Writing Through Blocks

Students have many feelings about writing, from the whole range available to them. Many students have several feelings, ranging from intrigue to enjoyment to anxiety to fear. Sometimes it’s not even clear what feelings they’re having. In every class I teach, I make sure to mention that it’s possible to have any number of feelings about writing, sometimes many at once, and that they can change on a dime. I make sure to mention that advanced graduate students and faculty share their feelings, both good and bad. I make sure to say that as much as I love writing, sometimes I also hate it. Hating it doesn’t negate that love; it just goes alongside it for a while.

Even writer’s block, as a concept and as a phrase, is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy that can bring out a whole host of feelings about writing. It can inspire frustration in beginning writers even when they didn’t initially sense it. (The word “deadline” works similarly.) It can also help name a very real experience, though; sometimes naming things makes them easier to handle. I talk to my classes very openly about that feeling of not knowing what to write, or not knowing which word to use, or judging one’s own ideas before they even get down on paper. I remind them that part of the challenge of college writing is being able to come up with an effective, supported argument that responds to the assignment’s parameters. It doesn’t also have to be the be-all, end-all of their scholarly output. If it were, I’d worry I didn’t have anything more to teach them.

So how can you help students in your classroom who might be handling a variety of feelings about writing and struggling with different versions of writer’s block?

Scaffold the assignment. Scaffolding is a central principle of WAC pedagogy because, just like with a building under construction, it supports an in-progress piece of writing by instituting steps to the finish line. It gives you as an instructor the chance to make sure that students understand those steps, from pre-writing to constructing a thesis statement to outlining an argument to producing a rough draft. It also helps avoid procrastination and last-minute scrambling on the part of students.

Visualize. Another great way to get students to set aside their anxiety, or to lean into it, is to use Sondra Perl’s “Guidelines for Composing” are a time-honored meditation exercise in acknowledging the complex mix of feelings writing can inspire. The full Guidelines are a series of twelve instructions, prompts, and questions. The gloss that Perl wrote is:

  • Relax, stretch, clear your mind, try to attend quietly to what’s inside–and note any distractions or feelings that may be preventing you from writing.
  • Start with a list of things you could write about. Often we can’t find what we really want to write about till the third or fourth item–or not till that subtle after–question, “Is there something else I might have forgotten?”
  • As you are writing, periodically pause and look to that felt sense somewhere inside you—that feeling, image, or word that somehow represents what you are trying to get at—and ask whether your writing is really getting at it. This comparing or checking back (“Is this it?”) will often lead to a productive “shift” in your mind (“Oh, now I see what it is I want to say”).
  • Finally, toward the end, ask, “What’s this all about? Where does this writing seem to be trying to go?” And especially ask, “What’s missing? What haven’t I written about?”

The full Guidelines are available here.

Freewrite in class. As part of your scaffolding, set aside some time at the beginning or end of a class session and have them jot down ideas. As with any freewrite, instruct them to keep their pen moving on the page, even if their sentences verge away from the paper topic. The next week, adapting Perl’s “Guidelines,” have them freewrite about one of those ideas. (You shouldn’t need more than ten minutes for either phase of this exercise in a given class session.)

Draw. Sometimes the best way to figure out ideas and words is to take the words out altogether. When students are in their head about whether their ideas are good enough and whether their sentences are strong enough, just letting them mind map or draw or even doodle can help pull them out of their anxiety and into their creativity.

Blog. Sharing ideas in writing can be less anxiety-producing in community. If students think about their audience as broader than just their professor, sometimes they are less inclined to try to please, or to write what you what they think you think they should write. Pre-writing or brainstorming in blog form has the added benefit of allowing students to give feedback to each other. Although peer review has the same effect, the added benefit of blog commenting is that it puts students’ work into a different kind of audience framework.

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Encouraging Effective Reading Strategies

In this post I would like to discuss some strategies for turning students into better, more active readers. By teaching our students how to engage deeply and actively with the texts they read, we are preparing them to be critical thinkers and thoughtful writers. This process begins with the instructor taking on both reading and writing instruction as her responsibility. The list below draws from my own teaching experience and from chapter nine of John C. Bean’s Engaging Ideas (titled “Helping Students Read Difficult Texts”).

