Best Articles from Teaching with Writing
By Lindsay Schwehr, WIC GTA
In celebration of WIC’s 25th year, the WIC team has selected six articles from the last 20 years of newsletters that we believe still meet and uphold the standards we hold today. As well as these newsletter articles, please feel free to explore the WIC archives to get a better taste of who we are and who we have developed to be!
Please scroll down to read our articles, or follow the links directly to the appropriate newsletter in the archives. If you choose to follow the links below, articles before 2011 may be difficult to navigate on your mobile devices.
By WIC Team
Mention the word writing, and you’ll inevitably provoke a response. Mention writing to university teachers, and the comments tend to group in two categories: concerns about publishing research, and concerns about the abilities of student writers.
Notice that when we (rightly enough) worry about publishing and when we voice concern about student writing, we’re focusing on writing as a final product: will our papers or essays or articles (our final products) be accepted for publication? How good will these student papers (their final products) be?
Suppose we change our angle of vision for a moment. Rather than viewing writing as a product, suppose we look at writing as what writers—any of us—do whenever we pick up a pencil or pen or whenever we sit down at a keyboard and look at a blinking cursor.
In order to get words onto paper or screen, we think. We hold that pencil or position our hands on the keyboard, the paper or screen is blank, we begin thinking, and the paper or screen begins to fill up with words, notes, whole sentences. It’s our thinking that puts them there. We may later change those words or cross them out, and again, it’s our thinking that changes them.
In short, whether we’re writing a grocery list or drafting a report, writing is thinking. And the most useful (and accurate) way to view writing-intensive courses is to realize that they could just as easily be called thinking-intensive or learning-intensive courses, with writing being the vehicle for encouraging and prompting that thinking, that learning.
Once writing is seen as an action—as active thinking—then all sorts of possibilities begin to suggest themselves. We could, for example, ask students to summarize a key lecture point: Take three minutes and use your own words to summarize what we’ve just been talking about; if you’re not sure what the key points are, write at least one useful question.
Does this three minute writing need to be collected and graded? No. It could be collected and used to gauge the lecture’s effectiveness. It could be collected and noted with a check in the grade book. It could become part of the student’s course journal or learning log. But in any case, there’s no need to formally grade such writing.
The point is that asking students to do that three minute writing is a way to provoke them to become active learners, active participants in their own education. In a lecture, perhaps only one person is obviously active (the teacher), in a discussion perhaps half a dozen will really voice their thoughts, but in a three minute write virtually everyone will write, if for no other reason than because it’s embarrassing not to.
Spring 1991, Vol. 1, #5—“The Vaccination Theory of Writing: How Can an ‘A’ Composition Student Writing so Poorly in my Class?”
By WIC Team
Consciously or not, we’d like to think of writing as an obvious set of skills to be mastered. In fact, these skills probably formed the basis of our own most traditional (and perhaps most distasteful) grade school English classes—the ones that drilled us on proper grammar, comma use, and so on. If we think of good writing as the mastery of these kinds of skills, then we’re close to espousing what has been called the vaccination theory of writing.
According to this theory, writing (like a vaccination) ought to “take.” And once it does, once students “become good writers,” then they ought to stay good writers; the vaccine ought to be good for life. Several corollaries follow here too: the vaccine (writing instruction) ought to be administered in grade school and high school—writing instruction is their job, not ours; student writers who can’t find and fix their own errors, who can’t in short, express themselves adequately, need a new vaccination, and the English department ought to administer it, soon; and finally, students who can’t write well are sick, and they need some medicine to get better.
The vaccination theory explains our puzzlement when a student (student X) who claims to have earned an ‘A’ in WR 121 two years ago (or even last term) now hands in writing we judge to be horrible. What happened? Why didn’t the vaccination ‘take’?
But suppose we substitute a different theory; call it the performance theory of writing. Here’s how the new theory might work with student X:
In WR 121 student X writes a summary and analysis of an essay, “Inside the Brain,” by David Noonan, and this summary and analysis earns an “A” grade. Whereas the vaccination theory would tell us that student X is a good writer (“the vaccination has taken”), the performance theory might say that student X is a good performer in this particular setting: student X is, say, a good swimmer.
The next term or the next year, student X takes an economics class (or a public health class or a biology class) which asks student X to read two articles and write an analysis that compares them. The student hands in an error-ridden, inaccurate and incomplete paper and receives a “C-“ grade.
