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.”



Writing to Learn: From WAC Principle to Life Practice

As anyone who has spent much time around the Writing Across the Curriculum program is well aware, those working in WAC have a near religious devotion to the inclusion of low-stakes informal writing assignments in every curriculum. These exploratory writing exercises which we call “writing to learn” include activities such as journaling, free-writing, and reflective in-class writing. Following WAC philosophy, “Writing to Learn” helps develop the students’ critical thinking skills and fosters a deeper engagement in thought surrounding the course content.[1] While writing to learn has proven to be a very successful tool in the classroom, its benefits carry over into non-academic settings.

I recently took a graduate level course taught by a former WAC fellow. One of the requirements for the course was to join the website 750words.com and develop a daily writing habit by writing at least 750 words five days out of the week. There were no guidelines beyond the simple stipulation- 750 words, 5 days a week. We were required to generate a monthly report through the site which stated the days on which we wrote and the word count for each day. The words themselves remained private.

I admit, I was resistant to the idea at first. What could I possible have to say that would take up 750 words everyday; however, it didn’t matter what I was writing—it only mattered that I wrote. So I began. On some days I was inspired by the course reading for one of the classes that I was taking and I used my time and 750 words developing my thoughts on the readings. Some days I developed research problems; or thought through other course material that I was struggling with. But some days I was stuck. There were days that I didn’t want to write, days that I could barely get out of bed. But I forced myself to sit down in front of the computer. On these days I wrote about not wanting to write. I wrote about the barrage of personal problems that blocked me from wanting to get work done. Often I would pose a question to myself and write until I was able to answer my question.

Over the course of the semester, I found that the days I began with my freewriting were vastly more productive than those which didn’t begin with writing. The morning writing helped me jump-start my brain in the morning, work through problems that I was having, and organize my day. It allowed me to get all the mental junk out of the way so that I could focus on the day’s tasks with more focus and clarity. By the end of the semester I had been converted and to this day continue to use writing as a way to start my productive days and to work through problems.

As we encourage students to utilize various writing techniques and tools in our classrooms, it can be helpful to point out that these exercises are not merely classroom tricks or ways to take up their time. Writing is an integral part of thinking and organizing. We should help our students see that a writing practice can extend beyond the educational setting and help them live fuller and more


[1] For more information on the philosophy behind “writing to learn”, as well as example activities, see John Bean’s Engaging Ideas chapters 2 and 7.

Back to school, back to plagiarism?

As another semester gets under way, many City Tech students will find themselves under a tremendous amount of pressure – with family, work, and school obligations, finding time to write a successful paper might seem impossible to some. And that’s what the folks handing out these on campus are hoping to take advantage of:


As a professor who spends time designing and grading assignments with the goal of helping your students learn the course content, this kind of service probably makes you feel angry, frustrated, or depressed – if not all three at the same time. Even plagiarism detection programs can’t help you with paper writing services like this. You can try to get to know a student’s writing “voice,” but it’s still hard to deal with those who take advantage of these services.

But there are things you can do to make it much less likely that your students will turn to services like this. Remember that for many students, the pressure to succeed is very intense. English may not be their first language. They may not have been well prepared by their previous education to write college-level papers. They may not really want to cheat in this way, but they might not feel capable of writing a big term paper or project that has a lot riding on it. You can help address these issues by breaking down big, daunting assignments into smaller pieces – what we at WAC call “scaffolding” – that build toward the final paper or project. In this way, you make it harder for them to take advantage of paper-writing services, but more importantly, you make it feel less tempting to them.

Let’s say you’ve assigned a final paper or writing-based project that accounts for a large portion of your students’ grade. You can scaffold that assignment by designing shorter assignments throughout the semester that tackle and help demystify pieces of that final project. This could include assignments on brainstorming and writing a strong thesis statement, building a literature review, or compiling and evaluating data or evidence. Students are much less likely to plagiarize on these smaller assignments – particularly if you do some of them in class – and by the time the final project comes around, they’ll discover it’s more than half written already and doesn’t need the help of a service like the one offered above. They’ve also built the knowledge and confidence that will hopefully help them tackle bigger projects with confidence in future classes.

If you’d like more ideas on how to do this, come to some WAC workshops this semester! Next Tuesday (9/13) we’ll be presenting an overview on Designing Effective Assignments that will touch on these issues; then on October 18 we’ll be doing an entire workshop on preventing plagiarism. We’ll round out the semester with a workshop on Effective Grading and Minimal Marking (11/15) and the Creative Classroom (12/6). And if you can’t wait for a workshop, you can check out the PowerPoints and handouts from previous workshops last year that we’ve posted online: https://openlab.citytech.cuny.edu/writingacrossthecurriculum/workshops/

(Our complete Fall workshop schedule with times and locations will be posted on that page as well.)

Best of luck this semester, and we hope to see you at a workshop!

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.

Writing with an Accent

“When you hear my accent, you know where I come from. Well, I want my writing to be reflected in that way too.” –Tonka Dobreva

More than two thirds of City Tech students are not native English speakers. For many of those students–and for those whose native dialect of English is different from U.S. English–writing assignments can be challenging. How can we incorporate more writing into our classrooms without overwhelming these students?

