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 Elisabeth Miller with Nancy Linh Karls
Elisabeth Miller is the TA Coordinator of the Madison Writing Assistance (MWA) program and has had the great pleasure of working as an instructor at nearly all of MWA’s locations over the past four years. She also serves as the Assistant Director of the Writing Across the Curriculum Program at UW-Madison and is a Ph.D. candidate in Composition and Rhetoric. Nancy Linh Karls is the Director of MWA. She also serves as the UW-Madison Writing Center’s resident Science Writing Specialist as well as Director of the Mellon/Wisconsin Dissertation Writing Camps.
Whether it’s a resume, a job application, a grant proposal, a college application essay, a letter to a landlord, a medical memoir, or even a zombie apocalypse novel, Madison Writing Assistance (MWA) can help with it — and with much, much more! Offering free, one-to-one writing assistance to Madison residents of all ages, MWA seeks to meet people where they are: in their neighborhoods and on writing that matters to their lives and livelihoods. Continue reading
By Laini Kavaloski
Laini Kavaloski is a Ph.D. student in English and a DesignLab consultant at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
At their best, experimental spaces within the university inspire new fields of inquiry, cultivate new pedagogies, and make cross-disciplinary connections. The innovative University of Wisconsin-Madison’s DesignLab was established in 2011 in order to improve the media literacy of students at the university and to serve as a space of inquiry and experimentation for media work. Indeed, the creative environment of DesignLab has fostered my own interest in the potential of media forms to intervene in political processes. As a graduate student in English and a TA consultant at DesignLab, much of my day is spent contemplating the affordances and constraints of media platforms with students and faculty across campus. In what follows, I give a brief introduction to DesignLab, and then I present a specific example of one of the creative media platforms that we are currently teaching. Continue reading
By Katrin Girgensohn, European University Viadrina, Frankfurt, Oder, Germany
Two weeks ago, a newspaper notice has caught my interest: The National Library in Berlin has received the original logbooks of Alexander von Humboldt’s expedition to South America. All his notes, drawings, thoughts – every word he had scribbled down every evening during his journeys, are now in Berlin. I was thrilled. I often seek a quiet place in this library to write. And now I will share the roof with the original papers of Alexander from Humboldt!
Thinking further, I have wondered why this notice has made me feel so excited. Why do notes about a research journey to America that happened more than 100 years ago please me so much? Probably because this notice made me think about my own research journey to (North) America that happened two years ago. My research journey has been an expedition I started as a writing center director from Germany, where writing centers are currently starting at many universities, but still are a new phenomenon. My goal was to find out more about the successful leadership of writing centers, so that the implementation of writing centers in Europe might be promoted better. Continue reading
By Deborah Brandt
Deborah Brandt is professor emerita of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she was a longtime writing teacher and writing program administrator. She is author of the award-winning Literacy in American Lives and a 2011 Guggenheim fellow. She just finished a new book about changing relationships between reading and writing, as seen through the experiences of workaday writers, and is at work on a co-authored book about writing development across the lifespan.
The first two times Writing Center director Brad Hughes invited me to contribute something to Another Word, I didn’t respond. This resistance puzzled me in some ways. My career has been dedicated to teaching and studying writing. I am a champion of all things writing – with the UW-Madison Writing Center high on the list. Some of my happiest moments in life are spent writing. Besides, aren’t blogs among the most appealing forms of expression? Breezy, easy, low stakes, anything goes—an embodiment of the best democratic potential of the Internet? So when Brad asked for the third time, I thought, okay, what’s the harm? Continue reading
By Rachel Azima
Rachel Azima is the director of the Writing & Media Center at Iowa State University. While completing her Ph.D. in English, she worked for 13 semesters in the UW-Madison Writing Center. Before starting at Iowa State in Fall 2012, she served as Assistant Professor of English at a small private university in the Detroit area, where she helped start a writing center.