The vaccination theory would suggest that student X needs a booster: go back to English. But the performance theory would suggest that while student X was a good writer in WR 121 (a good swimmer), this student needs additional help and/or practice performing in this new setting: student X needs help becoming a pole vaulter. Swimming and pole vaulting are, after all, related; they use some of the same muscles and they build on the same sense of coordination and agility. Similarly, the writing in a public health class uses some of the same intellectual techniques and understandings as those used in WR 121, but it probably also calls on new understandings, new muscles used in new ways.
So how can we improve student writing in our own class? The performance theory would suggest these factors: practice and instruction. If our course introduces vocabulary new to students, then how can we give them frequent practice using that vocabulary? If our course involves readings that students may never have really encountered before, how can we open doors so that students can become self-sufficient readers? How can we point out the ways that an article is organized? The ways it makes its argument? The ways it arrives at its conclusions? As experts, that is as practiced readers and writers in our disciplines, we take such matters for granted; we’re great pole vaulters. But move us to the hockey rink, say, or to the cockpit of a small plane, and we’ll not perform as well.
Finally, writing is performance: we write best whatever we write most frequently. And we often forget the difficulties we had, the confusions we felt, before we became practiced professionals. We forget that students may not really understand how information is structured in our field—not, that is, until we urge them to see that structure, talk about it, and use it.
In short, the performance theory of writing argues for more writing, not less. It argues for writing graded not on accuracy of content but rather on the demonstrated degree of intellectual engagement. It argues for chances to make mistakes without penalty, assuming that such mistakes are inevitable and useful stepping stones to later understanding. The performance theory urges us to give students regular and frequent opportunities to practice before asking them to perform.
Just as a crew coach might try to take apart a rowing stroke in order to make the team conscious of the stroke’s complexity (and how it can go wrong), we might ask students to pose questions, to forecast answers, to unpack the organizational structure of a paper or an article, and to explain a concept or a technique in their own words. This is important intellectual practice, practice which almost inevitably leads to improved performance.
Fall 1994, Vol. 4, #1—“Pull Over Buddy. It’s the Grammar Police’: Dispelling Myths about Grammar in the Writing Intensive Curriculum”
By Vicki Collins (Vicki Tolar Burton)
Years ago a colleague sent me a satiric article (whose title I have co-opted above) suggesting the formation of a band of rogue grammarians whose task is to go around the community issuing citations to perpetrators of annoying grammatical errors in the public domain, like the peculiarly possessive doormat at the residence of Mr. Smith which reads “The Smith’s” or that unsettling irony on the restaurant menu: Our fish is “fresh.” (So it’s not fresh?). Or the pizza truck that proclaims “We Deliver” (if they feel like it?). Or even the sign in the produce section of the grocery store for Brussel (rather than Brussels) Sprouts.
It seems that many OSU faculty members believe that agreeing to teach a writing intensive course places them immediately in the ranks of the Grammar Police. In fact, in the WIC faculty seminar I call grammar “the hairy monster under the table” because faculty feelings about grammar are so strong that the “hairy monster” will dominate our discussions until we deal with grammar’s place in the teaching of writing.
Faculty may have this obsession because many of us remember teachers who returned our papers with only two kinds of marks: the grade and the red marks to indicate errors. So we formed the unspoken assumption that what writing teachers do is assign grades and mark mechanical errors, and further, that anyone who teaches writing must be an expert in grammar, an undertaking which seems particularly overwhelming in light of the error-filled writing of our students.
One of my tasks as WIC director is to persuade faculty that student writing can improve without the teacher becoming Conan the Grammarian.
First, there is more to good writing than correctness. Please note: I am not saying correctness does not matter. We all know that it does, both in the academy and in what our students like to call “the real world.” When I teach engineering writing, for example, I tell students that they can be the most technically brilliant engineers in America, but if they present their ideas to a prospective client in writing that is full of errors, people will think they don’t know what they are doing.
Nevertheless, editing for correctness should come fairly late in the writing process. Good writing first requires that students analyze the situation and audience for whom they are writing, generate interesting ideas, organize their ideas coherently, support their points with proof that will be convincing to the audience, select the most effective format for presenting their ideas, and generate drafts. Then they can worry about grammar. Content precedes correctness.
