Writing in the Disciplines – A Case for Multiple Drafts

Writing in college-level courses (especially in the STEM fields) is often assigned by asking students to mirror professional scholarly writing. For example, students are often required to compose assignments following the format and style of those we read in the professional literature – a journal article. In other courses, writing may take the form of proposals or literature reviews. Asking students to learn to write this way is immensely useful to inuring them to the thought-process of the discipline they are studying. This kind of modeling encourages critical thinking, precise word use, and command of the field’s vernacular. There is just one problem.

In such classes, students are generally required to write multiple papers on widely varying topics. For example, in an experimental psychology class, students might write separate papers on a perceptual, learning/memory, cognitive, and/or social processes study that they conducted in class. Students are often given feedback on these papers (let’s avoid a conversation about the nature of instructor feedback for now), which they are then expected to read, understand, and then incorporate into the next paper they write, which will often cover an entirely different topic. Transferring comments about the content and writing of one paper does not always easily transfer to a paper on a novel course topic.

If we want students to model our discipline’s writing process, asking students to write this way may be detrimental to the learning objectives we set for our courses. As professionals, when we compose a draft of a manuscript/proposal, we undoubtedly receive feedback from others –  coauthors, advisers, peer reviewers, other colleagues – before submitting a final product for publication. Rarely (if ever) are these comments incorporated into a new manuscript that addresses a completely different question or topic. While they may inspire us to begin a new project or paper, they rarely result in abandonment of the entire manuscript. We spend much of our time incorporating these comments towards improving the original manuscript. One technique we can employ as instructors may be to require students to submit multiple drafts of their papers in our courses. Allowing students to write multiple drafts and experience the process of professional scholarly writing (and, therefore, the discipline’s thought process) is an immensely useful tool for teaching both writing and course content to our students, just as it is for our professional development as scholars.

Any course that wants students to learn course content and improve their writing skills will find that requiring multiple drafts of a paper will lead to better student learning outcomes. Personally, I would rather my students write one or two solid papers on fewer topics (incorporating multiple drafts) than three or four mediocre papers on more topics.

Peer Review in the College Classroom

Peer review assignments can provide a scaffold to a formal writing assignment (such as a term paper) in which students comment on each others’ drafts, thereby relieving instructors of that burden. Peer review activities (whether in class or as a homework assignment) require students to take an active role in their own as well as their fellow students’ learning experiences, allowing them to obtain feedback from more than one person’s point of view. In a traditional classroom setting, students are almost always exclusively given feedback from one authoritative body – the instructor. While it is necessary to have a singular entity that provides feedback and instructions for improvement, it is equally important for students to become comfortable receiving feedback from multiple people. Regardless of the career they choose, students will find there is rarely a back-and-forth between only two people. Collaborations are the norm and so feedback will come from many different individuals, and certain aspects of their work will be more important to some people than others.

When conducting peer review assignments in class, students should be directed to provide well-informed critiques of the work (asking them to model after your own comments as an instructor is a good place to start). This process is similar to the way publishing original research in the academic world works as well (and indeed reflects how work is produced in many non-academic professions as well, making this process beneficial to students, irrespective of their future career choice). It also allows the teacher to assess student learning from an alternative point of view. The peer reviewer assumes the role of “expert” and must therefore provide his/her expert opinion of the work produced by the reviewee. A quality peer review explains to instructors that the reviewer understands the material well enough to provide thoughtful and insightful feedback.

In my experience, students are often more interested in impressing their peers than their teachers, so when they are required to critique each others’ work they will put in more effort to impress. However, it may be useful to provide students with a rubric of some sort they can follow when conducting their review. For example, a student might state that “the main concept was explained well.” As an instructor, that gives little indication that either the reviewer or reviewee knew anything about anything. Instead, students should be required to give specific examples from the text and provide specific feedback. For example, “The author states that animals learn by association, but doesn’t talk about animals that can learn to navigate a maze in the absence of any relevant associative cues.”

Lastly, peer review assignments need not be limited to term papers/essays. They can be easily adapted to mock poster or oral presentations in which students present their posters to a group and be prepared to field questions and defend critiques of their work. Peer review assignments not only provide an alternate way of assessing student work, they lend themselves well to assignments that require multiple drafts.

WAC Highlight: Professor Peter Catapano

Course: HIS 3208 – History of Immigration, Ethnicity, and Nativism

Course Link: https://openlab.citytech.cuny.edu/catapanohis3208/

Assignment: Hester Street
In this assignment, students watched the 1975 film Hester Street, in which a Russian Jewish immigrant in NYC’s Lower East Side shakes his ethnic roots for a more Americanized version of himself, leading to family turmoil and strife. Students were given a set of questions to answer as they watched the film. They were also required to post a paragraph-long response on the course blog in the OpenLab which had more questions such as whether or not the film could be considered a feminist film due to its strong female leads..

