by Jennifer Johnson, Linguistics (Home Department: Education)
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2013
The course “Endangered Languages: What We Lose when a Language Dies” offers an array of interesting topics related to language, thought, and culture that keeps the discussion engaging and the ideas flowing. However, as a Reading and Composition course, the main objective is to improve students’ academic writing skills. As an instructor, I spend hours each week offering written feedback on short writing assignments and argumentative papers; however, early in the semester, I discovered that feedback often went unread or unincorporated. Or students would come to office hours, paper with unread feedback in hand, requesting to dialogue around my margin comments. This made me realize I needed to develop in-class peer review and self review activities that assist students in exploring, understanding, and contesting feedback. How do I transfer students’ passion during the in-class discussions to engaging verbally with the written dialogue I have created in the margins of their papers? How do I help students develop metacognitive skills — in other words, reflect on their reflections?
One approach to developing metacognitive skills among students was to create multi-step “follow-up” activities for every writing assignment that would engage them in peer- and self-reflections. For the initial diagnostic essay, students were asked to write a paper with the prompt, “To what extent is language endangerment comparable to species endangerment?” The first aim of the follow-up assignment I created was to help students identify and write solid thesis statements that effectively address the question at hand. The second aim was to have students revisit the initial question and revise their own writing in order to explicitly understand the strengths and weaknesses in their own statements. I created a multi-step in-class activity/handout to revisit student thesis statements. First, it is important to return to the initial assignment prompt and fully unpack the question. In the first part of the handout activity, I highlighted key words and measures in the prompt so that students are aware of what their thesis statements must address: “To what extent is language endangerment comparable to species endangerment?” Next, students were offered three good examples of thesis statements from their classmates (with the student writers’ permission). They were asked to give feedback, just as an instructor would, to each statement. The handout asks, “For each thesis statement example, how do you envision the rest of the paper mapping out? How does each thesis statement address the ‘so what’ question? What revisions would you make to the following statements?” I let students discuss their answers with classmates in groups in order to understand various perspectives on each statement. Finally, I asked students to reread my feedback and rewrite their initial thesis statements. Students were given the opportunity to mark up their initial statements and rewrite them.
By collecting the handout for review, I was able to assess any changes or progress made from each student’s initial thesis statement to the revised statement. Peer review, peer sharing, and revisiting feedback are vital components that offer students ways to reflect on their own writing — hopefully enhancing their academic writing by engaging in dialogue-driven revision.