The second thing I say to WIC teachers about spending countless hours laboriously correcting every grammatical error in student papers is that they are wasting their time. Research in composition shows that students do not eliminate errors in their writing in response to teachers marking and labeling every error. So am I saying ignore errors? Not at all.
Composition scholar Richard Haswell suggests that minimally marking mistakes with just a check in the right hand margin by each line that contains an error is more effective than correcting every error. The check mark places the responsibility for correcting the error where it belongs: on the student. Haswell’s research showed that even college freshmen were able to correct between 60 and 70 percent of their own errors when he just puts a check in the margin. Of course they must be required to make correction, or the checks are likely to be ignored. (Students may need to purchase a grammar handbook to assist them.) Haswell says, “The ultimate value of this method for me is that it relegates what I consider a minor aspect of the course to a minor role in time spent on marking and in class, while at least maintaining and probably increasing the rate of improvement… Crudely put, less work for the teacher, more gain for the student.”
A third suggestion is to abandon the red pen for responding to student writing. I have made a philosophical decision to respond to student writing in pencil. Pencil comments do not seem to take over the student’s text. I want students to own their writing. Pencil is the least intrusive medium possible for teacher response. I tell students that they are welcome to erase my marks if they want to. The text belongs to them. Pencil also offers me the chance to revise or erase marks or comments on student papers.
In Writing for Teachers (WR 411, 511, now called The Teaching of Writing), students write narratives of their early experiences as writers. We cannot underestimate the damage that has been done to student writers by well-meaning teachers with overly active red pens. Furthermore, we all know that not all owners of red pens are well-meaning: some are angry and vindictive. To students, a paper full of red marks says “Loser.” Students become better writers when they want to write. Students who feel like losers often stop trying.
A final point I want to make about over-emphasis on correctness is what I will call correctness’ double-edged sword. A professor of business management at another university said that his faculty had come to realize that a fixation on grammar and correctness creates a perceptual barrier to seeing student papers as they are. On the one hand, he said, when he reads a paper that is full of grammatical errors, it makes him so angry that he almost can’t see any positive content in the answer. The flip side of that is what he calls the halo effect of the grammatically correct paper. When he gets to an essay that is free of mechanical errors and flows well, a sort of halo effect persuades him that the student also knows the content. Recent training in evaluating student writing has shown him that some of these papers he previously saw as outstanding really had serious content problems despite the “flow” of the writing.
So to summarize my response to the charge that a WIC teacher must become the grammar police: remember that grammatical correctness is not the only attribute of good writing, that minimal marking of errors may be more effective than massive marking, that the over-active red pen can do more harm than good, and that fixation on correctness can cause us to mis-evaluate the content of student writing.
Fall 1997, Vol. 7, #1—“Responding to Student Papers: Responses to Avoid and Productive Advice to Give”
By Jessica Mosher
According to Robert Connors, early in the twentieth century, a number of grading scales were proposed by which teachers rated student writing. Subsequently, many teachers only deemed it necessary to assign a letter grade to those papers, a grade scrawled out in ominous red ink. The grade did not explain what the teacher thought of the content, the mechanics, the style, or even the organization of the paper. The student was left to understand the reasoning behind the grade on their own, hoping to find an answer by the time the next paper was due. However, by the 1950’s the manner in which teachers approached papers began to change. Teachers realized that letter grades alone were not aiding students in sharpening their writing skills. As teachers realized that rating scales were only serving “as instruments for administrative judgment rather than for student improvement,” they gradually abandoned them (Connors, 204). Teachers began addressing students’ papers with more care, viewed essays as “real audiences,” and regarded marginal and end comments as the most effective way of explaining to students what needed attention in their writing (204).
The use of marginal and end comments is still in practice today, and current research is revealing “what teachers have long suspected, hoped, or assumed: that students read and make use of teacher comments and that well-designed teacher comments can help students develop as writers” (Straub, “Student Reactions” 91). Therefore, teachers’ commenting should not be undervalued because sometimes the most productive way to approaching a student’s writing is through written response.
But a teacher must also be warned. While commenting is a way of guiding a student to another writing level, a teacher must be cautious in how they choose to comment. Because writing teachers shape writers, a teacher needs to understand not all commenting is useful, and some comments may even be damaging (Sperling 177). This essay reviews recent scholarship on responding to student writing and discusses different types of responses to student writing, including what types of responses teachers should avoid and what types of responses teachers should embrace.