  1. Model your own reading process. As a college-level instructor, you are an expert and experienced reader. Allow your students to benefit from your knowledge! On the first day of class, pass out a guide describing your own reading practices. You may describe where you read, what you read with (pen and paper? tablet? computer?), and where and how you take notes (do you prefer marginalia or a reading notebook?). Most importantly, explain what you do when you get stuck, confused, or frustrated in your reading. Your descriptions of how you overcome such stumbling blocks may be general or discipline-specific; either way, they will help prepare your students for the inevitable difficulties of reading complex texts. (See below for the reading guide I provide for my literature students. Feel free to alter it to reflect good reading practices in your discipline.)
  2. Explain the genres and writing conventions of your discipline. Your students encounter varieties of texts in their studies and their lives. Prepare your students for your reading material by explaining what kinds of texts you will assign (ie. scholarly articles and textbook chapters, essays and poems) and describing the best strategies for reading them, keeping in mind the distinct methods we use to read different texts.  Similarly, you should teach your students how to identify the writing conventions of your discipline. If you assign articles from a peer-reviewed science journal, you should explain how to identify an author’s hypothesis, methodology, results, etc.; if you assign fiction, you might devote class time to discussing narrative point of view and irony.
  3. Avoid lecturing over readings. Though it is important to review difficult passages in class, the instructor should stifle her urge to “lecture over” or “explain” the text to her students. Over-explaining a text, argues Bean, teaches students that they do not need to read the assigned material (Bean 168). Instead of explaining the reading material to your students, encourage them to read actively and bring their own explanations, conclusions, and questions to class.
  4. Create active reading assignments. You can goad your students into reading and participating actively by constructing low-stakes reading assignments. For example, you may require your students to submit reading logs or response notebooks that record the questions, comments, and insights that occur as they read. These assignments may also be tailored to address the specific reading troubles your students encounter. If your students have difficulty comprehending a writer’s diction and syntax, you may ask them to write “translations” of particular moments of the text or to produce a glossary of new vocabulary. If your students have trouble comprehending the structure of a writer’s argument, you may ask them to provide a paragraph-by-paragraph analysis of what the text “says” versus what it “does” (Bean 170-1). Finally, a warning: reading quizzes are sometimes necessary, but recent studies suggest that they promote “surface” rather than “deep” reading (Bean 168). Keep in mind that our goal should be to produce students who have an active, critical relationship to the texts they read and who do not merely search for “right answers.”

Example: A Guide for Effective Reading (Literature)

Reading a work of literature is not like reading a text message, a menu, or a street sign. Whereas those forms of media merely communicate information (“I’m not home yet,” “All sandwiches come with fries or salad”), literary texts present a narrative. The word “narrative” refers not only to the events of a story but also to the various elements that make it up, including the narrator’s language, descriptions of setting and character, a diversity of moods and emotions, and a multiplicity of philosophical and psychological vantage-points. Such a complex work requires more patience, concentration, and participation from its readers than other forms of written language. Please consider the following recommendations in this spirit.

  1. Always read with a writing utensil and a piece of paper. Mark passages that are interesting, exciting, humorous, confusing, or which you would like to revisit later. You should draw from these notes during class discussions, while studying for tests, and while composing your final paper.
  2. If you prefer to read on a tablet, use an annotation feature to highlight important moments in the text. Do not read on your cell phone.
  3. Use a dictionary to look up any words that you do not understand. If you do not look up the meaning of a word, you will never know what you are missing.
  4. If you do not understand a sentence or a paragraph, re-read it. If you still do not understand it, read it aloud. This is especially helpful when reading plays or poetry.
  5. Sometimes you have to re-read whole stories, chapters, or books to grasp their meaning. You will be amazed how much clearer a difficult text can become when you know what to look for.
  6. Steer clear of reader’s guides such as SparkNotes, which are marketed to lazy high schoolers and are often oversimplified and inaccurate. More importantly, these summaries leave out of the most important part of any work of literature: its language. If you need help thinking through a text, I am happy to recommend useful essays by qualified writers.
  7. Lastly, please write down any questions that occur to you while reading and share them during class discussion. If you are confused about something, your classmates probably are, too.

Works Cited

Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. 2nd Ed. Jossey-Bass, 2011.

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The Good Old-Fashioned Notebook

Scaffolding assignments are very helpful for guiding students toward completing a long essay, but what can students do more independently to keep the momentum going?  Well, the plain old way of carrying around a notebook to jot down ideas shouldn’t be dismissed (a digital notebook would be fine too for those who would prefer that).  The student can even make “diary” types of entries from time to time if necessary: if there are days when the student is coming up against a wall, then he/she can write a few sentences to say that it has been difficult making headway with part X of the essay.  At the very least, a problem has been identified.  You as the professor can use this assignment as a low-stakes one that will not be graded but will be collected once or twice.  Ask your students to spend about a half hour on this activity three or four days per week.  Inspire them by saying that this can help their ideas to marinate and that they might come across a nugget when they look back at what they wrote a week ago.  This assignment has the possibility of making students who procrastinate feel guilty about procrastinating, but that can be viewed in a good way—it might push them to write a few lines eventually!


On a more abstract level, you can tell your students that an essay, coming from the Old French word essai/essay, is more or less “The action or process of trying or testing” (OED) and “A trial, testing, proof; experiment” (OED)—this can help your students feel that it would be okay to write in a messy way at the notebook stage, if they felt at first any pressure to come up with sparklingly great ideas.  If students worry that their notebook entries might wander away from the topic too much, then let them know that part of the trek to a “finished” essay involves trying out different ideas (in fact, it can be argued that no essay is ever truly finished—there is always more to explore).  The student who recognizes how some ideas are wandering a bit at the notebook stage will have more time to wrestle with rewriting them, as opposed to making the discovery when he/she is scrambling to complete an essay near the deadline.  Once the student sees the wandering that is happening in his/her notes from a week ago, then he/she can work on tightening up the argument.  Lastly, it is most likely better to accumulate a mess of notes that can be restructured than to stare at a blank page when the essay deadline is looming.  Of course the above notions of what an essay can be need not be mentioned in class if the subject that you are teaching requires students to write papers using a particularly structured format.  Nonetheless, you can still tweak this notebook assignment in whichever way that you may see fit for your course.