City Tech WAC Fellow Emily Crandall and I will be presenting a workshop on this urgent topic on Thursday, March 31. We’ll talk about ways to accommodate ESL learners that don’t require you to become an expert on ESL or to make your class easier. But today I’ll give a sneak preview of one concept that can help shift our approach to ESL students: writing with an accent.

Research indicates that it generally takes five to seven years of immersion to achieve fluency in a language, but fluency does not mean “native-like.” We expect that non-native speakers might speak with an accent, and that it wouldn’t be a negative attribute; why, then, do we so often expect them to write without an accent, and see written “accents” as negative?

A written “accent” might affect grammar, word choice, or even ways of organizing thoughts and ideas on paper. As teachers, our goal should not be to eliminate the written accent entirely–just as we would not attempt to eliminate a student’s spoken accent. This means that, as tempting as it might be to mark up an ESL student’s paper with mechanical corrections (or to write off a paper as “bad work”), we should try to accommodate their accent as much as possible and read for the underlying ideas.

For bigger errors that make the writing hard to understand, it can be helpful to mark them in one or two paragraphs only, helping to focus the student’s attention on the most important mechanics rather than overwhelming them with corrections. (Those of you who attended our Effective Grading and Minimal Marking workshop in the fall will recognize this tip as one we recommend for grading all students’ written work–but it can be harder to remember when we’re grading ESL student work.)

Next time you’re grading, try thinking about written accents–it might help you restrain your grading pen and find the concepts your students could be grasping behind that accent. If you’re interested in reading more about written accents and student experiences, check out this publication from George Mason University. And come to our WAC ESL workshop on March 31 at 1 pm (location TBA, so keep an eye out for signs or contact us for details) for many more strategies for using WAC principles with ESL students!

Technology in the Classroom

Our last faculty workshop of the semester is approaching, where we will be discussing strategies for implementing more creativity in the classroom. An aspect of this workshop involves the use of technology. But whether and how to use technology in the classroom is certainly not a settled debate.

There are broad disagreements over whether any sort of active learning (including technology) detracts from student development of the comprehension and reasoning skills required to digest a lecture. There are also disagreements about the extent to which technology can effectively be used to deliver course content. In particular, the trend toward “flipping the classroom” is largely premised upon taking advantage of available technologies for the explicit purpose of increasing student engagement with course materials. In a flipped classroom, lectures are delivered electronically outside of class, and in-class time is reserved for student synthesis, application, and discussion. Some faculty have even attempted the flip in large lecture hall situations, encouraging student accountability for completing required readings. Proponents of the flipped classroom model have developed many different types of resources for using technology outside the classroom in order to facilitate more active learning before, after, and during class. Ted-ed is one example.

But what about technology in the classroom itself? This can take either the form of technology used by the instructor (e.g. powerpoint, video clips), or technology used by the students, namely laptops. There are many elements to consider when deciding whether to allow students to use laptops. On one hand, research suggests that students demonstrate better understanding of concepts and applications when they take notes by hand. On the other hand, permitting the use of technology may foster a more inclusive learning environment, allowing for more alternatives to the traditional lecture. Chris Buddle at McGill, for example, allows students to use the internet to fact check him during class, which often leads to spontaneous discussions and new avenues for student engagement. It can also expand accessibility for students who require accommodations for varying sorts of disabilities.

WAC philosophy and pedagogy offers a robust defense of active learning. That said, it can be overwhelming to try and integrate so many new and different strategies and resources into a classroom. It may certainly be the case that using technology in new ways does not immediately yield the expected outcome. That need not be a reason, however, to shy away from it. It does not mean that you have to drastically change your curriculum to make it more fun or accessible. But it does mean that there may be ways to deepen student engagement with both your course, and with the pursuit of knowledge more broadly, which might fall outside the traditional lecture format, and may involve writing and reading in more creative styles and venues.

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.

Should We Abandon Active Learning for Lecturing?

A Sunday New York Times op-ed about teaching style—currently one of the most-emailed articles on the newspaper’s website—issues a call for more lectures and less active learning, at least in the humanities. Molly Worthen, an assistant professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, argues that lectures teach students comprehension and reasoning. “Absorbing a long, complex argument is hard work, requiring students to synthesize, organize and react as they listen,” she writes.

It’s a provocative argument, given the movement toward active learning in recent years, and given what we know about the advantages of actively engaging students in a variety of ways (see the recent post by my colleague, WAC Fellow Claire Hoogendoorn, for more on that research). But it’s also a false dichotomy. Lecturing and active learning don’t have to be opposites; in fact, Worthen herself emphasizes the importance of one form of active learning during lectures: note-taking. She writes:

But we also must persuade students to value that aspect of a lecture course often regarded as drudgery: note-taking…. Studies suggest that taking notes by hand helps students master material better than typing notes on a laptop, probably because most find it impossible to take verbatim notes with pen and paper. Verbatim transcription is never the goal: Students should synthesize as they listen.

