The issues to address:
- Give students a better sense of technical writing.
- Help students to develop an awareness of audience.
- Move away from narrative essays.
- Express expectations more clearly.
Observations about the prompt:
The assignment itself is excellent. It provides students with a real-world-type example of writing. It seems less like an exercise and more like the development of specific skills for using their knowledge of mathematics in a business setting. It also provides an opportunity for students to engage in technical writing.
Our conversations indicated that students were making a few common mistakes regarding the assignment. First, they were writing narratives of how they solved the problem. This is a problem because it demonstrates a lack of awareness of audience. In a business setting, most employers are interested in the solution to the problem and suggestions for improvement, not in narratives about your work day. A second common problem was that students were focusing primarily on the mathematics and secondarily on the writing, while you were assessing about 40% of their grade based upon the mathematics and 60% upon the writing.
Because this is a technical writing assignment, we decided that, while we must leave room open for creativity, it would be helpful to provide more guidance to the students. We developed more detailed instructions that could be used in this assignment and others to communicate specific expectations to the students. The detailed instructions are at the end of this report in Appendix A.
In addition to creating a more detailed prompt that illustrates for students the structure they can incorporate on their essays, we worked together to develop a grading rubric for the students. The rubric can serve to express the expectations of the assignment as well as help students understand how they will be assessed. Like the detailed instructions for the prompt, this rubric should be adaptable to other writing assignments. The rubric is at the end of this report in Appendix B.
Another issue we discussed was feedback for the students. We discussed the efficacy (or lack thereof) of written responses on student essays. In lieu of loading the finished product with written comments, we worked on a few ways of focusing attention on the front end of the writing assignments rather than on the back end. We have already provided more detailed instructions and a rubric. In addition to these, we discussed means of workshopping essays in class. I provided examples of activities students could engage in during these workshops to help them in the revision process. Two of these examples are included at the end of this report in Appendix C.
This is an excellent assignment. Actually, both assignments you showed me are helpful for the students. In both cases, they help students develop the skills necessary for communicating their findings to an audience that is less mathematically savvy. These are important skills to learn for students who plan to work in their major once they leave the institution. There is more that we could do with these assignments, of course, but I think that, by giving students much more guidance before they write, your job of assessing these assignments will be easier. What impresses me most about the way you are working with this assignment is your ability to set students up for success in both the use of advanced mathematics to solve business problems and the ability to express these solutions. I think you are doing important work.
Appendix A: Detailed Instructions for Writing Prompts
Begin with a letter to Lamar Watkins. This letter should:
- Be formatted like a business letter.
- Demonstrate an awareness that the audience is the CEO of a publicly-traded corporation.
- Use the language appropriate for that audience.
- Clearly restate the problem to be solved.
- State the answer in a complete sentence which stands on its own.
- Make suggestions for improvements.
Include the report.
This report should:
- Continue to demonstrate an awareness that the audience is the CEO of a publicly-traded corporation.
- Expand upon the problem to be solved.
- Explain your approach to the problem. NOTE: Your awareness of the audience would include an awareness that a CEO is not interested in a lengthy story about what you were doing while you solved the problem. Keep focused on the mathematical approach.
- Define all variables used.
- Explain how each formula is derived or where it can be found.
- Clearly label all diagrams, tables, graphs, or other visual representations of the math, if you use them. NOTE: I encourage the use of diagrams, tables, and charts, but I discourage the overuse of them. Keep in mind that your audience is not a mathematician, but that he will likely pass the report on to a mathematician. Your solution must be verified through the mathematics, but also understandable to a lay reader.
- Give acknowledgement where it is due.
- Make suggestions for improvements.
- 40% of your grade will be based upon the mathematics; 60% will be based upon your ability to communicate the solution in writing. Prioritize accordingly.
- Never forget whom you are writing for. When you are finished writing, find a solitary place and read your letter and report out loud, imagining that Lamar Watkins is in the room. Make sure that your letter and report are appropriate for that situation.
- Proofread carefully. Pay attention to spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
- Remember that a well-written, thoughtful report means more money for your company in the future, and more job security for you. Write like you want to keep your job.
- Stop by office hours if you need further assistance.
Appendix B: Rubric for Math 350 Writing Assignments
An "A" paper is extraordinary work that more than fulfills the requirements of the assignment. This essay solves the problem in an innovative way, demonstrates a clear sense of audience and purpose, and is effectively organized. It is formatted appropriately according to the accepted standards of technical writing. The mathematics are clearly demonstrated. The variables are defined. Proper citation and attribution is used. Suggestions are made for improvement. There is evidence of careful editing since the essay contains few grammatical and/or mechanical errors.