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Feedback: What is it good for?

Everyone has experienced the visceral sensations of heart racing and stomach churning that accompany receiving a returned paper covered in red markings. It is perhaps no surprise that red, the color that instructors have historically selected to critique writing, has been shown to raise blood pressure. For many of us, receiving feedback can be difficult under most circumstances. Yet there is something uniquely personal about having our writing critiqued. As writing reflects our best effort to communicate our inner thoughts, criticism of writing can quickly escalate from consideration of skills to a judgment about the soundness of our thoughts and ideas. This can feel threatening. Considering the power differential that inherently exists between professors and students, heavy critiques can leave students feeling insulted and dehumanized. In this post, I will argue that certain kinds of feedback to written assignments can interfere with course aims and offer suggestions for providing positive and constructive written feedback to student work.


Grading papers is time-consuming and can test the nerves. Because of the need to grade many papers quickly, feedback is often cryptic or incomplete. Within the context of a time-crunch, encountering similar or repeated mistakes can be doubly frustrating and cloud the instructor’s judgment, resulting in sarcastic or harsh comments. It should be no surprise that students are often quite perceptive of these shortcomings. In an effort to characterize this, Spandel and Stiggins (1990) interviewed students about their reactions to common instructor comments, such as “needs to be more concise,” “be more specific,” “you haven’t really thought this through,” and “try harder”. Students reacted with a range of responses, such as “I thought you wanted details and support,” “I tried and it didn’t pay off,” ”I guess I blew it,” and “maybe I am trying as hard as I can”. The authors concluded that negative comments often left students “bewildered, hurt, or angry.”


It is important to recognize the ways in which students’ negative feelings may interfere with course goals. The cognitive science literature shows that the experience of negative emotions is associated with activation of the physiological fear/stress system. Once activated, the amygdala, or primitive “emotional brain”, has the effect of momentarily dampening activity in the hippocampus, another primitive structure highly implicated in learning and memory. Accordingly, meaningful learning is blocked when students feel emotionally aroused.


There are multiple tools instructors can use to avoid this outcome. As a starting point, it is helpful to recall the purpose of commenting on written assignments: to facilitate improvement. This is most applicable when an assignment is scaffolded through multiple drafts. Comments on a draft have the ability to provide targeted instruction, helpful advice, and honest encouragement that motivate the student to continue. Having students refine and reconceptualize thoughts through the process of writing multiple drafts can be highly didactic. To that end, instructor comments can be instrumental in guiding the student towards higher learning.


When commenting on a student draft, a series of hierarchical questions can help maintain focus. The highest order questions surround whether the overarching goals of the assignment are being met. If the paper is so far off target, other comments are irrelevant. After establishing that the paper is on track, the instructor should focus on whether there is a clear thesis, how effectively the evidence supports an argument, and whether the overall organization is coherent. From there, it is helpful to focus on how clearly the writing is conveying and relating arguments. Specifically, Bean (2011) explains that writing ought be organized so that new thoughts/ideas build on previously state information with which the reader has already been familiarized. Finally, questions of grammar, punctuation, and spelling should be addressed. In order to maximizing the likelihood that students receive this feedback well, it is helpful to balance positive and negative elements. Returning to Spandel and Stiggins (1990) study, they found that positive and highly specific comments contributed to increased confidence and motivation to continue working on the paper.


If written feedback during the drafting stage is designed to help shape and motivate, comments on a final paper serve the goal of judging. Presumably, the guidance provided on earlier drafts facilitated student learning while improving the final outcome. To that end, comments on a final paper should be focused on larger themes and higher-order skills. A final paper often includes an end comment that both justifies the grade and helps the writer understand exactly how the paper could have been stronger. Drawing on the research discussed above, a helpful format is to couch the feedback between a discussion of strengths and recommendations for revisions. The feedback itself should be comprised of a brief summary of a few issues. A laundry list of problems at this stage suggests that there was a lapse somewhere along the writing process.


In summary, instructors should provide careful and thoughtful feedback designed to encourage learning and maximize student motivation. Negative comments on written work can have unintended consequences and interfere with pedagogical goals. During initial drafts, feedback should be presented hierarchically to encourage further development of ideas. Comments on a final paper should be more concise and targeted toward encouraging better work going forward.

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Join us in celebrating the WAC Digital Initiative Certification Launch next week Tuesday 11/14/2017!

Digital Certification Launch Party Invite

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Revision

When my students ask me how they can improve their writing, my answer is almost always the same: revise. Young writers, inexperienced and impetuous, bristle at the thought of recasting what they have only just molded. What person devoid of masochistic tendencies wants to revisit and redo a completed writing assignment? But since part of my job as an educator is to deliver bad news, here it is: all the acceptable writing I have done has been on the second, third, or fourth take.

The good news is that effective revision practices are easy to develop and, in my experience, habit-forming. (I could spend the rest of the day rewriting this blog post and, like Hamlet in his nutshell, call myself a king of infinite space.) Yet I suspect that I have too often taken the meaning of revision for granted, even as I have over-explained more arcane terms like “iambic pentameter” and “chiasmus.” So I will begin by defining revision as a new draft of writing that treats the initial piece as its courageous guide. A productive revision is an opportunity for the writer to revisit her assignment with the experience of someone who has been there before. The writer should aim to produce a fresh piece of writing that retains her first draft’s virtues but avoids its missteps.