Indeed, research indicates that taking notes helps not just with retention of information, but also with conceptual understandings. (And, as Worthen points out, writing notes by hand seems to do an even better job of it than using a laptop.) Many students have never been taught how to take notes, though; they need to be taught. WAC Fellows can help you do that yourself, and we also offer a student note-taking workshop in the spring.

There are other ways to incorporate active learning through writing into the lecture format. Below are just a few, drawn from Engaging Ideas by John C. Bean (2011).

  • Develop Exploratory Writing Tasks Keyed to Your Lectures. These assignments, which could be in-class or out-of-class, cannot be completed without paying attention to the lecture. Example: At the end of class, ask students to take five minutes to argue for or against an important idea from the lecture.
  • Break the Pace of a Lecture Using “Minute Papers.” Stop in the midst of a lecture and ask students to write for five minutes in response to a question connected to that point in the lecture. This gives you feedback and refocuses student attention.
  • Ask Students to Write Summaries of One or More of Your Lectures. These should be short and can be done either in class or out of class, and help student understanding as well as giving you feedback.

These don’t have to create more work for you. Most could be ungraded, or graded for completion only; you could also grade only a fraction of them each time. And by bringing low-stakes writing like this into the lecture format, you can help ensure that your lectures are being heard and understood.







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.

Context: One Key to Deeper Learning

Friday May 1st at the Graduate Center’s Annual Purposeful Pedagogy Conference, the keynote address was given by Dr. Anna Stetsenko, a Professor in the Human Development and Urban Education Ph.D. Programs at the Graduate Center. I also was lucky enough to have taken a Ph.D. level course with Dr. Stetsenko about three years ago. Both from her keynote address and throughout the semester she was my Professor, she spoke of the importance of context in learning. She has opened mine as well as many other doctoral level students’ eyes to the relevance of providing our own undergraduate students with an understanding of how context shapes the theories and paradigms of thought that emerge at a given time in history and in a given field. Because of Dr. Stetsenko, I too have developed an eagerness to take a holistic lens to teaching. Her combined focus on the inclusion of context within pedagogy and encouraging active learning on the part of students provide us with wonderful lessons toward improving our teaching, regardless of whether we are relatively new instructors or have been teaching for many years. Below are three specific ways in which I now focus on context within my own classrooms and were inspired by Dr. Stetsenko.
Historical Context
The historical context of what was happening when a particular theory, area of research, or paradigm of thought emerged helps explain how and why it emerged in the first place. History including politics, power dynamics, wars, and other influences shape how knowledge is created and in fact affects what knowledge is given precedence at a given time. One such example of how I impart this to my students in my Social Psychology courses is to require them to read various older primary scholarly research articles (as well as current ones) throughout the semester and have them research what was going on at that time in history in regards to politics within the author’s country and the paradigms of thought in psychology. As one example, my students read Milgrim’s (1963) original article about obedience and how the impact of Nazi soldiers’ obedience to Hitler served as a trigger for Milgrim’s interest in studying the ‘dark side’ of leadership and obedience. The students learn to place all research in context through this type of exercise and to notice how the time period in which a researcher lives impacts what is deemed as valuable to study at that point in history as well as what was published during that decade. Additionally, in teams, my students present a topic that is interesting to them and related to the course, yet beyond the content that I provide them. This gives them the opportunity to search for historical context and teach it to classmates to further their learning.
Cultural Context
I consider demonstrating the value of cross-cultural perspectives to my students as one of my foremost goals in teaching. At this time, it is essential to acknowledge culture’s impact on a given field as a whole and within a given theory (e.g., Does a given theory apply cross-culturally? Why or why not?), as well as how culture relates to our students’ own perspectives. To do so, I first take the time to teach at least two general class periods early in the semester about how culture shapes one’s beliefs, values, and opinions in order to open my students’ eyes on the impact of culture, interspersed with small group work where teams of students generate examples of how they have seen the impact of culture in their own lives. I have found that when having students link their real world experiences to the research in this area through the use of journal-entry writing assignments or by focused discussions with others, they are quickly quite interested in the topic of culture. To implement this, I require them to define a related theory and then explain examples which were not discussed in class within a brief write-up (1-2 pages) and I assign scholarly research articles which include culture as a theme to provide a basis for class discussions. In addition, my students often complete short thesis statement papers where they cite sources beyond the assigned ones of the course in order to build support for their own original hypotheses. This can work well in other fields beyond my field of Psychology quite well also. Culture impacts what knowledge is valued and how information is considered important. I urge all instructors to attempt to establish the importance of culture as a contextual variable for how the leaders, theories, and ideas in your own field were shaped.
Scenario-based Examples
Lastly, I use scenarios in all my classes as a way to establish a concrete sense of context to the information students are learning in each class period. Examples that are vivid such as creative yet realistic scenarios allow for students to comprehend the course content in a manner that is relevant beyond their textbooks. If used as a scenario that students must explain in writing or if requesting them to write an example of something discussed in class, this pushes students to be able to use terminology in the course within their writing which also reinforces a deeper level of learning than simple term and definition lists could do.