by Rebecca Elliott, Sociology
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2012
The problem: When my students submit their exams for Sociological Theory, I tell them I can’t wait to read them, and I mean it. I love reading my students’ written work, and the exams for Sociological Theory are take-home essays, so I know they’ve had time to consult the text, reflect on the questions, showcase their best ideas, and proofread. In deference to the time they put into writing their exams, I spend considerable time writing up my reactions. I provide substantive feedback in the form of questions and comments, in both marginal notes and in a narrative paragraph at the end that synthesizes the strengths and weaknesses of the paper, as I see them.
I got the sense, though, that my students weren’t spending a lot of time reading and reflecting on my comments, and thus they were missing out on opportunities to improve their analytical writing skills. I tried to recall my own experiences as an undergraduate, and remembered the rush of relief when it came time to turn in an assignment; I never wanted to think about it again. And by the time I got it back from my GSI — usually two weeks or so later — the assignment was a dim memory. I often flipped hastily to the back page, read the letter grade, and moved on. Now that I was on the other side of things, how could I ensure that my students read, reflected, and internalized my feedback in a way that would improve their skills and enhance their learning?
The strategy: When it came time to turn in the second midterm, I had my students spend ten minutes in discussion section writing up a reflection on the assignment. I prepared a handout that asked them to answer five questions:
- What do you like best about your paper?
- What did you find most difficult or challenging in working on this paper? Why do you think it was challenging?
- If you had more time, what would you keep working on?
- What questions or issues should I be sure to pay attention to in responding to your paper?
- Comment briefly on the process of writing this paper: how did you go about it? What strategies worked best for you? How might you change your writing process for future assignments?
These reflections helped me identify the aspects of analytical writing that my students were most concerned about, on an individual basis. I could then tailor my attention to these concerns, ensuring that the feedback my students received was relevant to them. In writing up my narratives to them, I explicitly invoked these reflections, telling them how I saw the paper in light of the strengths and weaknesses they had identified. Asking them to write these reflections amounted to a promise that they would learn something worthwhile if they spent time reading and reflecting on my comments to them.
The assessment: In subsequent writing assignments, many students told me they had returned to earlier reflections and my comments in planning their writing processes and revising drafts. In their reflections on the next papers, they mentioned how their processes had changed from previous assignments. I also found that foregrounding the development of skills, rather than the performance of mastery, defused some of the anxiety around grades; students saw the task not as one of writing the “perfect” paper, but of honing their analytical voice — something that would require their commitment and that my feedback was designed to support.