What Do Writing Courses Do?

When we design and teach writing courses (which of course are also reading courses) we often start by looking at the outcomes for the course or by creating our own list of outcomes. Then we start listing writing assignments, often based on texts we find interesting to teach. We imagine how long it will take to present the assignment, for students to write and revise the various sub-components and drafts, how long we need to grade it and return it, and we set a due date. We create a sequence of reading/writing units, probably of increasing difficulty and length. Ideally, each assignment with its various tasks and drafts addresses at least some of the listed outcomes. Realistically however, the connections to some of the outcomes may be tangential at best. In addition, some students started out weaker or stronger than others. They are unlikely to end up at the same place.

And what happens after your course ends? Do students go on to another course? Do they write in their disciplines? Have you prepared them to do that? What is it all for? Where are we going?

In order to think about this a little differently, I created the following chart:

WritingCourseMatrix-color-1

I intend this as a big picture map of what a writing program needs to do. The course you happen to be teaching might be focusing on a few of the cells in the chart more than others, but as you design your course, you should be aware of the big picture. These cells are not discrete items in a list. There are complex relationships between them.

Fluency

Fluency is based on a lack of fear. The fear is usually caused by the concern about “Standard Written Conventions” in the opposite corner of the chart. Students given an assignment will sometimes spend 30 minutes writing and rewriting the first sentence before they have even decided what to write about. No real writing can occur in the face of anxiety about making a grammatical error. We have to work on that.

Self-Expression

“Self-expression” is important to beginning writers. It is a powerful purpose. It shouldn’t be denied absolutely. It is a purpose to build on. How does a student grow beyond self-expression? “Intertextuality” is one direction. What do other people say? Can you quote them to support what you are saying too? “Inquiry” is another. Can you find out more? Do you still think the same thing after knowing more? Both of these types of activities help build audience awareness too.

Interdisciplinarity

“Interdisciplinarity” is the connection of the writing course to the rest of the academic world. The student in your class is not likely to be an English major. When they write in science or in engineering, will they have to unlearn some of your stylistic recommendations? Do you have to know how to write like an engineer in order to teach them? No, but you can help them ask questions and analyze documents to see how it is done. Also, rhetorical strategies such as thinking about audience, arguments, and evidence tend to be universal. It is stylistic preferences and organizational patterns that change.

Making Things Happen

“Making Things Happen” is really the true purpose of all writing, but it is more obviously true of academic and workplace writing. Students should be aware of the connections your course has to writing in other environments for other purposes. It makes your class more meaningful to them and they are more likely to be engaged.

And in fact, thinking about how your course fits into the big picture might help you become more engaged too!

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

In a previous post I described a “Flexible Module Planner” that introduces a bit less linearity to module design. My colleagues saw this planning document not only as a guide for designing new modules, but also for planning how to teach an existing one. This post is an expansion of that one, providing some background questions for discussion. The problem is, none of these questions have right answers. They all require decisions, sometimes made on the fly.

Here is a list of important concepts in ERWC (and teaching in general) that we often talk about in isolation though they overlap, interact, and sometimes contradict. For each one, success is about hitting the sweet spot for students, but those sweet spots can be different for different students even in the same classroom.

  • Backwards mapping (We plan the beginning with the end in mind. How much should we preview the end at the beginning?)
  • Gradual release of responsibility (If the goal is independent learning, when does scaffolding help and when does it hinder? How do we know?)
  • Self-teaching (What you teach yourself, you remember for a lifetime. How can we facilitate such independence?)
  • Connection (We want connections in all directions—text to text, reading to writing, student to issue, strategy to task, present task to future problem-solving. How do we make those connections, yet stay focused?)
  • Perceived Utility (We attend to and value what seems useful, but the use of a strategy is not always immediately apparent. How can we cultivate persistence in the face of a lack of perceived utility? How can we make the utility of a strategy appear?)
  • Engagement (Is engagement the product of a formula, i.e. Connection + Strategy + Utility + Goal? How do we implement this formula in the classroom?)
  • Transfer (Is transfer a product of sustained engagement? How do we design lessons with engagement in mind?)

I’ll discuss them one by one.

Backwards Mapping

We begin with the end in mind. A teaching unit is somewhat like the Midgard Serpent from Norse mythology, a snake eating its tail. The head and the tail are in the same place. When we begin a journey, we want to know where we are going, even if when we arrive it is not exactly as we imagined. Seeing the summit, even dimly through the clouds, inspires us to move on. I think that too many teaching modules, including some of my own, don’t reveal enough of the destination to inspire students to want to go there. We know what the writing task is. Why not show it to them? (One answer is that we want them to value the reading for its own sake, which is a valid point. So, a decision must be made.)

Gradual Release of Responsibility

This is a tough one. How much scaffolding is enough? How much is too much? How do we know? Formative assessment can help, but sometimes it is too late to change a decision. Even subtle hints can imply a reading and deny a student an opportunity to think for themselves. For example, in my seminar this semester, one group of students decided that they were against “prereading” activities and the “Preparing to Read” section of the ERWC template. Why? Because they were English majors and they thought that students had a right to their own interpretation. I argued against this because I think that prereading activities make a big difference in how students respond to reading. Activating background knowledge is an important reading strategy and students also want to know why they are reading something and what the teacher thinks is important to attend to. However, my students had a point. Everything we do before they read influences their interpretation.

