Discussion Board as a Tool for Low Stakes Writing

Digital tools are an increasingly common way for instructors to engage students in the writing process. The use of these tools can be a particularly effective strategy for instructors to facilitate low stakes writing, which is a core WAC concept. In their personal lives, students likely use technology such as social networking sites and messaging apps to communicate with each other on a regular basis. Thus the introduction of this technology into the classroom represents a natural extension, and a comfortable medium for many students.

In 2013 the Pew Research Center released a report in which they asked teachers about the use of digital tools in their instruction. These instructors cited three main ways in which digital technology can benefit student writing. These ways are:

  • digital technologies enable students to share their writing with a larger and more diverse audience;
  • digital technologies provide students with the opportunity to collaborate to a greater extent;
  • digital technologies facilitate creative expression on the part of students.

One digital tool that instructors can use in their classes to encourage low stakes writing is a discussion board. Discussion boards allow students to express themselves in an interactive manner. Students are put in a situation in which they have to articulate an opinion and defend their position against other students who may disagree.

When organizing a discussion board, the instructor must balance the desire for students to express themselves freely with the need to advance course objectives. If the discussion board is set up correctly, this balance can be achieved. There are a few things instructors should keep in mind when setting up a discussion board:

  • Good topic questions are key. This is a fundamental step to stimulate a lively discussion. The question should be tied to course outcomes. Further, there are many types of high quality questions. For example, one type is a comparison-type question where the instructor asks the students to compare themes or issues and take a stand. This is a natural way to create debate amongst students.
  • Maintaining a flow to the discussion is critical. It is the instructor’s role to make sure that the discussion is staying on topic and that students are not engaging in unproductive dialogue or conflict. This might require the instructor to reframe the question or ask more probing questions, particularly if the discussion has hit a lull. It also requires bringing closure to the discussion with some type of summary that ties the discussion to course content.
  • High quality, widespread participation is the goal. To this end, instructors might want to make participation in a discussion board part of the final grade. However, instructors will also want to be clear about what represents high quality participation versus comments for the sake of comments.

These are just some of the things to keep in mind when organizing a discussion board, and certainly a discussion board has its unique challenges. Nonetheless, discussion boards represent one interactive and fun way in which instructors can encourage students to write more. It also may be a particularly effective way to elicit participation from shy or typically quiet students.

Midterm Reflection and Low-stakes Writing

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

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

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

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

Course content:

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

Personal performance:

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

Study habits:

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

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

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

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

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

Notetaking by Hand, Writing-to-learn

A few weeks ago, this article crossed my social media feeds, and it initially piqued my interest because I ban the use of laptops in my classroom.

I ban phones, tablets, and laptops in class because I find them distracting as an instructor, and I know from some of my students that they find it distracting to see other students surfing the web or using social media during class. For some classes, this is obviously impractical, especially for those in technology, science, engineering, math, or design that rely on student access to a computer and collaborative work. Of course, we must also accmmodate students with learning disabilities who use adaptive technologies to learn. And as this article makes clear, “laptops do in fact allow students to do more.”

However, as the scientific study cited in this article shows, there is perhaps a practical reason to ban or, at the very least, limit the general use of laptops in the classroom. And this is because

those who wrote out their notes by hand had a stronger conceptual understanding and were more successful in applying and integrating the material than those who used took notes with their laptops.

Our WAC experience certainly reinforces this concept. We know that using low-stakes writing assignments helps students learn through the very act of writing. When we ask our students to write short, informal assignments based on course content, they must synthesize a variety of different types of learning—what they’ve read, what they’ve learned through lecture, what they’ve learned through experience—into generating an original product. Even if students are just asked to summarize the day’s lecture, they must still find a way to process all the information, pick out the salient points, and describe them using their own language.

Notetaking is another kind of informal writing. It requires the same type of cognitive processing as low-stakes writing assignments, that is, students must “listen, digest, and summarize so that they can succinctly capture the essence of the information.” It requires active reading (or for lectures, active listening) in which students are being asked to question and process information, rather than passively take it all in.  Students are certainly capable of doing this on laptops.

