In my first semester teaching at Perimeter College, I was assigned three sections of the Foundations for English Composition Learning Support class. The purpose of the Foundations class is to help underprepared students build the reading comprehension and writing skills they’ll need throughout the rest of their college careers. In order to pass Foundations and move on to ENGL 1101, they must not only earn a passing grade in the class, but also pass an Exit Essay, which is assessed anonymously by other professors in the department. And, if a student doesn’t pass the class on their second try, she or his is expelled from Perimeter College and the entire University System of Georgia for one year. In that sense, students in the Foundations class are in one of the most vulnerable positions in the college. There is a tremendous amount of pressure on these students to master all of these writing skills – essay structure, grammar, organization, idea development, unity, thesis statements, etc. – in 15 weeks.
I have my students do a short, low-stakes essay on the first day of class, partly to get to know a little bit about them, and partly to take the temperature, so to speak, of where everyone is in terms of writing ability. As I read through them in my office after my first three classes, I felt the pressure of responsibility for these 65 or so students in this very vulnerable position. (The fact that the prompt was about their goals and the reasons they’d enrolled in college to begin with probably added to that pressure.) I didn’t believe it would be productive for my students if I pointed out every single possible area for improvement; instead, I feared, that would be overwhelming. I decided to use the feedback I gave them to try to help them do the work of prioritizing.
I can’t take credit for that idea; it came from Megan Fulwiler’s Chronicle of Higher Education article “On Yoga and Teaching Writing.” In the article, Fulwiler points out that, so often in composition classes, we overwhelm our students with feedback. In contrast, she reflects on a yoga class she’d recently attended, during which the teacher went over to an attendee and made one slight adjustment rather than haranguing him to alter every possible thing he could do to improve the execution of the posture. What good yoga teachers do is encourage people to grow stronger in their practice by working from the foundation upward. Why, Fulwiler suggests, don’t we take this approach in composition classes? As both a dedicated but mediocre yogi and a writer myself, I found Fulwiler’s suggestion logical. After all, when I teach creative writing classes, I encourage my students to revise with the goal not of making their stories “perfect,” but of making them “one draft better.” And when I go about revising an essay or a work of fiction, I certainly don’t try to “fix” everything all at once; instead, I revise in layers. Why not, I thought, try this approach for the students in my Foundations class?
Throughout the semester, Foundations students write five in-class essays, aside from the short one I have them write on the first day. As I see it, that’s five chances at applying the writing skills we’ve talked about and practiced in class. So, beginning with that very first low-stakes essay, I use feedback that is meant to help students prioritize which foundational writing skill to work on next. I begin my feedback with a few sentences about what they did well already in their essays, and then, rather than following the common formula of pointing out that particular essay’s weaknesses, I write suggestions for specific skills the student should work on for her or his next essay. I introduce those suggestions with some variation of the phrase For the next essay, I’d like you to work on. Sometimes I write Keep up this good work and also; sometimes I write continue working on, if there is a particular skill I know a student has been struggling with. The specific suggestions look like this, often with some variation or further clarification particular to the essay or the student:
– making your thesis statement more specific
– checking each body paragraph to make sure that all of the information is related to one central main idea
– beginning each body paragraph with a clear topic sentence that establishes the main idea/focus of the paragraph
– following up the examples in your body paragraphs with a few more sentences of detail/explanation
– repeating key words/ideas from the thesis in the body topic sentences to make the connection between the paragraph and the thesis more clear
– identifying and correcting incomplete sentences
After I return the first essay, I talk to the class about the feedback, explaining that the strengths I pointed out aren’t necessarily the only things they did well; they are just the things they did best. I say that I want them to know what they did well so they can continue doing that. I tell them that the suggestions I wrote aren’t necessarily the only areas they’ll ever need to improve on; they’re just the most pressing ones right now. I tell them that I’ve been writing for almost my whole life, and that even after earning multiple degrees in writing, I know there is always something about it that I can get better at, and that it can feel overwhelming for me, too. I explain that I’ve written the feedback the way I have because I want them to work on building the foundation for being stronger writers rather than trying to perfect everything at once.
I’m now teaching the Foundations class for the third time and, though I’ve had the idea to do a study on the efficacy of this feedback style since that first semester, I am just now able to collect usable data. Though I was able to obtain approval from the Georgia Perimeter College IRB, it didn’t come through until the beginning of the Spring 2016 semester, so it was too late to obtain consent from my Fall students to use their information. Toward the end of Spring semester, I learned that I needed to re-obtain IRB approval from GSU now that we were consolidated, which ended up being a much longer and more arduous process than the GPC one. First I was required to complete the online CITI Training course for conducting research with human subjects, which took about 10 hours. Intending to use data from my Summer 2016 Foundations class as a pilot study, I submitted the IRB application through GSU’s IRIS system near the beginning of that semester. Preparing all of the required documents and filling out the application form took approximately an additional 5 hours of work time. The initial turnaround on my application was quick – about four days. However, the IRB required some stipulations, so I had to revise several parts of my application and resubmit it. The application process then stagnated for several weeks, until I finally got notification that some of my revisions hadn’t saved. After making the additional changes and resubmitting the application once again, I received the notification of approval a few days after the semester’s end. Unfortunately, that meant I couldn’t consent my students and use any of the Summer data either.
Now, though, I’m finally in the process of collecting data. The data I’m collecting includes:
– the feedback I type up for each student on each essay, for the purpose of comparing the essay-to-essay feedback to look for indications of incremental improvement
– the students’ scores on each of the 5 in-class essays
– the students’ final grades in the class
– whether or not the students pass the Exit Essays, and the percentage of students who pass
– responses to a survey I’ll send out at the end of the semester, which asks questions regarding how often students read the feedback, whether they can identify specific areas in which they have improved their writing over the semester, their general level of confidence in their writing ability, and whether they feel that the feedback they received helped them improve their writing
In addition to measuring whether the feedback actually helps students become stronger writers, I’m also interested in whether the students’ confidence in their own abilities improves over the semester. I hear from so many of my students that they are “bad writers” or “have never been good at writing,” and so part of what I hope the feedback I give them does is give them a way to see writing as a skill that can be improved upon with practice, rather than a purely innate ability, or inability, that they have no control over.
Though I haven’t been able to use any of the data from my previous Foundations classes, my overall sense is that the prioritized feedback style, in combination with the in-class instruction, is helping my students build those foundational writing skills. At the end of the semester, I have a short conference with each student asking them what they have improved on, and in previous semesters nearly all of them have been able to respond confidently with something specific. My organization has gotten better. I understand thesis statements and topic sentences. I use more detail in my paragraphs. I also ask them what they need to keep working on, and the result is the same: nearly everyone can tell me something specific they have room to improve on. I need to make sure I go more in-depth. I need to watch my word choice and verb forms. Also, having just recently graded my current students’ third in-class essays, I can see that, with a few exceptions, the scores on the essays are steadily going up. For some students it’s a few points at a time; for others there are bigger jumps. But also, and probably more importantly in the long run, when I read the essays, the writing feels stronger and more confident.