Looking Back and Looking Forward

Summer is in the air. The weather is warming up and City Tech is buzzing with the frenetic energy of final papers, projects, and exams. The WAC program is wrapping up for the semester too. Some of you may have attended the WAC Colloquium last Thursday, May 12, at which this year’s certifying faculty presented their “WAC-ified” course materials.

For those unfamiliar with our certification process, the WAC team at City Tech administers a program to certify full time faculty to teach Writing Intensive (WI) courses. In the fall, faculty attend four workshops that introduce WAC pedagogy and provide practical tools for incorporating more writing into courses without overburdening the instructor with grading or displacing course content. In the spring, faculty work to revise a syllabus using these strategies and present their results at a year-end colloquium. Each faculty member is paired with a WAC Fellow who works with them throughout the year to provide feedback and other support.

As the end-of-semester rush slows down and you begin to think about next year, we encourage you to consider joining the WAC certification program in Fall 2016. City Tech requires that all students pursuing associate degrees complete two WI courses, and students working toward their baccalaureates need four WI courses in order to graduate. As the college grows, so will the need for instructors to teach WI course and participating in the WAC program can provide those instructors preparation and support.

If you have a WI syllabus in need of some revision, or a course that you might want to transform into a WI course, think about contacting the WAC program. You can get in touch with one of the WAC coordinators or just keep an eye out for the posters and emails advertising the first WAC workshop in the fall and speak to someone in person.

Even if you aren’t ready to commit to a year-long program, WAC can provide support for writing in your classroom. All instructors—both full and part-time, WI or non-WI—are welcome to drop in on our workshops or ask for the help of a WAC fellow. So from all of us at City Tech WAC we wish you happy finals and a great summer, and we hope to see you in the fall!

Guiding Students Toward Successful Discipline-Specific Writing

One of the fundamental tenets of WAC pedagogy is that learning in every discipline is enhanced by writing. This is one reason you will often see WAC linked with another acronym, WID. Writing in the Disciplines, or WID, is a category of WAC practice that seeks to “introduce or give students practice with the language conventions of a discipline as well as with specific formats typical of a given discipline.

As has been noted in the Fellows’ Corner before, it can be difficult for instructors to introduce discipline-specific writing in the classroom. The academic, technical, or professional writing in your field may be obscure and full of jargon, rigidly formatted, or otherwise intimidating to novice learners. As instructors, one of the most important things that we can do is to acknowledge the complexities of writing in our respective fields and help students take the first steps toward mastering it.

Providing a variety of examples of professional writing from your field for students is a good way to get started. Even better is guiding them through the first one or two readings. This may mean sharing insights into how you read writing of this kind as an expert in the field, or perhaps assigning simple, informal writing assignments to help students articulate their understanding of content or structure (see this post for more suggestions on assisting with difficult readings).

While professional writing provides good models and can be inspiring for students to see, it can also be daunting. Students may find themselves wondering how on earth they are going to produce writing that looks like the samples they have read, leading to unnecessary anxiety and discouragement. Providing examples of successful student writing can be a counterweight to these negative feelings.

Samples of non-professional writing are concrete evidence that good discipline-specific writing is within reach for students. You may choose to pull samples from the internet (this journal of student writing from Middlesex Community College contains some good examples from a variety of fields) or gather your own. The more unique the assignment is to your course the more you may want to collect one or two exemplary assignments per semester to serve as models to future classes (be sure to get permission from the student to use their work in this way, and always remove the name from the sample).

Supporting discipline-specific writing is a major goal of the WAC program at City Tech. Follow the links in this post for more helpful tips, or contact the WAC fellows through the OpenLab.

Putting Down the Red Pen

red ink pen

If you have been exposed to even a moderate amount of WAC pedagogy, you have probably heard this advice: when you mark student work, use anything other than a red pen.


On the surface this seems reasonable, after all, no one likes to see their paper dripping red ink like a poor, wounded animal. But after a couple of hearings you may find yourself asking, as some of the City Tech WAC team did recently, is this just an old teachers’ tale? Is there evidence to back up the assertion that student reception of the same marks, grades, and marginal comments can be affected by the color they are written in? It turns out there are a number of researchers out there trying to answer these questions.


