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Center for Integrative Studies

Sean Anderson: Conservation Biology Class

The syllabus:

The strong focus on writing in the syllabus is helpful.  It reinforces the significance of writing in scientific study.  An impressive 45% of the course grade depends on written assignments.  A culture of writing is established immediately.  This focus is reinforced by the epigraphs on the first page, the cartoon that references a young adult novel, and the large amount of information communicated in writing on the syllabus itself. 

The brief note on personal communication is helpful.  Perhaps, taking advice from an early bullet point, this note could stay a little more positive.  This would not solve the overall problem of a decline in technical writing, but it would help to disarm a bit of student resistance (which is often a good first step).

The prompt for the research paper does a very effective job of communicating your expectations.  Your focus on writing as a process should be very helpful to your students, as well.  My suggestion for revision is minimal: perhaps it would be helpful to have students imagine a professional scientific audience that expands beyond the instructor.  Imagining the instructor as the audience compels students to imagine that their audience is already familiar with all of the information in the research paper, which allows them to gloss over significant points that need to be dealt with in detail.  If, instead, they imagine that their audience is a group of scholars at an academic conference, or a high school teacher gaining extended education credits (or some other professional audience), it would create the same expectations but would still require them to articulate all of their ideas more completely. 

Pre-midterm:

The pre-mid-term is an excellent assignment.  It models for them the types of questions they will be facing and the types of responses you expect.  Class time is short, so I understand why you didn't read through the whole response.  However, it may help to spend five minutes reading through the entire response as a class and explaining how the answer you are providing meets the criteria of the assignment.

Also, I recommend allowing a mulligan or two with regards to spelling or grammatical errors.  In this way, rather than getting a zero for any spelling or grammatical errors, they would be allowed two mistakes, and the third mistake would warrant a zero.

Student Examples:

The exercise you did in which you presented examples from student responses and discussed them was helpful.  What you were really looking for in the two examples you gave was a more concise summary, but the students initially focused on grammar.  Both examples focus on remedying the same problem.  I wonder if you could be more specific in your approach.  For example, introduce the mini-lesson by saying, "Today, we are working on being specific and concise in our reading responses..."

It may help to keep in mind an old rule for tutoring: work on only one issue per session. 

Your are strongest when you make your process transparent (e.g., when you explain the process of gathering population estimates for endangered species, etc.) You also do an excellent job of introducing students to discipline-specific jargon.  I noticed that, when you used a term that students are typically unfamiliar with, you define it. 

Student Involvement in Editing:

I see the problem that you are having with grammatical errors in your student's writing.  Most people learn to use correct grammar by reading a lot and by writing a lot.  Teachers tend to have better grammar because the process of grading and correcting student writing allows them the opportunity to think more directly about grammar and to practice improving it.  Students can get this same kind of focus and practice.  Below is an example that may work for your class.

Sample prompt for interactive practice:

This week, post your reading summary in Blackboard's Discussion Board.  The summaries are due by noon on Sunday.  After posting your summary, read several of your classmate's summaries.  Pick two of them and rewrite them in a way that is grammatically correct.  Post your rewrite as a response on Discussion Board.

A second type of this assignment:

Pick two summaries and rewrite them in a way that retains the significant information but uses half the number of words. 

There are numerous benefits to having students correct each other's work.  Beyond giving them the focus and practice mentioned above, I think this exercise would force students to write their reading summaries more carefully.  Students tend to work a little harder when their classmates are assessing them.

Peer Review Notes:

The first thing I suggest is making the peer review process part of the assessment.  Perhaps 5% of their grade could depend on peer review.  This would at least communicate to students the importance of being part of the process.

Much of your peer review process went well.  It is helpful that students bring multiple copies of their essays to share with classmates.  I can see pros and cons to your practice of giving students feedback prior to the peer review process.  On the positive side, this ensures that students actually do complete a rough draft and they have legitimate raw materials to work with in peer review.  On the negative side, it creates a power differential in the sense that students may feel they can dismiss their peer's comments because the professor's comments are the only important ones.  Your experience would speak better to the efficacy of this than my speculation does. 

Your practice of having students write a one-sentence summary of their peer's essay is an excellent idea on a number of levels. 

My two biggest suggestions for the peer review process:

First, you did a good job of walking them through the steps of peer review.  However, I noticed that none of the students took notes on those steps.  It would help to give them a handout or use Power Point to give specific instructions that they can refer back to. 

Here's an example of step-by-step instructions:

Instructions: Answer the following questions or complete the following actions on your classmate's essay:

  • 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?
  • 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?

You can adapt these instructions to your own personal needs.

My second suggestion for the peer review process has to do with group work.  I've noticed in my own classes that students give their friends almost no feedback because they want to remain friends.  I've had better results breaking up the students so that they are reviewing essays by classmates whom they do not know that well.  Strangers tend to be more objective because they have less to lose.  Here is how I do it.  I count the number of students present and find that there are, say, twenty-four.  I want groups of three.  I give students a number counting from one to eight.  All of the ones get together, all of the twos, etc.  This means that students will work among classmates who were sitting anywhere between 8 and 16 seats away.  It works pretty well.

Overall:

You are doing a great job.  I think the problem you are facing have more to do with the impossibility of completely reforming student writing in one semester than with what you are doing.  Based on the way you set up the class, I assume that student writing does improve a great deal over the course of the semester.  We need more classes like this one.

Sean Anderson's Response

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