When commenting on student papers, what appropriate guidelines, then, should a teacher follow? Richard Straub, in “Students Reactions to Teacher Comments: An Exploratory Study,” discusses what students believe is most useful in the way of teacher response. Straub introduces nine categories of teacher comments: focus, specificity, mode, criticism, imperatives, praise, questions, advice and explanations.
- Focus. The focus of a comment usually refers to what kind of comments the teacher makes: global (ideas, development, organization) or local (wording, sentence structure, correctness) (100). Students did not prefer one over the other and believed that both were useful when reviewing their papers. One concern students did have is with the teacher commenting on the ideas of the paper, a global issue. This concern regarded “authority” and how certain comments appeared to work “against the ideas that were already down on the page” (101). Students also reacted negatively to teacher attempts to correct or revise words or sentences. The students regarded this as the teacher’s attempt to claim their writing authority because they saw the corrections as a reflection of “the idiosyncratic preferences of the teacher” (101).
- Specificity. In all cases, the students wanted the teacher’s comments to be specific. Students did not “respond favorably to any comment that they saw as unclear, vague, or difficult to understand” (Straub “Students’ Reactions” 102). For example, a teacher who stated “you need more evidence to support your main point” needed to state what evidence the student should have used, or at least suggest some directions the student could take in order to find more evidence. The consensus was that “comments that were specific and elaborate” were much more useful than those that were vague (102).
A teacher needs to understand that not all commenting is useful, and some comments may even be damaging.
- Mode. In mode, or the tone of the teacher’s voice, the students preferred comments that “sounded helpful and encouraging” rather than those that were terse and seemed “harsh and critical” (103). A comment such as “Not so. See above,” made the students defensive and caused them to leave the material as it was initially written.
- Criticism. When it came to criticism, students preferred comments that were more like a reader’s response than a teacher’s response: students “felt these comments had a softer tone, and they appreciated the way the comments offered an individual reader’s perspective on the writing” (105). For example, while students found the comment “You’ve missed his point” as offensive because it came “right out and [said that the paper was] bad,” they found the comment “I hear LeMoult saying something different—hard drugs are so dangerous to society largely because laws make them illegal” as objective and words they could easily work with during the revision process (104). Therefore, students appreciated teacher responses that focused on what the student was trying to say, and those that helped the student see where they could change the wording so that the writer’s own message would become clear (105).
- Imperatives. The practicality of imperatives, or commands, was debated in the Straub article. While most students believed, as currently hypothesized, that imperatives were useless and suggested the teacher’s attempt to control student writing, others saw imperatives as a worthwhile way of commenting. A student said that “even though it’s telling [a student] how to write the paper, it’s basically info that would make the paper more effective” (106).
- Praise. Praise was always welcome in student’s papers, but again they wanted the praise to be specific and to be “accompanied by an explanation of what the teacher saw as good” (106).
- Questions. Interestingly, the efficiency regarding the use of questions in a paper was debated. While students did “appreciate the freedom and control over their writing” that questions allowed, sometimes the students were unclear on where to go with the questions (109). Students who complained about the overuse of questions state that they “wanted more direction and a clearer sense of what the teacher wanted” (109).
- & 9. Advice and Explanations. The overwhelming majority of students thought that advice and explanations were the key to productive revising. Students said that advice such as “in your next draft try to focus on developing more convincing arguments against legalized drugs” identified the problem “in a way that [made] the teacher seem like they cared” (107). Advice that was most favored was advice that suggested instead of commanded ways to approach revision, and advice that was followed by an explanation. The teacher would thus be praised if they added to the above sentence, “why don’t you add point by point, your opponent’s view, as clearly and objectively as you can” so that “then you can deal with each of his arguments and show the weaknesses in his position?” (109). The most productive comments thus not only gave advice, but also showed how to carry the idea of the advice throughout the paper.
