Information Sheet #153

March 16, 2007

Spring Break Discoveries

Student/Faculty Perception of Writing Assignments

The Writing Program at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa recently completed a three-year study that examined how instructors’ expectations when assigning papers compared with students’ perceptions of these same tasks.  As we might expect, the instructors’ ideals do not always correspond with the students’ practices.  Consider, for example, these faculty/student interpretations of the same assignments:

Assignment #1:

Instructor: “For the short paper on a video, I wanted students to make connections among the archeologist’s questions, the methods used to get answers, and principles from their reading.”

Student: “This assignment was like writing a high-school movie review.  I wanted to give my own personal under-standing about the video, so I was going to write a narrative.”

Assignment #2:

Instructor: “I wanted students to really wrestle with the questions on the assignment sheet, to give in-depth answers. . . .  to distinguish between the author’s words and their own interpretation.”

Student: “I was supposed to write a 6-page analysis on a reading and juice up the answers.  I tried to make it sound good by adding lots of details and sounding excited in my writing.”

The research demonstrates that students approach new writing assignments by adopting strategies used with previous writing assignments–rather than risk experimenting with new approaches.  How can professors bridge the gap between their expectations and students’ predispositions?  To answer that question, the researchers asked students to identify what faculty might do to facilitate student understanding.  Here are some student suggestions:

• Since most students view writing assignments primarily for purposes of evaluation, there was little enthusiasm for assignments intended simply to generate a grade.  Students felt they might benefit more from assignments that focus on their own learning/ thinking processes (for example, journals), developing their reading skills, improving their data-collection techniques (such as “process logs”), and learning to become more analytical (compositions involving the synthesis and analysis of journal articles).

• Students felt they were often being asked to compose papers in unfamiliar genres, creating kinds of papers they had never read before.  Students appreciated faculty who discussed how they would complete the assignment or demonstrated how the submitted compositions would be evaluated.  When asking students to revise a paper, faculty might provide specific examples, sharing with students an initial draft and how it was revised.

• Students want some evidence that the writing is related to their field of work or future profession.  The students may need assistance in understanding how an assignment asking them to summarize or write an analysis of a methodology is related to any future writing tasks. Students valued studying examples of the instructor’s texts, providing a model for their own writing.

• Students wanted clearer directions on how their compositions would be evaluated.  One experienced instructor recommended giving students written “criteria for evaluation along with assignment guidelines.  Discuss these before students begin writing and as students work on completing the assignment. . . .  Provide students with examples, perhaps some well written and some not so well written, of student work from previous semesters.  Using the criteria provided, have students assess the writing.”

• Students like assignment sheets that guide them through the thinking/writing processes.  “If given only a list of ‘provocative questions,’ students often write little more than unlinked paragraphs that answer the questions.  In contrast, if [given] information on their audience (e.g., peers, field professionals), purpose (to demonstrate, illustrate, or persuade), and genre (research proposal, critique), they are more likely to learn and to write more effectively.” 

[Information adapted from the web site: ]



Instant Messaging: The Demise of Literacy?

“Of course instant messaging is undermining traditional grammar. Just as, earlier, telegraph writing and shorthand undermined it. And earlier than that, the pencil with its nefarious eraser undermined it. Of course even earlier traditional grammar was utterly undermined when street English replaced court French and law Latin. And you can’t imagine how those medieval scribes with their diabolical abbreviations absolutely undermined Cicero’s traditional grammar.  Isn’t is marvelous how traditional grammar keeps coming back? Cats could take lessons from traditional grammar.”

