Utilizing WAC Pedagogy to Support Your Professional Development

Learn and Lead

Faculty introduced to Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) principles often note how implementing WAC practices may support their students’ academic development.

What teachers may not immediately realize is that WAC pedagogy can also support their own professional development in the following ways:

  1. Be More Productive

In their article Enhancing Pedagogical Productivity, Walvoort and Pool (1998) discuss how implementing WAC techniques can reduce costs in relation to outcomes. The authors argue that by varying the modes of content delivery (e.g., journal writing, group activities, and peer review), faculty can free up time previously devoted to delivering class content through lecture. Additionally, by designing scaffolded assignments and implementing WAC best-practices for grading, faculty can further free up time while improving learning outcomes. By becoming more pedagogically productive, faculty can devote more time to research, publications and other important aspects of their professional development.

  1. Expand Your Research and Publications

In conjunction to freeing up time to devote to research and writing, your experiences with WAC pedagogy can itself be the focus of your research and writing. You could examine several outcomes related to implementing WAC practices, including student interest in class topics, pass/fail rates, exam grades, writing quality, etc.

Several journals are devoted specifically to WAC pedagogy. For example:

  • Writing Across the Curriculum
  • Language connections: Writing and reading across the curriculum
  • Language and Learning Across the Disciplines

Other journals that publish WAC-related research:

  • American journal of Education
  • Assessing Writing
  • College Teaching
  • Research in the Teaching of English
  • Communication Education
  1. Be a Stronger Collaborator

Faculty often collaborate with their colleagues on projects. In the same way that WAC principles help improve student critical thinking and writing skills, applying these principles to your own work can have the same effect. For example, you may realize that it’s helpful to scaffold your own group projects, with due dates for outlines, drafts and peer reviews. Further, your feedback to collaborators may improve when you focus on higher order concerns and provide forward-looking feedback, without copy-editing your colleagues’ work.

  1. Improve Your Teacher Evaluations

Improved teaching performance is related to a teacher’s sense of satisfaction and commitment to teaching (Hughes, 2006; Peterson and White, 1992). Research further supports that student achievement is closely tied to the quality and training of the teacher (Darling-Hammond, 2000). By completing WAC training and implementing WAC pedagogy, teachers are better prepared and often increase their performance and sense of satisfaction, which in turn translates to more positive evaluations from both colleagues and students.

For example, one study by Blakeslee, Hayes and Young (1994) provides support that faculty who participated in WAC training differed significantly from non-participating faculty on attitude and teaching behavior. Specifically, participating faculty were more likely to view writing as a means for learning rather than testing, developed stronger writing assignments, and spent significantly more time answering student questions.

Positive teacher evaluations are associated with several professional development factors, including increased publication record and improved job opportunities (Feldman, 1987).

 

References

Blakeslee, A., Hayes, J., & Young, R. (1994). Evaluating training workshops in a writing across the curriculum program: method and analysis. Language and Learning Across the Disciplines, 1(2), 5-34.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2000). Teacher quality and student achievement. Education policy analysis archives, 8, 1.

Feldman, K. A. (1987). Research productivity and scholarly accomplishment of college teachers as related to their instructional effectiveness: A review and exploration. Research in higher education, 26(3), 227-298.

Hughes, V. M. (2006). Teacher evaluation practices and teacher job satisfaction (Doctoral dissertation, University of Missouri–Columbia).

Walvoord, B. E., & Pool, K. J. (1998). Enhancing pedagogical productivity. New Directions for Higher Education, 1998(103), 35-48.

Student note-taking workshop: Recap

Last week on February 10th two of our WAC fellows, Jake Cohen and Louis Lipani offered a free CityTech-wide student workshop regarding effective note taking strategies which can be found HERE. They introduced the Cornell Method to students and thoroughly explained the reasoning why this method is so useful to many people. Often students are not taught how to take notes, though this is a learned skill that is clearly pertinent to their success within the educational context. We view note taking as one of the many necessary skills college students need initial guidance on and which they can eventually master throughout their undergraduate careers. Therefore, feel free to provide the information offered here based on Jake and Louis’ efforts to your students. Better yet, take a little time within your own classrooms to discuss the importance of note taking and the empirically-based strategies mentioned in this blog. Doing this will likely allow students to realize they are not alone in being concerned about note taking or that they have not been taught this information in the past. We hope that offering this information to them will give them an understanding of how to best utilize note taking towards better comprehension and ultimately better grades in their courses. For us instructors, note taking is one more way to implement informal writing into our classrooms, which is a strategy towards increasing the amount of low-pressure writing students are doing in order to have them better learn and internalize the material.