One 2012 study published in The Social Science Journal set out to test whether the use of red pens by instructors was viewed negatively by undergraduate-level students. Researchers Richard L. Dukes and Heather Albanesi provided participants with one of four marked and graded essays. These were actually just two essays, one at an A- and one a C+, in which the identical comments were either rendered in blue or red. Students were asked to assign their own grade to the essay and to assess the comments on particular values. While students tended to grade similarly and to rate the instructor comparably on for knowledgeability and organization regardless of the color of the comments, students who read essays marked in red were significantly more likely to rate the instructor as less nice and having less rapport with students.


Objectively, in an educational setting being nice is not as important as being knowledgeable. However, student-teacher rapport is an important and valuable thing and if a small adjustment like changing the color of a pen makes a difference it is worth considering. And a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology in 2010 suggests a further reason for putting down the red pen: object priming.


Simply put, object priming proposes that when an object becomes closely associated with a concept then it has the potential to influence behavior. So, if an instructor associates red markings with harsh correction, he or she is more likely to make harsh corrections while using a red pen. The 2010 article by Abraham M. Rutchick, Michael L. Slepian, and Bennett D. Ferris includes the results of an experiment in which participants were given a writing sample to grade and either a blue or red pen with which to do so. Participants with red pens marked more errors than those with blue pens. The researchers hypothesize that this is a possible example of object priming, although they have plans for further research to confirm or disprove their theory.


Whether or not you are convinced by the object priming theory, a growing body of research suggests that students, instructors, or both can be negatively influenced by red ink. Choosing a different pen color is just one way that you can make the grading process more positive for all involved. For more instructor-focused tools to improve the grading experience, join us for the Effective Grading and Minimal Marking workshop this Thursday, November 19 at 1pm in Namm 1005.

Workshop Recap: Effective Assignment Design

Last Thursday WAC kicked off the fall semester with our first workshop, Effective Assignment Design. For those who couldn’t make it, or those who want to refresh their memories, here’s a quick recap:

Writing Fellows Claire Hoogendoorn and Drew Fleming began by explaining the difference between formal and informal writing. Many of us are familiar with formal student writing, end-of semester term papers are a classic example, which can be categorized as writing to communicate. Informal writing is writing to learn and it can take any number of forms, including:

  • Notetaking
  • Paraphrase or summary
  • Generating questions
  • Reflection or response

What informal writing tasks have in common is that they are not focused on grammar or organization, and they are low-stakes (they are ungraded or have a minimal impact on the course grade).

An effectively designed formal assignment should include a number of smaller informal or semi-formal assignments that help students develop the required skills to achieve the grade they want. This is called scaffolding, and all high-stakes assignments can benefit from it.

Scaffolding will look different for each assignment and each instructor, the point is to put steps in place so that students practice the skills they will need to succeed before the final assignment comes due. This may mean giving informal assignments in which they defend a thesis, write out methodology, explain a key concept, or paraphrase a source. Again, the number and type will vary.

The workshop wrapped up with a reminder of how important it is to give students typed assignment handouts. Handouts minimize student confusion by providing all of the details of the assignment, such as:

  • The specific task(s)
  • The assignment requirements (such as formatting and citation)
  • The audience for the assignment
  • Grading criteria
  • How many required drafts

The workshop PowerPoint and handout can be found here:

PowerPoint Slides


Remember that this is workshop one of four offered this semester. Workshops are open to all faculty, regardless of whether they are going through the WAC certification process. If you are interested in hearing more about the WAC certification process (there are still some open spots in the program this semester) or if you have further questions about WAC, feel free to email a WAC Fellow or leave a comment below!

End-of-Semester Grading Strategies

It is that time again! The weather is getting warmer, the days are getting longer, and you can almost taste your favorite summer treats. (Watermelon! Mister Softee!) But before you can kick off your shoes and put your feet up for a bit, you’ve got to turn in your grades for the semester.