I should emphasize that what I mean by revision is not merely swapping one word for another, experimenting with word order, or replacing punctuation marks. That kind of textual tinkering can be a playful method for stepping into a revision — or a satisfying way to conclude one — but by itself is no substitute for a comprehensive rewrite.

Below is a list of revision exercises that I have picked up in my years as a student and a teacher. I hope that these tips will help my students transform their drafts — which are often more praise-worthy than they suspect —  into successful papers.

Revision: A User’s Guide

  1. Let your paper sit. The first step of rewriting is to separate yourself from your work. Ideally, you should allow yourself a day or two away before you reread your draft. If you are working on a deadline, you should still afford yourself a short break. Go for a walk, make a cup of coffee, or play with your cat. (If you don’t have cat, consider getting one. A feline is a writer’s best friend.) This time away gives you distance from your work’s errors and weaknesses, and combats your brain’s impulse to read what you meant to write, rather than what is actually on the page.
  2. Print a hard copy and read it aloud. Don’t be embarrassed! Reading your paper aloud forces you to review your work slowly and carefully and encourages you to engage with your prose style. As you read, ask yourself: where are my sentences awkward, unwieldy, or choppy? Use your ear as a tool. If a sentence sounds strange, you should probably rewrite it. Similarly, make note of the aspects of your paper that strike you as successful. You should try to capture the tone and style of these effective moments in your second draft.
  3. Write a one-sentence summary of each paragraph of your paper. This mini-exercise, which you can perform in the margins of your essay or on a separate sheet of paper, encourages you to take a bird’s-eye view of your argument’s structure. As you reread these summaries, look for sentences that stand out as repetitive, extraneous, or out-of-place. Similarly, ask yourself if there are any gaps in your paper. If your structure is strong, your one-sentence summaries should read as a coherent outline of your paper.
  4. Write a revision as a new word document. Using your old draft (which at this point should be covered with notes, corrections, and marginalia), begin your second draft on a blank document. This crucial part of the writing process ensures that your revision is a new occasion for writing and not a tweaked version of your first draft. As you write, consult your chain of one-sentence summaries and ask yourself whether they still reflect the paper you wish to write. If they do, consider incorporating these summaries as topic sentences (or elsewhere). If they don’t, then allow your new draft to break free of the old one. The beauty of a second (and third and fourth) draft is in the way it deviates from your initial efforts.
  5. Try to take pleasure in the process. Consider your revision as a chance to play with your ideas again and use them to build something new. Take comfort in the fact that writing, unlike many aspects of life, permits second chances.
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At the crossroads, teaching the “Math-y” stuff to the self proclaimed non-math-y.

Hugo, my Colonial Literature of the Americas professor once introduced me to the class (I was a senior in a freshman class that I hadn’t come around to taking) as:

“This is Pablo, you will find that as a Literature student he is a great Mathematician, and I’m sure that in Mathematics they say he is a great Literature scholar”

It is indeed true that I very often have found myself at the intersection of disciplines, first as a dual Literature and Mathematics student in college (which happens to be the reason my schedule was too crammed to take Colonial literature until I was a senior and well known by the professor in question);  later as a graduate student in Linguistics with an expertise in semantics and then in computational linguistics, becoming the odd one now in the middle between the Computer Science and Linguistics departments.

Because of this confluence of disciplines, I have often been called to teach the courses that lie in the fringes, the ones the students feel they are not good at, or, to put it differently, the ones they always feel they “didn’t sign up for” when deciding a field of study. In humanities this means teaching the “math-y” subjects. Mathy in a broad sense of course, since I count my time T.A-ing for the latin and linguistics classes  as the start of this trend. In general, I count here as math-y, courses that required to learn a different formalism to the usual ones in the field, formal languages and strict formal rules, like grammar or formal logic.

If you want to find the math-y subjects in a humanities department it’s easy, just look for the ones no one wants to take, in Linguistics it’s Syntax or Semantics and nowadays Programing (often disguised under a title like Methods in Computational Linguistics as to lull the students into a sense of security). Students taking these classes get exposed to new formalisms, have to handle formulae and derivation processes, new codes that seem inaccessible and often inscrutable or arbitrary, the most common reaction to this is panic.

Teaching a subject that produces this kind of reaction is a mixed experience, on the one side, the frustration of your students can easily transfer to you, they will constantly say that they are no good for this, they will see their efforts as fruitless and because of this stop trying, they will often not mind having bad grades and even having to re-take the class.  More than once have I heard: “I failed Syntax but most people fail it once right?” or “All I care is to get a passing grade and forget semantics, after all it is not my area.” When you see your students stop caring about actually learning your subject it is easy to stop caring about actually teaching it.

On the other hand, this unpopularity makes it all the more rewarding when students finally “get it”, not only in the accomplishment you feel but in the accomplishment you see them feel. These courses very often feature an “aha!” moment, when the student suddenly realizes they can wrap their head around the formalism and use it to their advantage. When students perform well in a task that they once deemed impossible their happiness is contagious too.    