Note taking “best practices”:

  1. Write it down: Empirical evidence based on neuroscience research suggests handwriting notes allows for better retention of information and a higher-level of understanding for the content (Jacobs 2008; James & Englehardt 2012; Mueller & Oppenheimer 2014).
  • Differentiate important from non-important information
  • Summarize and paraphrase (students should do so in their own words)
  • Use symbols, abbreviations, lines, etc. in order to show importance and speed up the writing process for notes (whatever key or style works best for an individual student)
  1. Question/Context: Questioning and putting information into context is a way to ensure deeper critical thinking. Students that feel comfortable acknowledging their questions on course content and who attempt to put the information into context will likely understand the material at a higher level later.
  • Write down questions but also your own thoughts about the material that are supplementary from the instructor’s lecture
  • In order to have better recall course information later, indicate your feelings, opinions, or simply what is occurring around you during a specific portion of the class
  1. Reflect/Summary: Reflection is a way to ensure you remind yourself about the content a second or third time and summarizing ensures you can grasp the most important parts of the class and piece them together.
  • Fit content into your previous knowledge related to it
  • Attempt to identify the themes of the lecture (overarching important aspects)
  • Reflect and attempt to summarize the class content after the class but before going to sleep that night

Technological advances to support students in handwriting notes or annotating readings:

  • Styluses and smart pens now allow for handwriting on our beloved digital devices to help bridge the gap between students’ tablet/laptop usage and the beneficial effects of handwriting (see Stern 2015 for more information on this technology which is the last link in this blog below)
  • The GoodReader App is an inexpensive ($5) way to organize PDFs and take notes on them, make annotations, and write comments

Helpful links to additional relevant sources

Cornell method of note-taking:

http://lsc.cornell.edu/LSC_Resources/cornellsystem.pdf

http://www.wyzant.com/resources/lessons/study-skills/cornell-notes

https://shp.utmb.edu/asa/Forms/cornell%20note%20taking%20system.pdf

Relevant studies:

http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/take-notes-by-hand-for-better-long-term-comprehension.html

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211949312000038#

http://absentprof.missouristate.edu/assets/WritingCenter/Wichita_and_Cornell.pdf

http://www.wsj.com/articles/handwriting-isnt-deadsmart-pens-and-styluses-are-saving-it-1423594704

 

 

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.

Writing to Calculate: Ideas for Incorporating Writing into Math Coursework

Estes (1989), in his discussion of the importance of writing in math, refers to writing as a “thinking clarifier,” in that the act of writing out a concept requires understanding that concept. This understanding may even occur in the sometimes painful process of getting a few complete sentences typed out. Unfortunately, though, “a major concern with writing projects in mathematics (and other courses as well) is that they often feel tacked on and artificial” write Parker and Mattison (2010: 47).  “The paper is something they had to do in order to receive ‘writing credit’ for a course. It’s a game and everyone is playing along” (38). Most of us—students, math faculty, and non-math faculty, can relate to this opinion, or recognize it.

Parker and Mattison astutely describe this discrepancy in attitudes toward writing, from one discipline to another, as being—in the case of math—the difference between “writing about math,” which often comes in the form of an assigned paper on a mathematician, and “writing math,” which is actually writing on math content concepts, to facilitate their absorption. Luckily, there are a number of ways to incorporate writing into the math curriculum, that are not only painless, but productive and purposeful as well. For example, they suggest a “textbook writing assignment,” which requires students to write out the mathematical equations they learn in textbook style, and also to explain why the equations are the way they are. By having students write out textbook chapters that will be distributed to the rest of the class, by way of making study materials for everyone, in this example, students are given a clear audience, beyond the professor, and an opportunity to uncover any difficulties they may be having with the material.