If you were at the WAC workshop way back in October, you may have already put in place some time and labor-saving strategies like assignment scaffolding, peer review, and rubrics. Even if you did incorporate some or all of these ideas, you may still be facing a pile of papers. Here are some helpful WAC principles that can help you get through your grading and on to summer fun:


  • Focus on higher order concerns                                                                                              Spelling and grammar are important, and we don’t want to minimize that, but in most cases they won’t be the focus of your course. Consider line editing only a portion of a formal written assignment (one paragraph, one page) and using your time and energy to comment on higher order concerns like thesis statements, quality of argument, good use of evidence, logic, organization, and understanding of course material.


  • Develop a key                                                                                                                                          If you are going to be making a lot of markings on written assignments, consider developing a set of symbols and a key to streamline the process. Many of us use paragraph symbols, carets, and other proofreader’s marks, but feel free to expand your repertoire and use any symbols or markings that work for you. You can write up a simple key and attach it to each student paper so that they can easily follow your notations.


  • Rubrics                                                                                                                                                     It isn’t too late to develop a rubric! Even taking a few minutes to sit down and articulate what you are looking for in an assignment can help make your grading process swifter and easier. You can create a grid with elements to check off as either present or not present, a number scale, or anything that reflects your thinking about what constitutes excellent, good, fair, and poor work on a given assignment.


If you want to read more about minimal marking and effective grading the WAC way, you can find a recap of the workshop here, which includes a link to resources.

Happy grading!

Midterm Reflection and Low-stakes Writing

With midterms over, or nearly over, and spring break on the horizon, many of us are taking stock of student performance. In a perfect world we would all look at our grade books or spreadsheets and see that all of our students were right on track. In reality, this is a time when some are left wondering, why are midterm scores are lower than expected? That gap between expectation and performance is an important one to explore, and one of the ways to do so is through low-stakes writing.

Self-assessment has a long history in higher education. Scholars, like the prolific David Boud, and journals, such as Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, have been devoted to the topic since the 1970s. Studies on and strategies for student self-assessment abound, and the above links provide a starting point for those who are interested in exploring the topic. One WAC-friendly approach is low-stakes writing. Low-stakes writing is short, reflective writing. It is also writing that is ungraded or graded simply, using something like a check system or a limited point scale (a five-point scale is common), so that is doesn’t feel like a burden to students or to instructors.

There are a number of ways that you might structure low-stakes midterm self-evaluations. They can be take-home, in-class, or online. They can focus on the midterm exam or assignment, or consider the course up to the point of writing. In any case, prompts should encourage students to think about themselves as learners and set both you and your students up to be more effective in the coming weeks of the semester. Low-stakes writing suggestions include questions about the midterm:

Was the format of the midterm what you expected? What about the content? Was there anything about the midterm that surprised you?

Course content:

  • Are there any concepts that you still do not understand at this point of semester? What areas of course content do you feel particularly strong in? What areas do you need to work on?

Personal performance:

  • Did the grade you received on the midterm match your expectations? Do you know where you stand, grade-wise, in this class? Are you content with your grade thus far? Do you know what you need to do if you want your grade to improve?

Study habits:

  • How do you prepare for class meetings, generally? How did you prepare for the midterm? Is there anything that you would change about your study habits?

No matter what you ask, low-stakes writing assignments like these can be a great way to facilitate communication between you and your students.

A different approach to low-stakes writing is suggested by an article on student anxiety over exams, published in Science in 2011 (Science is available through a number of different databases at City Tech’s library). In “Writing About Testing Worries Boosts Exam Performance in the Classroom” Gerardo Ramirez and Sian L. Beilock discuss two laboratory studies and two randomized field experiments that support the hypothesis that writing about text anxiety can help alleviate its impact on performance. The studies show that students facing high-pressure exam situations, which midterms and finals certainly can be, may perform better if they have the opportunity to write about their concerns pre-exam. This is because, as Ramirez and Beilock explain, performance anxieties disrupt the ability of the working memory to focus on the task at hand. They discovered that getting some of the negative thoughts out in writing before an exam allowed those who suffered from high test anxiety to perform as well as those who did not.