There is often this idea that you somehow have to suffer through the first stages of these processes to come out the other end tempered, that the moment of enlightenment will come after enough tears have been shed (a very judaeo-christian approach if I may say so). I have even seen instructors tell their programming students that, in their first semester, programming often brought them to tears too; as if this was some sort of gauntlet that has to be overcome through tears and blood. This feeling is often reinforced by older students who have already suffered through the test. This is, in my opinion and experience, the wrong approach, the students can be eased into these formalism in ways that are more gentle and effective, it does require however a lot of patience and time but this will save effort and time in the long run. If your class is seen as a gauntlet, don’t take pride in it, work to change this perception.

  In teaching these subjects, I have come to realize that the reactions of your students must be tampered from day one, any moment spent by them brooding about their inadequateness will mean extra work later, when you have to undo that feeling of powerlessness. Empowering the students starts with understanding that they come already with their own formalisms and you can piggyback on them. The students must come to perceive that the “new formulation” is nothing but a reformulation of the old ones. They already think in ways that may be translated into this new field.

Think for instance of teaching formal logic to linguistics students, the traditional way to do this starts introducing formulae and truth tables as a new tool that must be learned by heart. However, propositional logic follows rules very similar to those of natural language, there is a syntax to be followed and you can ease the students with examples from natural language. I, for instance, always talk about the necessity for verbs in natural languages when speaking about the necessity of a relation sing in mathematical formulae, an equation is no more than a sentence and when a student understands this they relate the new formalism to existing structures thus lifting the feeling of newness and inadequacy.

This approach has, of course, to be refined for every class and even for every background or student in your class, which I realize might be a tall order and will take a lot of time, especially at the beginning of the semester. All the time spent in introducing basic notions so that they articulate with students’ previous expertise will however be rewarded eventually. Avoiding any complaining will be the first boon; in making the class feel more tailored to your student’s backgrounds you are eliminating a lot of the objections and that feeling that your class does not really belong in the field. I guarantee that this will lead your class into a more efficient learning process that will make the late semester, when the more difficult material is introduced, way more manageable.

In my teaching experience, it has become evident that most problems with formal languages originate from an incomplete understanding of the concepts that underlie them. Even engineering students will often mislabel any mathematical expression as an equation or fail to provide accurate definitions of every symbol that they use. In math-y courses for humanities this gets even worse, there is a propensity to use lax language and jump to a formal representation only as a formalism, a set of symbols that you don’t truly understand but have valiantly learn to operate on. Even students that show no difficulties on the surface are prone to this, very algorithmically minded students will often process semantic derivations or sets of equations without having an inkling of an idea about what it is that happens between line and line of formalism or how to put their final answer in words.

One of the best approaches to mend this structural problem can be (you probably guessed it) writing. Asking your students to explain how a problem gets formalized, what the result of the derivation means or what the definitions of different symbols are can be a huge help to bridge their understanding. You will never see a math or semantics paper that is just streams of equations (granted a few exceptions, but these are often the bad papers). Why then do math or semantics homework so often take this exact form? Don’t jump to the formalism and the algorithm, have the students explain what the symbols mean, ease them into being comfortable with the transitions, have them translate back and forth. In my time teaching semantics I often implemented this by doing the exercises on the board and having the students explain the reasoning. I now realize that I needed to go one step further, people hand wave when they speak and space out when others speak, low stake writing might have been the key. If the students realize that formal language is just an abbreviation of something that might as well be written in full sentences, not only will they get it, but they will also come to cherish it (after all, writing equations is so much easier than writing text).

I believe this hand in hand approach, between making formalism friendlier by taking the time to relate it to the student’s already existing frameworks and using WAC methods to cement a solid understanding of this formalism, although time consuming, proves way better at introducing “math-y stuff” to all students, but is exceptionally suited  to all the ones that would have previously declared themselves naturally incompetent for math (not to use some of the more expressive language that I have heard over the years to describe this “disability”).

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Strategies for Evaluating Student’s Work

“What will I gain from your class as a – insert non-social science – major?” As an ice-breaker, I end every first class of the semester by answering anonymous questions written on index cards. As an anthropology instructor for the past 4 years of a 300-level core-requirement, many of my students are from outside my discipline. Every semester students question the usefulness of an anthropology course, assuming we will discuss some exotic society far-far away. As educators, we want our students to engage with the course materials we have carefully prepared. And dare I say, fine tune their critical thinking skills. But what does that mean and how do we as educators ensure that students, regardless of their educational backgrounds, benefit from a course they simply enrolled in to fulfill a course requirement? In addition to preparing clear course assignments that encourage student autonomy, I found grading is an effective way to evaluate, communicate and motivate students.