In summary, although students did not appreciate comments that were sternly voiced and appeared to take control of the paper’s ideas and organization, they were appreciative of comments that suggested how to restructure or add to their ideas. Generally, students realize that they need direction in their writing and understand the importance of teacher commenting, but only take heed of the teacher’s suggestions if they are worded as just that—as suggestions and not commands. Straub, in another article titled “The Concept of Control,” states that “all teacher comments in some way are evaluative and directive” and “in all comments, a teacher intervenes in the writing” (247). It is the way that the direction is presented, it is “how [teachers] receive and respond to the words the students put on the page that speaks loudest in our teaching” (246), and determines if the student is going to follow or ignore the comments. For example, in Straub’s essay, two teachers give the same advice, yet in very different ways:
While Edward White “is more willing to tell the student what she would do best to work on through directive comments,” Peter Elbow becomes the “sounding board for the writing, one who plays back his reading of the text and subtly injects evaluations and advice for revision within these reader responses” (245). Both teachers had the same message, one that stressed a strengthening of the argument, but they had different ways of approaching the reader, one less intrusive than the other. The student will be more responsive to Elbow’s comments because they are friendlier and more suggestive than White’s. Elbow’s comments are “among the least controlling modes of response since they do little more than dramatize how the words are being understood by an individual reader, not by someone in charge of judging, criticizing, or improving the writing” (243).
Summer Smith in “The Genre of the End Comment” suggests that teachers avoid the generic comment. Examples of generic commenting are “good” or “nicely done” as an end comment, “awkward” as a marginal comment, and the use of generalities such as, “you worked hard on planning this paper—the outline was a good idea” (Smith 254). Robert Connors and Andrea Lunsford suggest that generic comments are created by the attempts of teachers trying to squeeze a reaction into an insignificant phrase, to push every reaction they had for the student paper into a word or two for students to attempt to interpret (Connors 200). Summer Smith suggests that the tendency for instructors to write generically stems from the fear of a challenge in authority from aggressive students and a fear of damaging a student’s confidence (250). Moreover, “the educational institution also exerts power over the teacher’s commenting by determining the focus of the teacher’s curriculum . . . and by requiring that the teacher return the papers with comments within a specified period of time” (250).
“Generic comments give students the impression of hastiness and are viewed as insincere .”
Although teachers may think generic comments do not harm students, they do more harm than good because they do, in fact, offend students. In general, generic comments give students “the impression of hastiness” and are viewed as “insincere statements” (Smith 254-55). A student expects constructive criticism from a teacher and when they receive a general and hastily written comment, not only is the student insulted because the teacher appears not to have dedicated much time to reviewing their paper, and thus has seemingly regarded the student’s ideas as insignificant, but they are also led to believe that revision is useless. In the end, what a teacher receives is a crude final draft because the generic comments led to students putting little effort into revision (254).
Another problem is found in the way teachers present positive vs. negative feedback. In research conducted by Connors and Lunsford in 1993, negative commenting dominated teacher responses to student papers (210). While it is true that students sometimes regard negatives comments as more useful than generic comments (because negative feedback at least guides the writing to correcting something in the paper), their usefulness largely depends on how they are phrased. In most of the papers analyzed by Connors and Lunsford, teachers spoke harshly to students, with comments like, “Learn to use subordination . . . You are still making comma splices! You must eliminate this error once and for all. Is it because you aren’t able to recognize an independent clause?” (210) and, “You know better than to create comma splices at this point in the semester!” (215). While these comments undermined the student’s ability to recognize errors, other comments only included a few words which insulted the intelligence of the writer: “Handwriting—learn to type” (211). These comments did not motivate the writers to revise, but only caused the writers to push the paper aside and ignore it. Again, this form of responding to papers causes the students’ final drafts to be presented to the teacher in crude form.
A third type of response to avoid is one that takes away the authority from the writer. In this type of commenting, the teacher assumes control over the student’s words on the page. There are several way to do this, but one is found in the tendency for the teacher to edit the paper instead of actually responding to it. As stated previously, before the 1950s, the “most widely accepted ideas was that teachers just were to correct, perhaps edit, and then grade student papers” (Connors 201). In more recent years, not only do teachers claim authority over a student’s text by their tendency to edit, but also by their tendency to be directive in their comments for the paper as a whole (organization, form, style, etc.). In “The Concept of Control in Teacher Response,” Richard Straub describes the typical “directive” teacher:
[The teacher] concentrates on formal propriety, using terse, sometimes elliptical, comments that tell the student . . . in no uncertain terms what is wrong and what must be changed . . . [This teacher] has a definite and rather narrow agenda for writing . . . [and they] give little attention to the content of the writing . . . It is a clear instance of a teacher’s imposing idealized text on the student, [their] own model of what counts in a piece of writing, and how that writing ought to appear, especially formally and structurally, without any real concern for the writer’s purposes and meaning (226).
