology to establish good relationships with students.‚ÄĚ

We at WAC support class blogging because it provides a platform for students to do expressive, low-stakes writing that isn’t graded in the traditional sense. Similar to using a journal (which we wrote about in this post from last fall), this kind of writing fosters “the building of connections between course content and real life experiences within one or two pages of writing.” In turn, students practice writing-to-learn, engaging with course content in a risk-free environment.

Have you used blogging in your classes? Share your experiences below in the comments.

Workshop Recap: Utilizing Peer Review in the Class Curriculum, November 12, 2013

Earlier this year, WAC fellow Zak Aidala wrote an excellent blog post¬†about using peer review in the college classroom. On November 12, WAC fellows Melanie Lorek and¬†Heather Zuber led a full workshop expanding on peer review, introducing us to their “eight great” strategies to make peer review work for faculty in the classroom. The PowerPoint and handouts from the workshop are provided below.

Workshop participants also got a chance to role play a peer review ourselves, letting us see firsthand the benefits of using peer review. Heather and Melanie also helped to dispel a variety of myths and misconceptions about peer review.

After acknowledging some common misconceptions about peer review, the participants brainstormed a list of benefits and advantages to peer review. Most groups came up with a similar list: students feel less pressure when being reviewed by their peers, students are forced to reflect on their writing, students are encouraged to feel autonomy as writers, it saves time for the professor when assessing writing, and it allows shy students to participate.

Melanie and Heather then introduced their “eight great strategies” for effective peer review. While you can look in detail at all of them in the PowerPoint presentation below, their first and most important aspect was to focus on only a single feature of a draft, such as the thesis, the supporting evidence, topic sentences, etc., rather than having reviewers look at global revisions. This helps to avoid aimless peer reviewing, or confused questions of “what am I supposed to do?” by the students. Using a handout with specific instructions and questions aids this process.

We then put this theory into practice, breaking into groups and peer reviewing only the thesis of a few different student papers. While each paper had a variety of higher- and lower-order concerns, by focusing on just one aspect, the thesis, we were able to give good recommendations to the hypothetical writer. Heather and Melanie also provided us all with samples of handouts that we might use for a variety of different peer review activities.

Click here for the PowerPoint, and click here for the handouts.

Did you attend the workshop? What worked for you? What would you have found more useful? Feel free to comment below!

Our next workshop is on Effective Grading Techniques, and will be held on December 10, 2013, at 1pm in Namm 226. Lunch will be provided!