Perceiving Writing As a Process, Not a Product

Supposedly there is a quote by author John Dufresne that goes “the purpose of a first draft is not to get it right, but to get it written”. Unfortunately, as with many historical quotes, I can’t find where or when he said it, but that doesn’t diminish its sensibility. When I came to know this quote, I immediately interpreted it as a type of ‘done is better than perfect’ logic. A (badly) written thesis is still better than the (obviously great) thesis existing solely in my mind, so let’s buckle up, push this draft out, and we can move on to the next writing hurdle. In a sense, it motivated me to produce writing, because a product is better than no product.

I feel that this production perspective on writing was also encouraged by my education. Typically, most courses I took during my bachelor and master’s degree culminated in a term paper where students could demonstrate their mastery of the subject. I say culminated because there wasn’t really a practice built around submitting several drafts. On occasion I was asked to submit an outline first which was supposed to detail the paper’s premise and arguments. This typically resulted in me scrambling a skeleton together, because I didn’t know yet what I was going to write about. Also, which element of the subject one had mastered exactly tended to be open to interpretation, since most term paper assignments were not specific. I recall taking a course one semester that was called International Relations and my term paper discussed Harry Truman dropping the bomb, which seemed to make perfect sense at the time.

Lately, my perspective on writing has changed though and that is due to being a part of the Writing Across the Curriculum fellowship program (WAC) at City Tech. The nice thing about City Tech is that we’re exposed to the WAC pedagogy, mostly via discussing John Bean’s book Engaging Ideas (2011). Bean talks (writes really) a lot about the relationship between writing and critical thinking. The whole premise of the book is that writing is an active learning task, which evokes a high level of critical thinking. Why is it an active learning task? Because writing is simultaneously a process of doing critical thinking and the product that communicates the results of the critical thinking.

This blew my mind. Mainly because I perceived writing as a product alone for years. And, as mentioned above, not just any product but the end product: The written culmination of all my thinking efforts. This view does not acknowledge at all the thinking that goes into the writing. It can essentially be summarized as: Think first, write second. Whereas Bean’s perspective posits: Write first, you’ll think during. Consequently, he takes this philosophy even further: Writing does not only trigger thinking, it strengthens the thinking itself. Though this perspective may be new to me, this feeling is familiar: Being forced to formulate (and justify) my ideas often strengthened the ideas themselves.

So my perspective has shifted from perceiving writing as the end of the thinking, to the process of thinking itself. I think this resonates so much with me because it explains why I had such trouble scrambling a skeleton together in college. At the time I thought I was just a bad student who couldn’t think together an outline, but there were good students out there who could. However, the whole assignment now strikes me as curious. How am I supposed to think together an outline, without any of the writing (thus thinking) having taken place?

Moreover, WAC’s philosophy around critical thinking explains my issues with the lack of focus in term papers. Critical thinking is most evoked by problems (Kurfiss, 1988). Therefore, part of teaching critical thinking is making problems apparent to students. Most term paper assignments I encountered were not problem focused. Most of them didn’t seem to have any focus at all which is how I ended up writing about Truman and the bomb at the end of the International Relations course. I’m not saying that there’s something wrong with that, but I do realize now that unspecific term paper assignments do not evoke critical thinking. Plus, the whole concept behind the term paper seems to foster the perspective of seeing writing as an end product instead of a process.

Therefore, my change in perspective on writing is accompanied with a change in interpretation of Dufresne’s quote. Done is still better than perfect, but the quote no longer encourages writing as a finished product. Instead, it now encourages me to perceive writing as a thinking process. Perhaps I can remind myself best by rephrasing it: “The purpose of a first draft is not to get it right, but to get thinking” (free after supposedly John Dufresne).

Writing to Learn: From WAC Principle to Life Practice

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Should We Abandon Active Learning for Lecturing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Importance of Varied Modes of Teaching

Earlier this summer, one of our WAC co-coordinators shared this article by Paula Moran that aims to debunk the “Learning Styles” myth. The topic of the various ways in which students learn is something we think about a lot in WAC philosophy, since one of the things that we preach is how writing assignments can vary the mode of course content delivery and therefore provide a break from lecture-based teaching.