Straub says students can identify a directive teacher by the many imperative comments found scattered throughout the paper that attempt to “assert authority over the student” (236). Examples of these are: “Revise the opening to begin your argument,” “Focus this paragraph on this argument and develop your case,” “Make this into a full closing paragraph,” and “Be sure you focus each paragraph on its central idea” (236).
A teacher who is directive is largely criticized by current composition theorists because in making these imperative comments, and in correcting “errors,” the students do not learn from their own mistakes. Students do not “retain a greater responsibility” for their writing and tend to recommit the same errors in future papers (Straub 223). The directive teacher is also criticized because they do not allow the writer to have a voice. The paper’s sentences and paragraphs are largely those created by the teacher. Thus, because the writing is largely the teacher’s words and voice, and not the student’s, the student is not able to engage in critical thought, thought that inspires them to, as Peter Elbow says, “wallow in complexity.” The student’s writing may be superficial and remain at a novice level.
A fourth type of response to avoid is one that reflects the biases of the teacher. One specific study conducted by Melanie Sperling investigated the commenting techniques a teacher used for what she considered A to C students. The comments for the A student, Manda, were much more positive and facilitative than for the C student, Mohan, where the comments were negative and tended to be more directive. Overall, “to Manda, the teacher-as-reader often showed herself as positive, peer-like, and sympathetic to Manda’s own world experience,” whereas for Mohan, “the teacher-as-reader often showed herself as negative, didactic, and focused on mechanics instead of his text” (192).
Although the difference in comments had to do somewhat with the different feedback that each student required, Sperling indicates that the comments rather reflected what the teacher valued as “interesting” writing versus “boring” writing (189-90). Throughout the evaluation of the writing, the teacher often related her own experience to the writer’s experience. Interestingly, Manda’s world experiences were closer to the teacher’s own than Mohan’s which possibility indicates that the grade that resulted had to do with a subjective rather than objective view of the writing. The teacher was using an emotional bias to comment on and grade students’ papers. Furthermore, the result of these comments did not seem to benefit Mohan in the improvement of his writing. Sperling states that Mohan’s grade remained a C throughout the course, and the errors that he committed never ceased (180). Therefore, this information encourages a teacher to reconsider their way of perceiving a student’s writing, and understanding that different students will write differently because of heterogeneous experiences. Just because a teacher cannot relate as well to one experience as to another, does not mean that the latter student deserves a lesser grade. As Sperling suggests, we should “be conscious of the ways in which our readings of and responses to student writing can vary from student to student and text to text” and realize that “as we come to understand more about our perspective as readers, we may have a touchstone for shaping different student experiences with different writing types” (201).
Overall, teachers should take into consideration different modes of response in order to reach beginning writing students in the most productive and effective manner. Although research is still needed to discover the long-term effect of marginal and end comments on student writing, it is certain that for the present time, teacher response aids a student in their revision, but only if it is worded carefully and concretely. Research sheds light on what “good” or “well-designed” advice may be according to beginning writing students, and teacher should understand what “good advice” entails when commenting on student papers. When advice is worded in an “appealing” way and is thorough, students acknowledge that “feedback and revision are valuable pedagogical tools” and that the improvement of their drafts is a result of these tools (Ferris 316).
Connors, Robert and Andrea Lunsford. “Teacher’s Rhetorical Comments on Student Papers.” CCC 44 (1993): 200-18.
Ferris, Dana. “The Influence of Teacher Commentary on Student Revision.” Tesol Quarterly 31 (1997): 315-36.
Smith, Summer. “The Genre of the End Comment: Conventions in Teacher Responses to Student Writing.” CCC 48 (1997): 249-68.
Sperling, Melanie. “Constructing the perspective of Teacher-as-Reader: A Framework for Studying Response to Student Writing.” Research in the Teaching of English 28 (1994): 223-49.
Straub, Richard. “The Concept of Control in Teacher Response: Defining the Varieties of ‘Directive’ and ‘Facilitative’ Commentary.” CCC 47 (1996): 223-49.
Straub, Richard. “Students’ Reactions to Teacher Comments: An Exploratory Study.” Research in the Teaching of English 31 (1997): 91-119.
By WIC Team
While there is no one right way to conduct a peer review, considering multiple methods might inform instructors of ways in which peer review might work best in their courses.