Assignment Link: https://openlab.citytech.cuny.edu/catapanohis3208/2013/03/06/hester-street/#comments

What WAC principle(s) does this assignment exemplify?
By asking students to respond to directed questions where they had to analyze the underlying themes of the film, this assignment lays the groundwork for later assignments that may require a thesis statement in a larger research paper. For example, the role of Hester Street as a feminist film could be used as a jumping point for a larger research project in which other contemporaneous (or not) films are analyzed in that light as well. Secondly, these short assignments allow students to write less formally while simultaneously thinking critically about the film they watched. These kind of assignments lend themselves to strong discussions in class and on the course blog.

How might this type of assignment be used in other courses across the curriculum?
By structuring assignments that ask students to critically think about its theoretical/conceptual significance in an informal setting allows for fruitful discussion where students explain (and sometimes defend) their interpretations. This makes the process of writing a formal, thesis-driven assignment more accessible to the student while at the same time giving them ownership of their ideas throughout the writing process.

WAC Highlight: Professor Karen Goodlad (HMGT 2402)

This week’s WAC-friendly highlighted assignment

Professor: Karen Goodlad

Course: HMGT 2401: Wine & Beverage Management

Assignment: Visit and critique a wine retail store

Students were asked to visit a wine store and review specific aspects of the store in a 1½ to 2-page report.  The report had to include whether or not the store’s layout was organized in a customer-friendly manner, whether wines were organized by region of origin, the price range of wines on sale, as well whether the store was offering any promotions.  Students were also required to provide an evaluation of the store by suggesting some improvements the store could make in the future.

What WAC principle(s) does this assignment exemplify?

This assignment asks students to apply topics and concepts they cover in class and apply them to the real world.  It also requires students use their analytical thinking skills by asking students to propose improvements the store could make in order to be more successful.  This kind of writing assignment goes beyond asking students to describe the store.  It makes them think about how and why the store is set up a certain way, as well as think about the degree to which particular setup is effective.  Professor Goodlad’s students took the opportunity to provide the stores they visited with helpful critiques in their essays.  Some students suggested that their stores expand because the space felt cramped, while others applauded their stores’ regional and international selections and knowledgeable/friendly staffs.  The students presented lucid descriptions as well as helpful and practical evaluations and suggestions.

Students posted their assignments to the course’s OpenLab site, allowing for potential discussion about their assignments further down the road.  Such discourse is helpful because it provides potential for meaningful interaction with and clarification/elaboration by the author.

How might this type of assignment be used in other courses across the curriculum?

Applying course concepts to real world situations and subsequently evaluating them can be beneficial in almost any course.  Assignments such as this allow students to see how their course content can be useful for them apart from the academy, which is where the majority of them will spend their careers.  Such assignments would be particularly useful in more theoretical classes where the course content is ephemeral or abstract.  Affording students the opportunity to conduct an assignment similar to Professor Goodlad’s would help students interact substantively with potentially abstract course material.

WAC Weekly Highlight: ENG 1101: Composing Abstractions

This week’s WAC-friendly highlighted assignment

Professor: Matthew K. Gold

Course: ENG 1101: Composing Abstractions (https://openlab.citytech.cuny.edu/groups/eng-1101-composing-abstractions/)

Assignment: (https://openlab.citytech.cuny.edu/abstractions/2012/09/11/class-notes-91112/)

Students were asked to jot down  a number of adjectives and sensory experiences that define New York City in their lives.  They then split off into groups where they shared their lists, and based on their collective sensory experiences devised an imaginary structure or place in the city.  Students then composed a descriptive paragraph proposing the building/creation of their site in NYC.  Over the next two days, each group revised their proposals and posted them on the site blog.

What WAC principle(s) does this assignment exemplify?

The principle of scaffolding (building up from a small assignment to a larger one) is demonstrated by asking students to first compose a  list, followed by a short composition that incorporates contributions from each group member.  This is taken a step further as each group must then revise their original draft and subsequently post in on the course blog.

Each group’s work showed evidence of revision (organization/content was clear and relevant, general lack of typo/grammatical errors).  Each group focused on a unique sensory experience and devised a  creative and original  means of enhancing (or avoiding) those sensory experiences.  For example, one group proposed a sky gliding exhibit, highlighting the ability to experience NYC’s beauty from above in contrast to doing soon the ground (which has the unfortunate effect of seeming dirty).  A very novel idea from this and many other groups!

How might this type of assignment be used in other courses across the curriculum?

Other courses may want to consider a similar format in which instead of asking students only for a final product, require them to demonstrate their progress towards their final project with smaller assignments.  This will also help students digest potentially challenging course material and organize their thought process for their final drafts.

Class Notes – 9/11/12