The trouble is, because students can type much faster than they write, they often copy classroom content verbatim, and they can “easily produce a written record of the lecture without processing its meaning.” Many of our students think that the best way to study is to review the lecture as it was given, or that the more notes they take, the better off they are, as though the content will magically transfer from a transcription of lecture into their knowledge base.

The same speed limitation means that students taking notes by hand are forced to do the same things that we ask when we give low-stakes, informal writing assignments: they summarize, they pick out the most important points, and they put concepts into their own words that they can understand. They are creating new neural pathways through writing, learning the content in a more holistic way that by simply transcribing a lecture. In this case, it really is quality over quantity.

The other major impediment to our students taking notes by hand is that many of them have never done it! This may come as a shock to those of us for whom taking notes by hand was the norm, but many students are terrified of the idea that they might “miss something important” by handwriting their notes rather than transcribing everything verbatim. As instructors, it is our responsibility to make sure students have these skills, even if we don’t think it’s “our job” to teach this.

A few notetaking tricks can help ease students into the new habit of taking notes. Some ideas include:

  1. Introduce a notetaking method, such as the double column method or the three-section “Cornell method.” These formats require reflection, summarization, and questioning, all forms of informal writing that better reinforce course content.
  2. Require students to turn in their notes, or do an occasional in-class “notebook check.” This can be graded, not for content, but simply whether the students did it or not, giving the students an incentive. Many will be relieved, in fact, to learn that they can earn points towards their grade simply by taking notes!

Let us know – do your students take notes by hand? Do you ban laptops in class for notetaking? What do your students think?

Why Using Samples?

Have you ever tried to solve a jigsaw puzzle without looking at the picture on the cover? I have. It’s frustrating, and I gave up after a very short time. And yet, I handed many of those ‘blind jigsaw puzzles’ to my students when I assigned a writing assignment without explaining what the final result should look like. To my defense, I didn’t do it on purpose. It’s how I was taught to write, and it’s probably how must of us are, and were taught up until today. But when I started to progress from being an undergraduate student to I discovered how useful samples can be. Before writing my first grant application I gathered grant applications that have been successful. Before and while writing my first journal article I read many, many articles in the journal I wanted to submit the article to. I am not copying what has been written, but I am trying to get a sense of what the final result (the jigsaw puzzle) should look like to be successful.

For some reason, I have denied the same right to my students. I often expected them to come up with formal assignment that meets my expectations without ever explicitly showing them what those expectations are. Luckily, my students are vocal enough to let me know about their frustrations when trying to solve the puzzle. Their objections reminded me of my own frustrations when writing without knowing what’s expected, and I started to incorporate WAC principles, and my own experiences into my teaching.

Here is what I do:

  • I scaffold assignments, and assign many explorative writing assignments that lead up to a larger, more formal assignment. That helps students not to feel overwhelmed, and prevents the attempt to plagiarize.
  • All my assignments are handed out in writing, and as explicit as possible. I use Blackboard to post assignments, and I provide hard copies for students.
  • I always check in with students and ask if the assignment is clear (we do that during class time). If something is unclear, I make changes and ask my students to help me clarifying the assignment.
  • I do my best to provide samples for formal assignments. My formal assignments are often a combination of smaller, informal assignments. As a final step, I ask students to combine the smaller assignments they’ve done to a larger assignment.

 

Providing my students with samples of what that formal assignment should look like has produced very good results in my students’ writing, and they have found the experience to be much less frustrating.

Using Blogs in the Classroom: Some Quick Ideas

As instructors, we frequently hear pleas from our administrators and departments to integrate more technology into our classroom teaching, to meet our online-savvy students on ground with which they’re already familiar. Yet, we often come up short when it comes to actually implementing “technology,” which is itself so broad and varied a term that it suffers from its own lack of specificity. What do “they” mean by “technology”? And more importantly, how do I use this “technology” if I’m admittedly not tech-savvy?