[Recent WPA Listserv posting by Rich Haswell, Emeritus Professor of English at Texas A&M University]


Getting Students To Do Their Homework

[An attractive example of faculty collaboration in the development of a writing program is evident in materials developed at Prince George’s Community College in Maryland.  What follows is an abridged version of “A Strategy for Getting Students To Do Their Homework” by Bill Pierce, Co-ordinator of the college’s Reasoning Across the Curriculum Program.  I was inspired to include Pierce’s procedures after a recent conversation with a group of Coe students discussing how they never did any of the reading assignments for one professor because everything they needed for an exam came from the lectures.  One student commented that doing the reading assignments actually interfered with doing well in the class because of the nature of the exams; once he stopped doing the reading assignments, his exam scores improved dramatically.]


Would you use more class time for active learning (discussion, small group tasks, etc.) if the students arrived with the assigned reading already read and understood?  I learned the following procedure for getting students to do their homework on time at a critical thinking workshop conducted by Richard Paul, Director of the Center for Critical Thinking at Sonoma State University.  During the fifteen years that I’ve been using this strategy, my students are better prepared, and I have a lower dropout rate.

Here is the basic procedure

1.  Assign a daily writing assignment based on the reading (outline, summary, response to questions, application, etc.).

• At the beginning of the course, teach the students how you want them to read the textbook chapters and other readings and show them how to annotate/outline/summarize a chapter.

• Train students how to apply reading strategies to the textbook in your course; model the reading and note-taking process you want them to use, ask them to apply it, and in the first few class sessions give them feedback on how well they did it.

• Show them what to underline, how to annotate pages, how to take notes, how to use visual cues (such as headings), what to do with illustrations, how to summarize, when to read skeptically, when to read for understanding, how to handle new vocabulary.

• Always ask for a written product in response to the reading.  Vary the kinds of responses you ask them to write.  Keep these writing-to-learn tasks informal, engaged personal writing–not formal, grammatically correct, spell-checked writing.  Writing for a grammar judge shifts students’ goals from learning the material to pleasing a teacher.

2.  Stamp or initial the daily writing assignment.

• Begin each class with a homework check.  Stamp it or sign your initials.  (I have a collection of rubber stamps, which I vary each day).  Just glance at their notebooks long enough to assure yourself that it is indeed homework for your course. . . . Don’t collect it or read it or provide feedback on it.

• Late work does not get a stamp–no matter how good the excuse.  Allow a safety net of a few late, unstamped assignments.

3.  Design meaningful small-group tasks based on the written homework.

• There are many tasks students can do: apply textbook concepts to concrete cases; answer teacher-posed questions; select the “best” homework using teacher-assigned criteria or their own; critique and revise written work; synthesize, compare/contrast, evaluate; and support a position.  If your active-learning tasks are designed well, fit well with the course objectives, and help the students prepare for tests and assigned papers, most students will see these tasks as meaningful and worth their participation.

• Students who have not done the day’s written homework cannot participate in the group work; they sit at their desks and do their unfinished homework–no matter how valid their excuse for not doing their homework.  Busy adults with families and employers have valid reasons for not doing every single homework assignment, and if they accept the rationale behind your procedure, they will not feel ostracized or punished for not getting their homework done.

4.  Grade only a random sample of the writing assignments.

• The students’ incentive for doing a good job on their daily written homework is both intrinsic and extrinsic.  Their intrinsic motivation comes from their daily intellectual engagement in the course material, their sense of satisfaction in understanding what’s going on in the course, and their sense of being prepared for class and not getting hopelessly behind.

• Their extrinsic motivation comes from their knowledge that you will grade their daily homework at schedule intervals or at the end of the course.  You don’t need to read and grade everything.  That takes too much time–you’ll never do it again.  Instead, select a random sample.  Richard Paul’s method is to collect their portfolio of assignments at the end of the course, select one daily writing assignment from the first third of the course, two from the second, and three from the third.  My method is to skim all assignments three times during the semester.

• Make your grading criteria clear at the beginning of the course.  I grade homework using two criteria: thoroughness and attention to the assigned task.  Assign the homework portfolio an appropriate percentage of the course grade (mine is 30%).

[This article and other related pieces were obtained from the web site:]

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