Note: This post is part of a series on “Teaching First Year Composition.”
Last but not least, Outcome O:
As I noted in the previous post, most people outside of composition and rhetoric think that the purpose of a writing course is to eliminate all grammatical errors and usage problems so that students don’t inflict them on faculty in upper-division courses, other disciplines, and later, on employers. They also tend to think that these are problems that should have been addressed in high school, so college-level writing courses are by definition “remedial.” As you can see from the first 14 outcomes, there is a lot more to an FYC course than grammar instruction.
Perhaps a more important problem is that students often agree. They think that the goal is always to produce an error-free text. When students come to the writing center, the first thing they want is to have the tutor “fix” all of the errors. The tutor has to be very persuasive to get the students even to consider more global revisions.
However, different rhetorical situations require different styles, genres, and strategies. As the cognitive load increases, especially when learning new concepts and vocabulary, the likelihood of linguistic error also increases. Focusing exclusively on error blocks learning and growth. Error is a fact of life. We can’t ignore it because it has rhetorical consequences, but we can’t beat it to death until it goes away before moving on to other concerns. If we do that, we will stay on square one forever. So, how do we balance all of these concerns in responding to student writing?
Steps in a Response
The first step is to design a good assignment. I will discuss that in more detail in a subsequent post. For now, let’s just say that it is important to make it clear what the student is supposed to do and how they will be evaluated.
What comes naturally to most instructors is to read and mark errors as they go. This might work for a fluent writer, but for most students it results in a heavily marked up paper that discourages the student and doesn’t offer a coherent plan for revision or improvement. It may seem like the most efficient way, but in reality it is not. It is best to skim the paper quickly first to see what you’ve got. Then think about the following steps:
- Introduction: Does the introductory material effectively guide the reader in anticipating the topic and purpose of the paper? Does the paper fulfill those expectations? If necessary, comment on possible improvements.
- Style: Is the style of the paper appropriate to the audience and purpose? Are sentences readable and clear? Are word choices appropriate? Identify particular instances where sentence structure or word choice could be improved. This may include punctuation marking sentence boundaries or other punctuation problems.
- Grammatical Systems: Is there a pattern of error in a particular feature of the grammatical system, such as subject/verb agreement, the tense system, or pronoun reference? If there are many errors in many systems, don’t mark all of them. Focus attention on a specific problem for the writer to work on.
- Assignment: Finally, is the paper an effective response to the assignment? Does it do the task? Does it demonstrate the required thinking, even if there are grammatical errors or other problems? Give comments that reflect the extent to which the paper is successful in this regard and suggestions for improvement, if needed. These comments may appear at the end of the paper, but your impressions begin forming upon your initial skim of the paper.
I am a fan of rubrics for responding to writing because they show the student what the criteria are and they keep the instructor on track too. Critics of rubrics argue that they are too restrictive and punish creative or innovative responses. I find that if I receive a superior response that does not fit my rubric for that assignment, I can find a way to reward it anyway. I will discuss rubric design in a subsequent post.
Balancing Praise and Critique
It is easy to make lots of negative comments on student papers without giving them any praise. We want our criticism to be seen as constructive and we want our students to feel like they can improve. While there are students who think that they are better writers than they really are, often because they have gotten praise for using a lot of big words that don’t really mean what they think they mean, most students have already been convinced that they are “bad writers.” We want to convince them otherwise. In fact, that may be the most important unwritten learning outcome of the whole composition program.