One easy way to incorporate a technological platform into the classroom is with a class blog. Blogs are an interactive place that can serve as a locus for discussion and group study outside of the classroom, allowing you as the instructor the opportunity for creating writing assignments without using up valuable class time devoted to course content. And one great aspect of this is that with a well-designed low-stakes assignment, your students will do most of the work and you can just sit back without taking on a mountain of extra grading.

At CityTech, we have a great blog platform in OpenLab, already available for every class. OpenLab has an excellent introductory guide for faculty, and their staff is also happy to work with faculty to design a site and assignments that can work for them. Once you’ve figured out the basics, there are a number of ways you can make the blog work for you using low-stakes, informal writing:

  • Create a short prompt. This can be a provocative question related to course content, a response to an article or statement made by a public figure, or a response to a particular aspect of the course content.
  • Post a piece of media for the students to “dissect”: either a clip from a film or TV show, a short piece of a documentary, a song or other piece of music, a news report, or a photo.
  • Have students post a critical review of an article, news report, event, museum/gallery/concert visit.

Require every student (or select a small number which rotates weekly throughout the semester) to write a short blog post. Then require every student to comment on at least two posts. This last part is key, because it requires the students to read and engage with each other’s work. You’ll find that the students begin to engage with each other in a highly collegial and productive exchange of ideas. As with all assignments, it’s important to still make sure we’re telling our students exactly what we want them to do and how to do it.

As an example, here’s a blog-based assignment I used when teaching music appreciation at Baruch College, and here are the student responses. I wanted students to use the vocabulary of the course to engage with music that they enjoy and doesn’t get covered in class, thus reinforcing core concepts such as form, harmony, melody, and rhythm.

We know that students enjoy this sort of online interaction for a number of reasons: it varies their mode of learning; it provides a way for them to engage in the class outside of the classroom; it prepares them better for class; it fosters discussion (and can be great especially for students who shy away from in-class speaking); and it utilizes technology that students know and with which they feel comfortable. A post last year from the Metawriting blog shows that one professor’s students responded “with overwhelming strong agreement” that “the instructor uses technology to establish good relationships with students.”

We at WAC support class blogging because it provides a platform for students to do expressive, low-stakes writing that isn’t graded in the traditional sense. Similar to using a journal (which we wrote about in this post from last fall), this kind of writing fosters “the building of connections between course content and real life experiences within one or two pages of writing.” In turn, students practice writing-to-learn, engaging with course content in a risk-free environment.

Have you used blogging in your classes? Share your experiences below in the comments.

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!

Journal-entry Assignments: Connecting Course Content to Real Experiences

Journal-entry assignments are a valuable tool for incorporating semi-structured writing into a course. Less formal than traditional writing assignments which often include a thesis statement, citations, or full-length papers (5 or more pages), journal entries allow the building of connections between course content and real life experiences within one or two pages of writing. Often they are most effective when requiring students to first define the term, theory, or issue and then asking them to describe how either how they or someone they know had a real experience related to a given course topic.

This technique pushes students to be agents of learning as opposed to passive learners. If they can start to link the jargon/terms of a given field with real examples or experiences, the importance of what they are learning is made clear to them beyond the purposes of the classroom. Furthermore, this can lead to lively discussions if the instructor is willing to spend a few minutes of class time engaging students by talking through each others’ examples.

Remember that journal-entry assignments may be new for many students, so it is always beneficial to clarify what you expect as the instructor in terms of formatting, length, and audience, as this is certainly a different manner of writing than their usual lab reports or research papers. Yet if used multiple times throughout the semester, journal-entries can continuously improve students’ abilities to link course content to how it relates in their own lives and can also be used in building to longer, more formal assignments (i.e., scaffolding) later in the semester.