To be clear, we ourselves have never used the phrase “learning style” in our workshops or other projects, yet the idea is quite similar to much of the ideology behind what we promote and encourage instructors to do. Have we been wrong all this time? Is there no difference between class content delivered orally through lecture and written assignments?

The answer, thankfully, is no. Moran links to another article by renowned educational theorist Howard Gardner who further argues that his famous “multiple intelligences” theory is not the same as “learning styles.” The real issue here is the lack of sound research to show that teaching to different learning styles has any impact on student performance.

However, as Gardner is quick to point out, that does not mean that students all learn in the same way. Student do learn in different ways, and as Gardner notes, “all of us exhibit jagged profiles of intelligences,” meaning that we process different kinds of information differently in our quest to understand something.

So why teach through writing assignments? Because students have different strengths and weaknesses in processing material, it is crucial that we present them with various modes of understanding the class content. How many times have you heard a colleague say, or said yourself, that “I learn better when I write things down.” This is why we take notes and sometimes don’t ever look at them again. This is why we understand a concept more holistically when we teach it rather than just reading or writing about it. This is why we teach “inquiry-based” lessons, where students acquire knowledge through their own questioning. It is because speaking, writing, reading, and listening are all part of a series of interconnected brain processes, rather than all part of the same mono-process.

While we don’t have to go buy the textbook’s eight different versions, “one for every learning style,” we still do our students a service by teaching in different ways. Using writing assignments to deliver course content is one of the most effective tools we have not only to improve our students’ writing by having them do more of it, but also to encourage a deep understanding and retention of the material. Of course, there is a practical reason to teach with writing too: it breaks up the flow of the class and prevents students from losing focus or getting bored. It’s tough to listen to an hour-long lecture intently, even on a topic you are passionate about!

One of my students, who is also a teacher himself, remarked after being asked to free-write about a topic at the beginning of class, “that was nice. I didn’t think about the topic like that until you asked me to write about it.” Exactly.

Workshop Recap: Effective Assignment Design

Last Thursday WAC kicked off the fall semester with our first workshop, Effective Assignment Design. For those who couldn’t make it, or those who want to refresh their memories, here’s a quick recap:

Writing Fellows Claire Hoogendoorn and Drew Fleming began by explaining the difference between formal and informal writing. Many of us are familiar with formal student writing, end-of semester term papers are a classic example, which can be categorized as writing to communicate. Informal writing is writing to learn and it can take any number of forms, including:

  • Notetaking
  • Paraphrase or summary
  • Generating questions
  • Reflection or response

What informal writing tasks have in common is that they are not focused on grammar or organization, and they are low-stakes (they are ungraded or have a minimal impact on the course grade).

An effectively designed formal assignment should include a number of smaller informal or semi-formal assignments that help students develop the required skills to achieve the grade they want. This is called scaffolding, and all high-stakes assignments can benefit from it.

Scaffolding will look different for each assignment and each instructor, the point is to put steps in place so that students practice the skills they will need to succeed before the final assignment comes due. This may mean giving informal assignments in which they defend a thesis, write out methodology, explain a key concept, or paraphrase a source. Again, the number and type will vary.

The workshop wrapped up with a reminder of how important it is to give students typed assignment handouts. Handouts minimize student confusion by providing all of the details of the assignment, such as:

  • The specific task(s)
  • The assignment requirements (such as formatting and citation)
  • The audience for the assignment
  • Grading criteria
  • How many required drafts

The workshop PowerPoint and handout can be found here:

PowerPoint Slides

Handout

Remember that this is workshop one of four offered this semester. Workshops are open to all faculty, regardless of whether they are going through the WAC certification process. If you are interested in hearing more about the WAC certification process (there are still some open spots in the program this semester) or if you have further questions about WAC, feel free to email a WAC Fellow or leave a comment below!

