Ineffective and effective practices for commenting on student writing
By Mike A. Shapiro, @mikeshapiro, TA and Co-Coordinator in the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
The author, pontificating about something. Photo by Amy Patterson.
Those of us lucky enough to teach in a classroom or tutor in a writing center recognize how much learning can happen in a 30-minute conversation. Spending those same 30 minutes writing comments on a student’s paper can feel like we’re teaching only a fraction of what we’re capable of, and yet writing these comments is an enormous part of our work! A professor in a writing-intensive discipline may spend 300 workdays of her career grading papers, and a writing center may spend a large percentage of its tutoring time on written feedback.
But what do students learn from all these hours dedicated to commenting? Troublingly, the answer is that we don’t know.
C. H. Knoblauch and Lil Brannon have, for thirty years, followed research on teacher feedback. They believe commenters fall for the logical fallacy that what teachers teach is the same thing as what students learn, and they think we count as student learning things that are really just error correction. They conclude from the studies they reviewed that comments on student writing have “limited meaningful impact on draft-to-draft revision and virtually no demonstrable effect on performance from assignment to assignment” (2006, p. 14).
As Anson (2012) puts it, “What would it mean to us, psychologically and pedagogically, if we were to find only a modest educational return on the colossal investment of time and energy we put into responding to student writing?” (p. 188).
By Michelle Niemann
Michelle Niemann is the assistant director of the writing center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for 2013-2014. Her first tutoring experience was in the writing center at Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, in 2003 and 2004. She recently defended her dissertation and will receive her PhD in English literature from UW-Madison in May.
Michelle bird-watching at Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin. Photo by Liz Vine.
Tutoring in the writing center at University of Wisconsin-Madison since 2009 has given me a great gift: it has shown me the power of being interested. In anything, or anyone. In the next student signed up to meet with me and whatever project they’re working on. At the same time, as a graduate student in English literature at UW-Madison, I’ve also learned a lot about the corresponding power of being interesting.
Being interesting is, quite rightly, the coin of the realm in advanced scholarship. And I’ve absolutely, nerdily loved the opportunity to pursue my interests in poetic form and sustainable farming by writing a dissertation about organic metaphors in both fields. But I’m also grateful that I’ve been working in the Writing Center, because tutoring constantly reminds me, and indeed requires me, to look up and notice at least some of the other interesting things going on around me. (more…)
By Andy Karr
Andy Karr is Coordinator of the Wausau Homes Learning Center and Lecturer in English at the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County. Andy worked from 2008-2010 in the UW-Madison Writing Center. He is completing a dissertation on writing and thinking in general education.
The University of Wisconsin-Marathon County is one of the thirteen two-year UW-College campuses. About 1400 students attend UWMC, located in Wausau, Wisconsin. Many UWMC students transfer to Madison, but, at the same time, all UW Colleges have a policy of admitting all qualified applicants. This makes for a broad range of services our writing center aims to provide. Not all UW College campuses have a writing center that operates in the same way that UWMC’s does.
By Anna T. Floch
Anna Floch is a third year PhD student in Composition & Rhetoric and an instructor of intermediate composition here at UW- Madison. Her research interests include the intersection of identity and literacy, collaboration, and examining affect and emotion in the writing process. She started as a writing center instructor at UW in the Fall of 2012.
I recently overheard a friend and colleague as he began his first shift as a writing center tutor. Before the shift began I had spoken with him about his first appointment and he mentioned he was expectant, nervous, and excited – all very valid emotions to feel when one is stepping into a new role as a consultant in the writing center. Overhearing this moment and talking with him about it beforehand offered me a chance to reflect on my own journey as a writing center instructor (note: I will use the terms “writing center instructor” and “writing center tutor” interchangeably in this post). Up until the point when I began my role as an instructor in our writing center I had tutored in community writing programs, taught my own introduction and intermediate composition classes, and worked in a number of non-traditional educational settings, but I had never stepped foot in a writing center. I came to UW-Madison from a large private university and I (sheepishly) admit that I never utilized the writing center during my undergraduate or masters experience. Though writing centers’ core tenets of talk, collaboration, and relationship building fit deeply into my own personal pedagogy and identity as a classroom teacher, I was concerned with my own ability to navigate the challenges and demands of writing center instruction.
Needless to say, when I started in the writing center last fall, I felt as though I was peering into a big deep canyon (see above): it loomed large, felt thrilling, and was a little bit terrifying. The last year has been a lesson for me in what happens when we close the gap between instructor and student, when we discuss disciplines we do not immediately understand, when we interface with new students from around the campus on a daily basis, and when we take time to really listen to the needs of the writers we work with. In short, my experience in the writing center has made me a better writer, student, and teacher. In that spirit, and as many students and tutors across the country are returning to their work in the writing center, I want to take time to reflect on the key lessons that I have learned over the last year which I hope are useful to both new and returning writing center tutors. (more…)
Lauri Dietz, left, and Matthew Pearson, right.
By Matthew Pearson and Lauri Dietz, DePaul University.