Ethnography, the presentation of empirical data on human and animal societies, is at the heart of anthropology. Therefore, anthropology courses tend to incorporate writing assignments, both formal and informal, into course requirements. For an extended discussion of formal/informal writing assignments and scaffolding please see Yosefa Ehrlich’s “How I learned to stop worrying and love statistics” https://openlab.citytech.cuny.edu/writingacrossthecurriculum/2017/10/02/how-i-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-love-statistics/ . In my course, I require students write several reading responses over the course of the semester. The goal of these responses is to develop students’ critical thinking skills through writing. In line with the principles of Writing Across the Curriculum, this exercise requires students to comprehend course materials to anchor their arguments. Typically, I ask students to briefly summarize the text’s main argument and supporting evidence and their thoughts. Students are provided a grading rubric outlining the goal of each assignment and my expectations. However, students often comment “I don’t know how you grade, so I hope this is alright” or “English is not my first language so I am worried” when handing in their first written assignment. These comments demonstrate how subjective grading is and how difficult students find it to imagine a reader’s response in advance. Will they be graded harshly for grammatical errors? How important is communicating their ideas?

I have struggled with responding to student’s writing, constantly questioning what do I want my students to get out of this exercise. How do I account for variation in my students writing which ranges from polished thoughtful pieces to providing exhaustive summaries of someone else’s claims? My colleagues suggested I direct students to the CUNY writing center. Let’s face it we are overworked, overwhelmed, have heavy teaching loads, personal lives and grading is time consuming! BUT, what if I put myself in my student’s shoes and rephrase that question. Asking what type of feedback do I benefit from or want from colleagues regarding my own writing? Would I want to be sent to the CUNY writing center?

As writers (in whatever capacity that is) we seek thoughtful and constructive commentary that raises important questions from the reader’s perspective. We want to know that our ideas have been conveyed clearly. We also seek validation through the rigorous academic peer-review process and so do our students. While there is no definitive way of knowing the impact of our comments on student’s writing, the Writing Across the Curriculum tradition has devised several strategies for effective grading while accounting for time constraints.

Written feedback

I must admit before attending a Writing Across the Curriculum event, I employed a heavy grading hand, hyper-correcting student’s assignments. I believed that this level of feedback would lead to improvements in student’s writing. This strategy was mildly successful. Some students did improve in subsequent assignments, others continued to make the same errors. One philosophy that Writing Across the Curriculum emphasizes is rather than commenting on everything wrong with an assignment, overwhelming students into a state of paralysis, instructors should limit their comments to the major changes they want to see. Focusing first on the higher-order concerns of ideas, organization, development and clarity rather than focus on sentence level errors or lower-order concerns (Bean 2011:66-86). While strategies for grading can vary across disciplines and faculty, one useful time saving strategy for grading is to organize your expectations into high-order concerns and lower-order concerns.

High order concerns/Lower-order concerns

Different elements of a written assignment can be categorized into higher-order concerns and lower-order concerns. This strategy allows for instructors to prioritize the most important components of student’s papers. In other words, instructors can save time by providing commentary on “big picture” elements. Focusing on higher-order concerns can also help minimize lower-order issues. Students that are more comfortable with course concepts, methods and readings tend to make fewer lower-order grammatical errors.

Higher-order concerns include:

  • thesis statement, quality of argument or ideas,
  • Evidence used to support claims,
  • Logic of conclusions,
  • Organization and development of paper,
  • Demonstrates understanding of course materials.

Then, you can turn your attention to low-order concerns, which include:

  • sentence structure,
  • punctuation,
  • vocabulary/word choice,
  • spelling,
  • proper use of citations.

The level of detail dedicated to Lower-order concerns are at the instructor’s discretion. They can range from line by line edits, a general comment at the end of the assignment, an in-class discussion in lieu of written feedback or developing a key for students to reference. For example, students in my course often use the term “modern” to describe western societies. Rather than correct each student’s paper, I held a brief in-class discussion on word choice and why words matter. In terms of minimalizing the time spent marking, an option is to develop a key for students to reference. For example, placing a word within brackets [incorrect word] refers to the use of an incorrect word.

Peer Review

Whether in class or online, peer review is an effective way to share the workload. For the most part instructor feedback is often understood as criticism, peer-review workshops provide students with a different type of constructive feedback that they may be more receptive to. One benefit of peer review is that students develop their own ideas while the process of reviewing another students’ work provides insight into the types of components needed to communicate findings and/or arguments effectively. Instructors can provide students with prompt questions to guide the discussion and ensure students are getting the most out of the workshop. Peer review workshops can take many forms but generally students can be partnered and exchange drafts in class, online or ahead of time to maximize class time. Students can submit drafts early in the writing process, such as an abstract, a two-sentence thesis, or a prospectus. For more on the benefits of peer review please see Claire Hoogendoorn’s “The Benefits of Peer Review” https://openlab.citytech.cuny.edu/writingacrossthecurriculum/2015/05/26/the-benefits-of-peer-review/.

In conclusion, there are many advantages to evaluating students’ work in a manner that supports and provides students with concrete ways to make revisions and encourage student accountability. Regardless of one’s discipline writing is both a process of critical thinking and a product that communicates the result of critical thinking. Through grading we can guide our students to become more effective writers and in turn critical thinkers.

Please check our Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) website for faculty resources and upcoming workshops regarding assignment design, developing a writing intensive syllabus and more. If you are interested in discussing grading strategies please join us at our “Minimal Marking and Effective Grading” faculty workshop on Tuesday November 28th from 1-2:15pm (location TBA).

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How I learned to stop worrying and love statistics

I would like to propose a harmless exercise in fear-induction.