While it may be too late to try this kind of low-stakes writing for the midterm exam, there are still ways to incorporate the insights from this article. You could devote ten minutes to writing-the-fear-away before the final exam. But you don’t have to wait until May to use Ramirez and Beilock’s advice. Their idea to try writing to lower test anxiety was based on the idea of therapeutic writing, which is used over a span of time to help manage negative thoughts and feelings. A classroom application of this concept might be to periodically give students free-writing time to write out all of their concerns related to the class. (If you are concerned about student privacy, these could be uncollected assignments that are graded on the basis of time on-task.) Allowing students to get out all of the “I got a bad grade on the midterm and now I’m afraid I’ll flunk the class” and “I didn’t come to class a lot at the beginning of the semester and now I think the professor doesn’t like me” thoughts might take some of the air out of them. It might even get students thinking about ways to counter them with positive action like developing a study plan or making an appointment to meet with you during office hours.

Low-stakes writing, whatever form it takes, can find a place in any discipline, any classroom. As you look toward the second part of the semester, consider if there are ways that you can use low-stakes writing to meet your course goals. You get further information here or by contacting a WAC fellow.

Thinking About How to Avoid Student Plagiarism

“Hold the newsreader’s nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers.”

The above gem of English locution is from a British television comedy show from the 1980’s and ’90’s called A Bit of Fry and Laurie. The sketch, called “Tricky Linguistics,” calls this an example of a unique sentence, one that—despite being made up of ordinary words—has never been said before “in the history of human communication.”

Most of the time uniqueness in student writing is something good. It can reflect a student’s personal engagement and original thinking, and display their “voice.” Many of us consider voice or personal style in writing a mark of writerly maturity, and if we think about our own favorite writers we can probably identify words and phrases that instantly tell us who we are reading. This tendency of writers to use and reuse words is the basis of algorithms like Amazon.com’s Statistically Improbably Phrases and term frequency-inverse document frequency (tf-idf), both of which can help determine what role particular words and phrases play in a text or body of texts.

At this point you may be asking yourself, what does all of this have to do with Writing Across the Curriculum? Well, in preparation for the upcoming workshop on avoiding plagiarism, I wanted to talk a bit about one electronic resource available to City Tech faculty that uses the kind of technology mentioned above to help spot, as well as educate students about, plagiarism.

The Blackboard learning platform (available for all courses at City Tech, not just hybrid or online classes) has a tool called SafeAssign. This allows students to turn in their writing through an electronic system that checks the text for exact or near-exact matches to documents publicly available on the internet, on the closed-access database of publications ProQuest ABI/Inform, and in archives of documents previously submitted by City Tech students. The system then produces a report that marks passages of concern and links to their possible online sources, as well as providing a calculation of the percentage of the paper that matches existing text.

This may seem like a wish come true to time-pressed faculty members—an instant plagiarism detector!—but as with all tools it makes a real difference how you use it. Rather than its capacity to alert the instructor to possible issues of citation (intentional or unintentional) I want to suggest that one of the great things about SafeAssign is that the reports that it generates are not only visible to the instructor, they are visible to students. Even better, there is an option to allow students to run their drafts through the system without turning them in, so that they can see what the problems are before it is too late.

In many cases, what looks like plagiarism is actually poor citation practices and a lack of understanding of paraphrase. Using a tool like SafeAssign to allow students to see where their work is falling short in these areas at the draft stage can take some of the pressure off of the instructor and improve the overall quality of the finished product. More importantly, it can encourage students to be proactive by providing an opportunity for them to self-correct or to seek outside help.

No single tool is the answer to when it comes to student plagiarism. There are lots of ways to address the issue before it becomes a matter for the Academic Integrity Committee. For more ideas join WAC fellows Jake Cohen and Claire Hoogendoorn, and library faculty member Bronwen Densmore for the Avoiding Plagiarism and Using Library Resources workshop this Tuesday, November 11 at 1pm in Namm 1105.