by Liza Dolan
Academic Challenge Program
Delaware Technical Community College
Teaching English is the perfect job, until you consider all the grading. Every teacher has papers to grade, but evaluating essays is particularly complex because there are so many factors that make a piece of writing good: correct usage, unique style, logical structure, and—perhaps most importantly—valuable or original content. And, while measuring these factors to arrive at a single grade takes a lot of time and thought, there is also the even more monumental task of providing students with feedback. College teachers estimate that they spend between 20 and 40 minutes on each paper, which is nearly impossible for one person to do with consistent quality if they’ve got 80 students or more.
Too little, too late
If we wonder why students are not good writers when they arrive in the college classroom, we might consider that in order for students to become better writers, they need two things: to write a lot and to get timely feedback. However, the current structure of one instructor to 80 to 120 students prevents both of these conditions. Teachers are hesitant to assign a lot of writing because there is no way they could provide quality feedback in a timely manner.
Because of such intense grading loads, it is possible that students receive feedback on an essay almost two weeks after they write it. As teachers and writers ourselves, we know that such lag time can strike the momentum of a writing project dead. We wonder why students stick the essay in their binder without even looking at the comments, but by the time we provide them with feedback, they have already lost all of their initial investment in the project.
Since it’s impossible for the instructor to give the students everything that they need, English teachers have long attempted to circumvent the too little feedback too late problem by employing students to provide peer review to each other, but this eats up valuable class time and often garners more groans from students than gratitude.
Looking to ed tech for a solution
One of my goals as an instructor in the New Faculty Development Program at Delaware Tech was to learn new ways, primarily using educational technology, to both increase feedback on student writing and make that feedback more immediate. After taking IDT G31 Teaching with Technology last spring, I decided to add a component to a group project I had tried the year before.
The project required students to work in teams to read a short story from the American Realist and Naturalist Period; find, read and outline a scholarly article on the story; create a digital visual retelling the story; and, finally, write an analysis essay as a group. Students had a lot of options for how to go about composing their group essays, but one piece of educational technology they used inspired me to rethink the problem of timely, quality feedback: Google Drive.
One group decided to do the paper entirely outside of class using a shared document on Google Drive. They demonstrated to the rest of the class how each group member was able to access the document and compose whenever they found time during the week. They showed, too, the discussion that took place in the margins about where the essay needed more material or detail. One member was placed in charge of editing the final draft, but it was evident that the composition had been a dynamic and group process.
The comment that stopped me dead in my tracks, though, was when one of the students related that by coincidence he and another student had been in the document at the same time, and while he was writing, she had made a comment about something in his section that inspired him to revise immediately. Google Drive was the solution to time-consuming and unproductive peer review sessions. It let the students communicate quality feedback in an online environment that was familiar to them.
Because of this initial success and the enthusiasm the group showed for their experience of using Google Drive, I decided to add a similar component to our Spring Writing and Research course. Writing and Research is a capstone course in the English portion of the Academic Challenge Program that occurs just before students leave the high school curriculum to take their college courses. In the course, students are required to write a literary research paper of 17 to 20 pages, a process which takes the entire semester to complete.
Such a complex writing task requires a consistent and recursive feedback process, and Google Drive can provide just that. My plan is to have every student create a document which will be shared with the instructor as well as one peer. Peers will then have the responsibility to comment on each section of the paper as it is developed. To guide the process and keep student comments relevant, I will provide them with a rubric that focuses their feedback on key areas, such as structure, logic, and quality content.
Although I find it difficult to give up my traditional paper and pen response method, I, too, plan to check in on student writing throughout the week in Google Drive. I am particularly interested to see if the more frequent, sustained feedback from both peers and instructor throughout the writing process will make for a better final outcome in the research paper for the class as a whole. I believe it will.
How do you provide timely feedback to your students? How do you encourage them to provide feedback to each other? Share your ideas in the comments.