Approach 5 people at random and ask them their feelings about or experiences with statistics. Observe the signs of visceral reaction. Note the rapid change of facial expression: the anxious wrinkling of the forehead, the fearful widening of the eyes, and the distasteful downturn of the mouth. Behold the shoulder tensing, heavy sighing, and gut clenching. Steady yourself for the diatribes about how many majors were avoided or doctoral degrees went unearned because of the insurmountable obstacle of statistics.

As a statistics instructor for the past 3 years, I have been met with the entire spectrum of reactions, from disbelief to outright hostility to subdued dejection. In fact, I open my class each semester by recounting one such conversation to my students. Without belaboring the details, it involved an uncle at a family gathering, a long-winded account of his “college days” and an overturned bowl of soup.

Needless to say, the challenge of teaching statistics extends beyond the mere instruction of complex and abstract concepts. All statistics instructors must function as dual teachers and psychotherapists. Creating a safe environment, scaffolding implementation of new techniques, and working collaboratively to achieve goals are all essential to ensuring student buy-in and improving academic outcomes. In line with the Writing Across the Curriculum tradition and Karen Y. Holmes’ 2011 article, I argue that incorporating both formal and informal writing into statistics courses can serve three simultaneous functions that facilitate student learning and (dare I say) improve the blighted public image of statistics! I will argue that use of writing assignments can: 1) deepen understanding of course material, 2) improve statistical reasoning skills, and 3) reduce anxiety surrounding the material.

Low-stakes assignments to deepen conceptual understanding
There is perhaps no gentler tune to the ear of an anxious statistics student than the phrase “this will not be graded.” Incorporating low-stakes, informal writing assignments into your statistics course will increase students’ familiarity with course material, consolidate complex concepts, and reinforce the importance of clear and concise writing. By promising students that these assignments will not be graded for content, but rather for completion and/or effort, you can also help allay their anxieties while improving class participation and attendance. Here are several ideas for such assignments:

Entrance and Exit Slips (Stromberg & Ramanathan, 1996)
Pose short questions to students at either the beginning or ending of class to complete on index cards. Questions can cover course material, such as “Provide an example where the median would be a more appropriate measure of central tendency than the mean.” They can also probe for student understanding. For example, asking “What was one concept from today’s lecture you don’t understand” will help the instructor gauge students’ progress and allot class time to relevant topics. By writing in the small space allotted in an index cards, students will also become more adept at conveying ideas with brevity. Answers will be graded 0 (absent, completely off-topic) or 1 (attempts to answer topic, provides reasonable response). This practice has been shown to substantially increase class attendance and was positively received by 90% of students sampled in one class (Stromberg & Ramanathan, 1996).

Compare and Contrast Assignments (Holmes, 2011)
One of the common points of confusion in my statistics classes surrounds terminology. What’s the difference between Type I and Type II error? How does the alpha level relate to the critical regions? How do I differentiate between the independent and dependent variable? Writing is a wonderful tool for detangling complex relationships between concepts. Pose short writing assignments in class asking students to spend 5 minutes identifying the similarities and differences between related concepts. Have students swap assignments and peer review. Then review the correct answers together to ensure accurate comprehension and consider using visual aids, such as flow charts. To make the material stick, consider dividing the class into two groups; assign each group one concept (e.g., the independent variable group v. the dependent variable group). Ask them to list factors that identify their unique group and have the students engage in a mini debate about their relative value.

A Meaningful Paragraph (Jordan, 2008)
This short assignment can be posed two or three times during the semester. Created by the entomologist Elaine Backus, writing a meaningful paragraph involves crafting a paragraph that coherently incorporates several key terms. For example, ask students to write a paragraph using the following terms: population, sample, data and variable (Holmes, 2011). Ask them to couch the paragraph in a real context (e.g., in reporting on a recent study) that demonstrates they understand the relationship between these concepts. To grade, assign 1 point for each concept that was clearly explained.

Six O’clock Evening News Assignments (Beins, 1993)
How often have we heard students ask, “but how is this used in the real world?” Nip this line of questioning in the bud by providing students with a data set, asking them to perform the appropriate statistical analyses to answer the empirical question and then prepare a one-page press release that is entirely free of statistical terminology. Ask them how they would present this information on the six o’clock evening news. Setting the expectation that they are writing for the general public will help them minimize jargon and realize their role as daily consumers of statistical information.

Formal writing assignments to improve statistical reasoning skills
Many statistics courses include a formal paper assignment that involves conducting or proposing an experiment and writing an APA-style laboratory report. Stromberg and Ramanthan (1996) found that while poor grades in such assignments were at times related to students not understanding the material, more often, grades suffered because students did not read the instructions carefully, presented opinions rather than arguments, and failed to formulate facts into a coherent thesis. To address these issues, here are several tips:

1.  Improve students’ comprehension of empirical journal articles by providing a      worksheet that helps guide them through the process (Dunn, 1996). For example, enumerate several concepts they should identify throughout the paper: motivation/rationale, hypothesis statements, proposed methods to test aims, main statistical results, discussion of results couched in terms of significance etc. Provide a skeleton outline that they can complete with this information to help them become more familiar with the process of reading empirical articles.