For example, in my first mini-module built around two tiny stories written by Lydia Davis, my prereading instruction was simply, “As you read the following stories, think about relationships.” I gave them a theme for the stories. Without that theme, they would struggle longer, I think, to make sense of the stories, but would that struggle be productive? By giving them a push toward a particular reading, am I taking their own reading away? But perhaps they would give up on the odd little stories entirely? Again, it’s a decision. Even one word has consequences.

My students in “Advanced Expository Writing” had to research a topic of their own choice and create a website to present their findings. One task was to create a literature review. I did not tell them how many sources they needed to have. I said it was a rhetorical decision. They kept asking me, so often that I finally got mad at them (never a good development). I said, “It would be a lot easier for me if I just told you exactly what to do.” They answered, almost the whole class in unison, “That’s what we are used to!” I asked, “If you were going to your site for information about this topic, would you be satisfied with two sources?” They agreed that they would not. “How about three sources?” They got the point. And they agreed that they learned more this way. I was trying to get them to actually do the task of informing their readers, while they were looking for completion criteria so that they would know when they could stop pretending to do the task.

The model that Fisher and Frey discuss in Better Learning through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility is basically “I do, we do, you do together, you do alone.”  In this .pdf from Doug Fisher, this translates to an instructional template with the following stages: Focus Lessons, Guided Instruction, Collaborative Learning, and Independent Tasks. The decision-making and control move from the teacher, to groups of students working collaboratively, and finally to the individual student.  Teacher lore says that it is better to be a “guide on the side” than a “sage on the stage.”  In the gradual release model, this is not a binary.  The teacher shifts her role from sage to guide to inspirational presence over time, as needed.

Of course, the “gradual” part of gradual release means that we scaffold more at the beginning, but less and less as students learn more and more to work independently as they internalize concepts and strategies. The Fisher and Frey model shows that it is not only the amount of scaffolding that should change, but also the way it is offered and by whom.  Again, formative assessments, formal and informal, will help, but this is largely a matter of listening to and observing your students. In focus groups, ERWC teachers have reported that students sometimes say, “We have done this a million times [referring to an ERWC strategy], can’t we just read it?” This means they have internalized the strategy.  It’s time for a decision.

Self-Teaching

What we are taught by others often lasts only until the test, but what we teach ourselves or teach others remains for a long time. When I started learning music theory I wanted to write songs in modes other than major or minor. I spent half a day building triads on each degree of modal scales only to find that they were the same as the harmonized major scale, just starting in a different place. Then I turned to the next chapter in the music theory book and found that the author presented everything I had just discovered on my own. However, I still remember it, 40 years later. I remember little else from that music theory course. This is clearly related to the “gradual release” issue. Teaching yourself is the ideal, but it is not always possible. We all need guidance and help. But when should we step out of the way?  It’s a decision.

Connection

Probably the most important connection to be concerned about is the connection to the student’s lifeworld. We are interested in what seems real to us. But texts, issues, strategies, and writing tasks should all seem connected. When students get a worksheet on this and another on that, then a reading on lizards in Guam and another on a boy in Afghanistan, followed by an essay on “My Spring Break,” it all seems random, perhaps even postmodern. When you think about introducing a worksheet, a strategy, a reading, ask yourself, “How does this connect with what they are doing right now? How will it connect with what they are going to be doing tomorrow?” It’s a decision.

Perceived Utility

Here I might bring up what I call the “effort to benefit” ratio. We are usually willing to work to learn something that looks useful for the current task. If it also looks like it might come in handy for future imagined tasks, we might even put in more effort, and we might remember what we learned. However, if the strategy or tool appears very difficult and time-consuming to learn, and the benefit looks small, we might pass on it. I had this sort of experience when I first encountered Microsoft Excel. Learning to use formulas in spreadsheets was tough. I avoided it. Word processing was much more useful. However, when I started running a writing center and I had to make budgets and cost out proposals, I learned quickly. I realized that the first time I created a spreadsheet, it was a lot of work, but after it was created, I could use it over and over.

I think perceived utility is the first necessary condition to what people are now calling “transfer.” We need to help students see how the strategies we teach are actually useful, not meaningless rigmarole that they are being forced to learn. Here, the students make the decision, but we have to persuade them.

Engagement

“Engagement” is a hot topic in educational circles, but it is somewhat mysterious. Sometimes it is confused with “relevance,” and sometimes “entertainment.” Your mileage may vary, but I think it is actually a product of the right combination of the five factors described above.

Transfer

Transfer, in my view, is not just a matter of reinforcing the same limited number of concepts and strategies over and over. It is a matter of sustaining engagement over time so that the concepts are not only reinforced, but valued, perceived as useful, even loved because they solve problems and reduce anxiety.  It’s all about making the right decisions, in the right places.