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

 

 

Scenario-Based Homework Questions: Instructor Creativity Results in Student Creativity and Deeper Learning

Recently, Claire Hoogendoorn wrote about problem-focused activities in the classroom. The focus of this post is closely related to her insightful ideas. Scenario-based questions are homework or exam items that are based on real-life situations as opposed to abstract questions that pinpoint specific course content (e.g., terms, equations) without requiring students to link the content to its application. In my classrooms, they are effective due to the following reasons:

  • They’re more fun and interesting for the students to do.
  • Students’ answers to them are more fun and interesting for us as instructors to read.
  • Scenario-based questions are harder to plagiarize because they are creative in that they require more than a simple definition to answer them.
  • These items or questions require students to APPLY the concepts from your course instead of being satisfied with route memorization.
  • This question type leads to more critical thinking and active learning for students.

Below are a few scenario-based questions from my own courses that involve the above elements.

From Social Psychology:

Daniel is watching a television advertisement about a new brand of vitamins. He decides to buy them the next time he goes to the store because there’s a doctor and a professional athlete endorsing them in the advertisement so he figures it must be a great product. Which of the aspects of persuasion as discussed in class does his decision depend on? Defend your decision with a 3-5 sentence explanation.

From Statistics:

Scenario: An organization is interested in whether an employee’s job type (administrative assistant, salesperson, or research and development) impacts his or her perceptions of the organization’s culture.

Which is the dependent variable?
Which is the quasi-independent variable?
What is the alternative hypothesis in words?
What is the null hypothesis in words?

Run the appropriate statistical analysis in SPSS and highlight the relevant values on the output that should be used to answer the organization’s question. 

Explain the findings in a manner that a senior leader could understand who does not have expertise in statistics (Hint: Explain the results without statistical language or notation).

Now describe these results to a scientific audience that does have expertise in statistics (i.e., in APA style).

Try your own scenario-based questions in a few homework assignments to examine if your students seem to grasp the content better when they know they will be asked to apply the information they learn in novel ways. After they are used to the structure of such questions, you can begin to ask them to come up with similar question types themselves and answer these as an additional homework question at the end of an assignment. This will give them the opportunity to produce creative applications of your course content that are inspired by the world they experience around them.

Effective Assignment Design – Workshop Recap

This past Tuesday September 16th, the WAC program presented a faculty workshop for effective assignment design led by myself and Roy Rogers. We had a wonderful turnout and some lively discussion about innovative assignment design approaches. Among the most helpful according to research in WAC pedagogy (see Bean, 2011 for a thorough description) are informal writing assignments, scaffolding, and typed assignment handouts. Please see our slides from this workshop HERE and our handout HERE.

Informal writing assignments are small, low-stakes (minimal points or ungraded) writing assignments that are often less structured than traditional formal assignments. Informal writing assignments are useful because they

  • provide a less anxiety-provoking route for discussing course content than formal assignments that are graded
  • allow students to grapple with difficult course-related concepts or topics
  • encourage creative idea generation and critical thinking
  • provide the ability for the instructor to check-in early with students to ensure they are on track
  • offer students an avenue to express confusion or questions related to the course content
  • ensure all students (even those that may be shy) participate and regularly engage with course material

Scaffolding is perhaps the MOST useful strategy for creating effective assignments. This refers to implementing multiple small, informal (or semi-formal) writing assignments that build up to a more formal high-stakes (graded and larger in nature) project in a course. They are beneficial because they

  • provide “levels” to your large assignments in that they allow for students to comprehend the information and practice the skills needed to do well before the big project/paper/lab report
  • allow students to build towards difficult larger assignments
  • offer instructors the ability to steadily assess student progress
  • support course learning objectives and make the goals and process transparent to students

Typed assignment handouts are most beneficial when they are provided to students both in class and on Blackboard or Openlab, are discussed briefly in class so students can raise questions if needed, and when they provide the expectations of the instructor regarding the assignment (even for informal assignments) in a clear manner. Typed assignment handouts are practical for both students and instructors because they

  • help students understand what they “need to do”
  • assist tutors in the Learning Center in providing appropriate assistance to students
  • provide a reference for instructors in later semesters, as it is easier to edit unclear wording, etc. for later courses when the assignment handout is readily available

Bean, J. C. (2011). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. 2nd ed. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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?