Matthew Pearson, a UW-Madison Writing Center alum, is the director of the Writing Fellow Program and Faculty Development at the University Center for Writing-based Learning (UCWbL) at DePaul University in Chicago, IL. Lauri Dietz directs the UCWbL and is part of the UW-Madison coaching tree thanks to the invaluable mentoring Stuart Greene and John Duffy provided her while a graduate student at Notre Dame.
By Taryn Okuma, The Catholic University of America.
Taryn Okuma is Director of the Writing Center and Clinical Assistant Professor of English at The Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington, D.C. She received her Ph.D. in Literary Studies from UW-Madison in 2008. While at Madison, she served as the Co-Director of the English 100 Tutorial Program for two years and worked at the Writing Center for four years.
I feel fortunate to be posting after Kristiane, whose thoughtful discussion of transfer with Caroline Levine provides valuable insights to the connections between the work that we do in writing centers, writing across the curriculum, and literature classrooms. I, too, have been thinking a great deal about the intersection of instruction in writing centers and in classrooms. Although we have a moderate amount of traffic at our center, I’m also very aware that we are only seeing a small percentage of the students who could benefit from visiting us. One of the questions that I come back to again and again as a WC director is, “Why aren’t more students visiting the Writing Center at CUA?” And as an English professor, I ask, “Why aren’t more of my students visiting the WC?”
By Mitch Nakaue, The University of Iowa.
As a deeply introverted person, I’ve always been interested in the power of writing center work to incite talk. As a graduate student at UW–Madison, I learned to cultivate an expressive and even outgoing classroom teaching persona, but found myself much less drained by one-to-one discussions with students. Writing center teaching, which I began in 2004, capitalized on my preferred mode of interaction: focused and detailed exchanges with one person. And to my surprise, writing center teaching wasn’t draining; in fact, it produced a buzz. I think many of us are familiar with the buzz — the euphoria we feel when the thirty or sixty minutes fly by in a whirlwind of student and tutor collaboration on the development or revision of a piece of writing. Indeed, we might even gauge the success of a tutoring session by how much was said. We talked the whole time!
Wendy Osterweil and Eli Goldblatt
By Eli Goldlbatt, Temple University.
Eli Goldblatt graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1990 and taught at Villanova University from that year until he moved to Temple University in 1996. He is currently professor of English and Director of First Year Writing at Temple. He was faculty co-director of the Writing Center at Temple from 1999 until 2005. Through New City Writing, the outreach arm of the writing program, he has helped to support Tree House Books, Temple Writing Academy, and other projects in collaboration with community partners in North Philadelphia. Among other scholarly publications, he is the author of Because We Live Here: Sponsoring Literacy Beyond the College Curriculum (Hampton P 2007), and Writing Home: A Literacy Autobiography (S. Illinois UP, 2012). His books of poetry include Journeyman’s Song (Coffee House, 1990), Sessions 1-62 (Chax Press, 1991), Speech Acts (Chax Press, 1999), and Without a Trace (Singing Horse Press, 2001). In addition, Goldblatt published two children’s books, Leo Loves Round and Lissa and the Moon’s Sheep, both from Harbinger House in 1990.
My wife, Wendy Osterweil, is a printmaker, often screen printing on fabric in multiple layers and then quilting back into the shapes and colors. She also teaches art education in a fine arts college, where she prepares young artists for a variety of urban and suburban K-12 classrooms. In our many, many talks about teaching and the arts over the years, she links the art she most admires with the teaching she seeks to foster: work that shows the human hand. Together, we have come to think about teaching as an art done “by hand,” and I’d like to share with you some thoughts about this conception for writing instruction. (more…)
By Lauren Vedal. Lauren Vedal was a tutor at the UW-Madison Writing Center from 2004-2009. She is now the Writing Specialist in the Humanities at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, where she provides one-on-one writing consultations for students and support for faculty who want to better incorporate writing instruction into their courses.
Shame and Writing
I’ve been thinking about shame and writing. As writing tutors, we consider writers’ shame not infrequently. Writers sometimes explicitly express shame about their “bad writing,” and there is shame implicit in the vulnerability of sharing one’s writing-in-progress. But I’m interested in taking another angle on shame—shame as it relates to earnestness.
By Jenna Mertz, Undergraduate Assistant Director of the Writing Fellows Program. Jenna is a senior majoring in English, Spanish and Environmental Studies. She has been a Writing Fellow for six semesters.
Last Friday, undergraduate Writing Fellows and Writing Center instructors convened to mingle, share, and engage with each other at the annual joint staff meeting highlighting the original research of seven Writing Fellows. Attendees shuffled from room to room to listen to presentations featuring discussions about power dynamics, body language, and agenda setting during the writing conference; to explorations of identity, rhetoric, and multilingual tutors.
As my fellow Undergraduate Assistant Director, Logan, and I watched our peers present and grad students listen and scribble in what seemed to be shake-up of roles, we got a little existential. We got to thinking about ourselves. We got to thinking about undergraduates, and what it means to be us. (more…)