Workshop Recap: Effective Assignment Design, October 22, 2013

Last Tuesday, WAC Fellows Zachary Aidala and Justina Oliveira led an excellent workshop on effective assignment design and assignment scaffolding for City Tech faculty. We were so pleased to have faculty members from all across the college in attendance. Since reading and writing are so intimately linked when creating assignments, our WAC team was joined by Professor Juanita But from the English Department and the college’s reading initiative, Reading Effectively Across the Disciplines (READ). As writing professor Toby Fulwiler reminds us:

[Reading and writing] are interdependent, mutually supportive skills, both of which are “basic” to an individual’s capacity to generate critical, developed, independent thought.” [1]

Justina began by outlining two of the workshop’s major pedagogical theories: writing as active reading, and purposeful writing assignments. The first represents the idea that by assigning low-stakes writing assignments such as note-taking, summaries, or informal response papers, students will internalize and learn from readings more comprehensively. The second theory is something of a WAC mantra, the idea that student writing should not merely convey knowledge but also reinforce larger educational course objectives, be it critical thinking or doing discipline-specific work.

Prof. But covered a variety of techniques that utilize writing to encourage better reading comprehension. She showed us the two-column note-taking method, where students take notes on content in one column, and then annotate their notes in an adjacent column. This echoes another great WAC strategy: having students explain course material to a “new learner,” such as a friend or relative, forcing the student to put complex ideas into their own words.

Concept Map
Click on image for larger version

She also introduced us to the concept map, a visual aid for readers to organize major themes, subjects, hypotheses, and other material in a reading. A short exercise for attendees using an E.B. White paragraph later revealed the usefulness of this organizational tool.

Justina then covered some of the differences between low- and high-stakes writing. One of the many benefits to low-stakes writing is that it can be used as a purely pedagogical tool, or “writing to learn,” but it can also be part of a scaffold, a number of smaller writing exercises that lead to a longer, high-stakes paper. She concluded with a very handy checklist (available on handout at bottom of this article) of items instructors should remember to ask themselves when designing an assignment, things that all of us as instructors have probably forgotten at one point or another (e.g. “Have I expressed who the intended audience is for this paper?”). Finally, she presented a series of useful assignment types for low-stakes writing, including a variety of prompt types, summary assignments, or the “explain to a new learner” strategy.

Next, Zak Aidala covered high-stakes assignments, and how to better prepare students for writing these longer, more serious papers. He covered a variety of ideas for scaffolding larger assignments, or building up to the final paper with a series of shorter targeted papers. The workshop concluded with each group considering a traditional high-stakes assignment that had a number of flaws, and each table of faculty and fellows approached it with a variety of “fixes.” One table focused entirely on creating writing as reading assignments, another on low-stakes scaffolded assignments, and another on high-stakes scaffolded assignments.

If you missed our Effective Assignment Design Workshop, the PowerPoint is available here. Please feel free to download it and if you have questions, use the comments section below. We also have a concise Handout with directions for concept mapping, ideas for low-stakes writing assignments, and an assignment design checklist, all taken from the presentation.

Our next workshop will be on November 12 at 1pm, and covers Peer Review, another great tool that you can use in the classroom with low- or high-stakes assignments. We hope to see you there, and check back here for more information shortly.

 

[1] Toby Fulwiler, “Why We Teach Writing in the First Place,” fforum 4, no. 2 (1983): 123.

WAC Workshop–Tuesday, November 13th, 1:00-2:15pm, V806

Please join us for our next WAC workshop, “Learning Course Content
through Writing.” Writing can be a tool to demonstrate what one has
learned; it can also be a tool to facilitate learning. In this workshop
lead by WAC Fellows, we will explore various methods for fostering
learning through writing in courses across the disciplines. Please see
below or click on the poster for further details.

“Learning Course Content through Writing”

Workshops are open to all City Tech faculty and staff.

DATE: Tuesday, November 13, 2012
VENUE: V 806, Voorhees building – 186 Jay Street
TIME: 1.00 p.m. – 2.15 p.m.

RSVP: facultycommons@citytech.cuny.edu
Lunch will be served.