2.  Scaffold the assignment through having students complete a skeleton outline of the paper. This will be worth 10 points of the final paper. Craft careful and thorough prompts to help them complete each section. Do not leave your students guessing about what kinds of answers you are seeking. Identify which sections should include numbers and which should be relatively free of statistical jargon. Provide feedback in the form of reflective prompts for incorrect answers (e.g., “What makes this the dependent variable? Is it being manipulated or measured?”).

3.  Spend one class session engaging in peer evaluation to review first drafts. Have students bring 2 copies of a draft to class. They submit one copy to the instructor for 1 point. The other copy is swapped with classmates. Provide students the same evaluation rubric you plan to use for grading and ask them to grade one another’s work. Award 1 point for completing a thoughtful evaluation of peers’ work. Peer evaluations have been shown to minimize the likelihood that students lose points for basic mistakes (e.g., not reading the instructions carefully) (Stromberg and Ramanathan, 1996). It also gives students a sense of their peers’ performance, which may be reinforcing for strong students or motivating for weaker students. Finally, it teaches students the process of writing more than one draft.

Self-Reflection to Alleviate Anxiety
Holmes (2011) proposes assigning a journal to students at the outset of a statistics class where they can engage in reflection on their progress in the course. By writing about their worries, particularly before exams, they are more likely to identify the areas where they are having the most difficulty and dedicate more time to studying those topics. They can also reflect back on their progress, noting whether their fears before exams and assignments were reasonable based on their performance or else catastrophized. Encouraging students to occasionally share their reflections will model that they are not alone in their anxiety and perhaps facilitate better class cohesion.

In summary, writing is a powerful tool for improving student outcomes, particularly in classes that have a negative stigma. Incorporating low-stakes informal assignments and scaffolded, clear and meaningful formal assignments will help foster greater depth of processing, organize related concepts into clear networks, and define how statistics can fit into a larger network of ideas reflected in the real world.



Beins, B. C. (1993). Writing assignments in statistics classes encourage students to learn interpretation. Teaching of Psychology, 20(3), 161-4.

Dunn, D. S. (1996). Collaborative Writing in a Statistics and Research Methods Course. Teaching of Psychology, 23(1), 38-40.

Holmes, K. Y. (2011). Tips for incorporating writing into an introductory statistics course. Association for Psychological Science Observer, 25(1). https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/tips-for-incorporating-writing-into-an-introductory-statistics-course

Jordan, J. (2008). Writing assignments in an introductory statistics course. In CAUSE Teaching and Learning Webinar Series; May 13, 2008. https://www.causeweb.org/ webinar/teaching/2008-05/.

Stromberg, A. J. & Ramanathan, S. (1996). Easy Implementation of writing in introductory statistics courses. The American Statistician, 50(2), 159-63.

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Elements of WAC in Introductory Foreign Language Courses

It’s possible to see WAC elements in introductory foreign language courses. Three-quarters into the semester of a 101-level French course, pair up your students to write a dialogue such as the following: the two speakers discuss how they view certain characters in a French painting from a nearby museum. You, the professor, will have chosen a dozen paintings that are meaty enough to work with, and on the back of each image that you randomly hand out to students it would be good to have background information that the museum provides for that painting. Even if the students end up not having time to visit the museums, the fact that they know that these objects are close by helps to reduce the gap that they may feel between themselves and a culture that is new to them. Back to how this writing assignment can work: each speaker must ask his/her classmate a few questions (to practice the different ways of forming questions), use the negating construction ne…pas to disagree at least twice, and provide a new way of seeing XYZ each time that there is a disagreement. For example: “Non, cet homme n’est pas fatigué !  Il  ______________ !” Creating follow-up questions using the interrogative adverb pourquoi (why) would deepen the dialogue. The students’ explanations for what they see will often be creative, but you can tell your students that if their statements are too silly, then that would most likely invite follow-up questions that they may not be able to answer in French, given that only a few chapters of the textbook have been covered so far. The 101-level students will of course not have enough vocabulary to provide in-depth arguments for their viewpoints, but this kind of dialogue in which each speaker defends his/her way of seeing something differently can move students past William Perry’s “middle stages of multiplicity” (Bean 22) and closer to that point when “a real need for reasoned argument begins to emerge” (Bean 22). Thus, students in introductory level foreign language courses are not merely learning to write. They are not limited to filling themselves with data. Writing a dialogue in which a piece of artwork is interpreted from different angles can be seen as a way of writing to learn. Assigning a dialogue that will be collected at the end of class can also make peace between the idea that learning French should be a more conversational type of activity and the idea that students need to be more conscientious about their writing. That each dialogue is being looked over by two students before they hand it in can help to reduce the number of grammatical errors.


When students see themselves able to write comprehensible albeit short paragraphs and dialogues in a language that they have recently learned, this can serve as a kind of support for them when they become frustrated with writing long papers (in their native or near-native language) for their other courses. If students catch themselves writing convoluted paragraphs for their other courses and can’t seem to find a way out for the time being, then thinking back on the short paragraphs and dialogues that they wrote for their introductory foreign language courses can be a reminder of how they have the ability to write clearly. That memory can be what gives them the push to take another stab at revising their convoluted papers for other courses. Happily remembering those short paragraphs and dialogues can take the edge off the stress momentarily, which is not a small thing.




Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. John Wiley & Sons, 2011.


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