A "B" paper is clearly above-average and more than meets the requirements of the assignment. Like the "A" paper, it has a clearly addresses the problem and is organized appropriately. The mathematics are correct and clearly demonstrated. If necessary, it properly gives acknowledgements for any ideas that are not your own. While the essay does solve the initial problem and pay attention to audience, it falls short of the "A" essay in one or more of the following ways: there may be weaknesses in the technical writing; all variables may not be defined; formulas may not be clearly explained; it may fail to make suggestions for improvement; the solution to the problem may not be clearly stated in the first paragraph or two. The essay shows strong evidence of editing since there are relatively few grammatical and/or mechanical errors.
A "C" paper is average work that solidly meets the requirements of the assignment. The essay addresses the problem to be solved and solves it in an adequate way. It falls short of the "B" essay in one or more of the following ways: the mathematics may not be clear; it may lose sight of the audience; there may be an over-reliance on charts, graphs, or tables or they may not be clearly explained; it may fail to make suggestions for improvement; it may lack creativity; the solution to the problem may be buried or difficult to find within the essay; it may fail to follow the conventions of technical writing. Even in the "C" essay, there should be relatively few grammatical or mechanical errors—not enough to interfere with readability; the student has done some editing, even though it may be superficial.
A "D" paper is below average work that demonstrates a serious attempt to fulfill the assignment and shows some promise but does not fully meet the requirements of the assignment. The essay may have one or several of the following weaknesses. The mathematics may be incorrect; it may fail to meet basic standards of technical writing; it may fail to solve the problem; it may solve the problem without properly explaining the process of the solution; it may lose sight of its audience. Grammatical and mechanical errors may interfere with readability and indicate a less-than-adequate attempt at editing or an unfamiliarity with some aspects of Standard Written English.
An "F" paper is substantially below average for the assignment
Appendix C: Instructions for Essay Workshops
Example 1: Instructions for Peer Editing:
Read your classmate’s essay and perform the following activities. When you are finished, discuss your comments with your classmate.
- Does the introduction clearly state the purpose of the essay, identify the main points of the essay, and help the reader focus on the topic? If it does, underline the compelling sentences. If it does not, strike out any information that is too broad to contain meaning or is otherwise fails to engage your attention.
- Circle the thesis statement.
- Is there a smooth transition between paragraphs? Place a star between paragraphs that have a smooth, clear transition. Place a question mark between paragraphs that have a poor, confusing, or abrupt transition.
- Bracket any sentences that are hard to read or comprehend.
- In the margin beside each paragraph, identify the topic and purpose of each paragraph.
- Is it clear how each citation contributes to the text?
- By the end of the paper, do you think the relationship of each paragraph to the thesis statement and purpose of the essay has been logically developed and clearly explained?
- Does the paper end with a clearly stated and justified conclusion?
Example 2: Revising without a Partner
Print your essay and use it to perform the following tasks.
- Read your paper quickly. When you finish, turn it over and write on the back. What stood out to you? What felt less relevant or less powerful?
- Cover up all but the opening paragraph. Read it several times. Does it draw you in and make you want to keep reading? What happens if you cut out the first sentence or two? What happens if you cut it entirely? What needs to be rewritten?
- A couple of good introductory techniques to avoid are:
- The dawn of time-type introduction.
- Dictionary definitions.
- Cover up all but the closing paragraph. Read it several times. How redundant is it of what’s already been said? Cross out the redundancies. Cross out clichés. See what’s left. What does it leave your reader thinking? What’s the answer to the “so what” question?
- Jot down your intended purpose for the paper: What did you set out to do? Now read it. What did you do? Can you tell? If not, what might be causing this problem? (Lack of focus? Too many ideas? Unnecessary sections of text? Unclear text?) Finally, does your intended purpose match your written one? If not, how might you change this paper to get it to fit your purpose?
- Organization. As you read over it yet again, jot down a list in the margin of what each paragraph does. Then look at that list. How does the paper seem to be organized? Is it effective? Are there pieces missing? Is there a more effective strategy?
- Is there anything in your margin list that doesn’t seem to fit or belong? If so, why not? Does it disrupt the flow? Not fit in with the purpose or goal of the paper? Try removing it. What happens?
- Have you considered the naysayer in your text? What alternative perspectives or points of view have you introduced? What alternative perspectives or points of view should you address?
- Write for five minutes addressing your ideas for change. Don’t worry about the coherence of these ideas. Don’t worry if what you’re writing doesn’t make perfect sense or fit a grammatically correct mold. Just write as much as you can as fast as you can for five minutes.
- On your own, consider additions, deletions, and transpositions (moving items within the text). If this makes you nervous, try using track changes or physically cutting, pasting, and adding onto text.