Alternatively, there are ways for math professors to incorporate less formal (more lower-stakes) math writing assignments, or instead to incorporate more writing into exams, and therefore into exam study guides. As Estes points out, including short-answer questions on exams need not merely be traditional math “word problems,” which are limited to a short section of the algebra curriculum. In other words, asking students to write out concepts taught, a step beyond only writing out the equations numerically, is beneficial for exams and for exercises to practice for the exams. Estes’ example prompt is as follows: “If two variables have a correlation coefficient of -0.98, explain the meanings of the negative sign and the absolute value of 0.98” (12).

While the non-mathematician reader may need to leave the details of this example aside, it is a helpful illustration of how such word problems may apply to other non-Humanities fields. For example, in my social science field, linguistics, I assign language datasets to my students, and when students volunteer a correct solution in class, I am usually obligated to ask, “and how do you know?” While our students often get the correct answer by calculating it, at other times they arrive at the answer by guessing, or—perhaps more common—by erroneously using incorrect reasoning that accidentally led them to the correct answer. We all know that this will not help them with similar questions in the future. So, this act of explaining out loud how the answer was determined is something we can all apply to our own classes. A parallel example to Estes’ (above) in my own linguistic coursework could be:

Question 1: “For the two morphemes below, identify which morpheme is inflectional and which is derivational.”

Question 2: “For the next two morphemes, explain why morpheme A is inflectional, and why morpheme B is derivational.”

My exams and assignments usually do include a “what is your evidence” question, but asking students to write this evidence out, in prose, is taking the process of writing to learn one step further.

For additional convincing and thought-provoking evidence that it is beneficial to integrate prose into math, Estes also describes an elementary math class lesson plan on fractions, in which the teacher starts with a sentence like “half of ten is five,” then replaces the numbers with digits, “half of 10 is 5,” then the remaining words with symbols, “½ x 10 = 5,” showing that the equal sign functions like the verb “to be,” and so on.

Another idea is to come up with reasons for mathematical concepts that students may not know. For example, Strogatz (2014: 287) describes the light bulbs that go off when he explains that the term “rational number” is so named for fractions like ¾ because that number is a ratio of whole numbers. He also finds it helpful to explain that “squaring” a number is so named because the results can fit in a square, like the number nine, illustrated below:

Without being able to predict exactly what would work for math professors here at City Tech, I imagine that, when I was a student in an introductory math class, I would have greatly appreciated answering an exam question such as, “Write out the meaning of and reason behind the term ‘to square a number.’ Feel free to provide examples and drawings to make your answer clear.”

What kinds of “word problems” do you use in your various disciplines?

 

References

Estes, Paul L. (June 1989). Writing across the mathematics curriculum. Writing across the Curriculum. 10–16.

Parker, Adam, and Mattison, Michael. (November 2010). The WAC Journal, 21. 37–51.

Strogatz, Steven. (March 2014). Writing about math for the perplexed and the Traumatized. Notices of the AMS, 61, 3. 286–291.

Updates + WAC Beyond City Tech

What’s new at City Tech WAC?

On Tuesday, February 18, 2014, Jacob Cohen and I presented a faculty workshop on thesis statements. If you missed it, you can view our slides here, and our handout here.

Tomorrow, Tuesday, March 11, 2014 Fellow Heather Zuber and I will be giving our next faculty workshop, “Avoiding Plagiarism and Using Library Sources,” in collaboration with Instructional Design Librarian Bronwen Densmore, and Instruction/Reference Librarian Anne Leonard. Please attend! Our other upcoming events include our workshop on working with English learners in April, and a workshop on incorporating technology, creatively, into your classes, in May. Please check out our flier with all of these workshops and information for how to RSVP, here.

In other news, you can now follow us on twitter, here.

WAC Elsewhere

It is always useful and inspiring to hear about how other institutions are promoting and continuing the WAC movement. Exploring the work of like-minded WAC philosophy-followers is validating, and fun, especially when expressed via media, and not just written articles. For example, here is a short and informative “cheat-sheet” video on WAC practices by Purdue Owl.