The past few years have brought sea changes for me and for the center I direct at Iowa State. During that time, what was the Writing and Media Help Center moved from the English Department to the Dean of Students Office, becoming a joint venture between Academic Affairs and Student Affairs in the process, and I leaped off the tenure track to take a full-time administrative position to direct this center. Since my arrival, we have adopted a new, shorter name—the Writing & Media Center (WMC)—with the “help” removed to avoid those pesky remedial connotations. Our undergraduate staff is transitioning from “peer tutors” to “communication consultants” (terminology we’re still getting used to), and our per semester usage has more than doubled, from 407 tutoring hours in Fall 2011 to 1046 hours in Fall 2013. My graduate assistants and I have thrown ourselves headfirst into outreach efforts: staff members gave 11 presentations total during the year before I arrived, while my graduate assistants and I gave 105 presentations in Fall 2013 alone, allowing us to reach over 3,500 students with information about the WMC. Continue reading
By Rubén Casas
Rubén Casas is a Ph.D. Candidate in the English Department’s Program in Composition and Rhetoric. In addition to his Writing Center teaching, he teaches for the English 201 Program.
Two weeks into the spring 2014 semester I worked with a student in the Main Center who, upon asking her what she was working on, identified herself as a foreign student and asked, quite directly, “How do you write in the U.S.?” She explained that she knew what writing was “supposed to do” in Korea, “but not here, in America.” This must have been one of the clearest questions I’ve gotten as a Writing Center instructor, but it also caught me off-guard. Most students come to the Writing Center to get help with some specific element of their writing—often they talk about “flow,” or “development,” or “cites,” terms that somewhere along the way they’ve learned to use in relation to writing, and that I take for granted as evidence of their knowledge of the writing process and their own issues with writing—but it this actually the case? Continue reading
By Laura Plummer, Director of the Campus Writing Program at Indiana University. She is joined here by Jo Ann Vogt (Writing Tutorial Services Director, Indiana University); Carol Severino (Writing Center Director, the University of Iowa); and Naomi Silver (Writing Center Associate Director, the University of Michigan).
Laura Plummer, Director of the Campus Writing Program at Indiana University
Q: Why did I start an informal working group for “Big Ten” writing center and writing program directors?
A: Because sometimes you just want to spend time with people who get your jokes.
The “tutored” dog
You’ve seen the 1985 Gary Larson Far Side cartoon before, no doubt: a dog riding shotgun in a car is talking out the window to a dog-friend: “Ha, Ha, Biff. Guess what? After we go to the drugstore and post office, I’m going to the vet’s to get tutored!”
It’s funny: our canine speaker misunderstands the play date his owners have planned for him. Tutoring or neutering—oh, what a difference a consonant makes.
For most audiences, the tutor/neuter confusion is funny enough. I would argue that writing center folks find this joke even funnier. We laugh at the distance and tension between what “tutor” means to us, and its potentially clinical meaning to those outside our small writing-profession group. Continue reading
By Leah Misemer @lsmisemer
Leah Misemer is a graduate student in English Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the TA Coordinator of the Online Writing Center there. While her dissertation is on serial commercial comics, she is also interested in media specificity and technology in writing centers. This is her sixth semester working as an instructor at the UW-Madison Writing Center.
Photo of the author taken by Nicole Relyea
When I first trained as a peer tutor at Washington University in St. Louis, I was trained to look at paper drafts. During my first shift as a Writing Center instructor at University of Wisconsin-Madison, a student brought in a draft on a laptop. I was a bit flummoxed about what to do. While it was great for the writer to be able to make changes to the draft during the session, it felt less collaborative than sessions with paper drafts. I had to ask the student to scroll down and up because I didn’t want to touch her expensive electronic equipment, and this felt awkward, like I was shut out of the draft in some way.
This is my sixth semester on staff at UW-Madison and I continue to have a moment of irrational anxiety every time I see a student pull out a laptop during an appointment. This is not to say I don’t have productive appointments with students toting laptops; when I can get students to cut and paste large sections of a draft, the computer facilitates actual draft work the student can take home. But appointments with laptops aren’t all like that. Continue reading
Rob Emmett at the Kohler Dunes, Wisconsin with Elisabeth, 2010.
By Rob Emmett
Writing centers can launch lives in new directions, across continents and oceans. The years I spent working at the Writing Center while in graduate school in Madison certainly set me on a path to my current work at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society (RCC) in Munich, Germany. The RCC is an interdisciplinary, international center for research in environmental history and allied fields that aims to raise the profile of this work in public discussions of environmental issues, in the spirit of our namesake, the influential author of Silent Spring. The project is exceptional in many ways–one being that its directors, Christof Mauch and Helmuth Trischler, represent Munich’s oldest public university (LMU Munich) and the research division of the Deutsches Museum, respectively. For the last year I have served as Director of Academic Programs; I support the center’s research fellows, develop collaborations in environmental humanities with other centers, and teach in our international environmental studies program, among other things. Continue reading