A great resource on WAC philosophy, and on incorporating WAC principles into your classroom, can be found at the WAC Clearing House. The Clearing House folks eloquently cover all of the topics in our work and workshops this year, plus more. One aspect they highlight well is one that is particularly relevant for faculty in our CUNY system: an assurance that adding more writing to coursework across the curriculum will not increase grading or prep time much, if at all. For example, see this link on peer review and supplemental writing assignments, and this one on how to handle responding to draft grading, with links on time-saving tips such as using shorthand for grading, and not correcting grammar too much.

For any faculty who don’t have a chance to go through these links, and even for those who do, our workshops are a useful shortcut, and they even come with lunch. We can also be contacted, as always, for an appointment for an individual consultation.

Writing to Learn

As the fall semester of 2013 draws to a close, it is useful to reflect on what we have accomplished over the course of the semester. We the Writing Across the Curriculum fellows have led three main faculty workshops since September: Effective Assignment Design, Peer Review, and Effective Grading. Despite the three varied topics of these workshops, they share a common thread, which is the WAC philosophy of “writing to learn,” and in addition, their content overlaps nicely.

In order to highlight WAC principles, I wish to focus on one particular aspect of the effective grading strategies that Jake Cohen and I discussed in our workshop on Tuesday, December 12 (the last of the semester). We went over some techniques to improve student writing and work, most of which also incidentally result in reduced grading time, which is always welcome, especially at this end-of-semester crunch grading time. To view our workshop slides, please click here, and check out the handout. (You can also visit this page to download documents from all of our workshops.) We discussed minimal marking, supportive responding when writing comments on student papers, rubrics, and planning assignments ahead of time to make grading more efficient. This last category is closely related to the two previous workshops from this semester: assignment design, clearly, and also peer review, in that having students assess each others’ work can save time, and greatly improve student writing.

This assignment design category is also the “one particular aspect” that I choose to elaborate on for this post. Among the several techniques we suggested for planning ahead to make assignments more “gradable,” one sticks out as being particularly WAC-esque: the uncollected writing assignment. The value of this notion, which is generally under-utilized by faculty in all departments, is two-fold: It is easy to see how uncollected assignments decrease the overall amount of time we spend grading work, of course, but why assign them at all? The answer lies in the foundation of WAC philosophy, which is that people learn by doing—and more specifically, by writing. So, what kind of uncollected writing do we recommend you assign, how do you enforce such assignments without collecting them, and, finally, how do students “learn by writing”?

One of the best illustrations of this concept is provided eloquently by Toby Fulwiler in “Why We Teach Writing in the First Place”: “Writing the thought on paper objectifie[s] the thought in the world… [which] even happens when I write out a grocery list—when I write down ‘eggs’ I quickly see that I also need ‘bacon.’ And so on” (127). This concept works well for professors across the curricula: Think about assigning a five-minute, in-class free-write asking students to describe course content covered in the past month/week/hour, by way of ensuring that they can articulate it well for whatever type of exam they have coming up, and by way of allowing them to discover holes in their understanding of what you have covered so far. If you are concerned that they won’t oblige the assignment without the potential for reward, then you can choose, for example, to select three at random to read aloud in class, or to be posted on your Blackboard/OpenLab page that same evening.

We hope that those who incorporate this technique will ultimately find that the grading process of the final papers you assign will be ameliorated, in that the students have now had a chance to “practice” or “train” for the final writing process, something akin to athletes who could never run a marathon without similar training, without you having been required to grade an intermediary draft. Ideally, as students come across “holes” in their own comprehension of your course content, they may come to you with more questions, or make better use of your office hours. I know that they will arrive at a deeper understanding of your course material in the same way that I have done regarding WAC philosophy, in the process of writing out this blog post.

Happy Holidays!

WAC resources

Want more WAC resources? One of our favorite places for WAC materials is the WAC Resource Center on the CUNY Academic Commons. This site houses materials from WAC fellow training, as well as materials fellows have produced.

Another great resource is the WAC Clearninghouse at Colorado State. There you’ll find more information, including links to WAC publications, programs, conferences, and research.

If you find something helpful in either of those websites, or if you find another one helpful, please let us know by adding a comment below–we would love to hear what you find useful!