Structured response is a common approach to conducting peer review, as it provides students with a set of criteria or a checklist of questions that guide response. An instructor might use PQP, or Praise-Question-Polish, in which students begin with positive responses, move to a problem they identify in their peer’s writing, and then suggest a plan of action for the recipient to implement into their revisions. Gloria A. Neubert and Sally J. McNelis (1990) suggest that such a structuring device for response can help novice writers “focus on the task at hand as well as maintain a positive attitude toward the critique process” (52). It should be noted that, as Mara Holt suggests in “The Value of Peer Criticism,” worksheets and checklists may be approached by students in the same way they might approach a short answer test (384). To avoid answers that are too brief and general, it is important to provide structured response cues that focus on both the goal of the assignment and an individual writer’s or responder’s concerns.
Full class and small group workshop models for peer review are common in a variety of writing courses as well. While workshop models are more traditionally associated with creative writing, D. R. Ransdell, in “Class Workshops: An Alternative to Peer-Group Review,” argues that workshops can be a useful approach in other writing courses (32). Workshops are typically in a group setting in which verbal and written critique is given; however, it is dependent upon students’ exchanging drafts in a previous class. The advantage of this setting, notes Ransdell, rests in how the “public platform… nudges students into working harder because they have more at stake” (36). He suggests that his students “might not care what I think, but since they don’t want to seem unskilled in front of their peers, they work hard to create strong drafts” (36). Work-shopping a piece in front of the whole class or in front of smaller groups has the added advantage of creating a more public audience and giving students a sense of audience that goes beyond the instructor. However, instructors should also take into account how the workshop might intimidate some writers and how it might foster a sense of competition rather than cooperation, which is what collaborative learning and critical pedagogy often resist.
Finally, a teacher might choose a cumulative approach to peer review that extends the process of responding beyond one class period. Hopefully in a way that lets peer review become a regular focus of classroom practice. One example of this is given in Holt’s “The Value of Peer Criticism.” Using suggestions from Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff, Holt’s model for peer reviewing expands peer response to a series of take home essay responses that can last up to a whole term or semester. Holt’s model asks students to respond to each other via a combination of essays describing a peer’s paper, essays believing and doubting the writer’s material, as described by Elbow, and directive response essays that make suggestions for revision. Holt promotes this “cumulative approach [because it] gives students a chance to learn the various stages of the peer-critique process slowly enough both to understand it and to adjust emotionally to its increasing complexity” (387). A cumulative model like Holt’s has the added benefit of allowing for the time and effort it takes to develop in-depth responses to writing, and, most importantly, it offers students a chance to fill various roles as responders, which may allow students space to identify and refine their individual strengths as responders. Such a model, while the most promising in its theoretical consistency, has the drawback of taking more time than may be possible within the overall workload of a given course.
The most practical peer review approach for faculty across the curriculum depends on the needs of a course, the goals of an assignment, the size of a class, and the amount of time an instructor is willing and able to devote to peer review. Adapting a proven method of peer review to a specific course is always recommended.
Holt, Mara. “The Value of Written Peer Criticism.” College Composition and Communications. 43.3 (1992): 384-392. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 25 October 2010.
Neubert, Gloria A. and Sally J. McNelis. “Peer Response: Teaching Specific Revision Suggestions.” English Journal. 79.5 (1990): 52-56. JSTOR. Web. 2 November 2010.
Ransdell, D.R. “Class Workshops: An Alternative to Peer-Group Review.” Teaching English in the Two Year College. 29.1 (2001): 32-42. ERIC. Web. 6 November 2010.
By Aubrae Vanderpool and Tracy Ann Robinson
“A great truth wants to be criticized, not idolized.”
The development of critical thinking skills is increasingly being identified not only as an essential component of writing courses but even more broadly, as a desired outcome of an undergraduate education. In this article, adapted from a paper by Aubrae Vanderpool that focuses on critical thinking in first-year writing classes, we take a look at what critical thinking means, offer some strategies and suggestions for incorporating critical thinking pedagogy into subject-matter courses, and comment on assessment issues and strategies.
Critical thinking defined…Or not…
For some, critical thinking has a lot to do with understanding one’s own perspective and those of others. Another model [of critical thinking] is dialectic, an idea or work is critiqued in a way that produces a counter-perspective and ultimately leads to a synthesis. For others, critical thinking evokes a synthetic or inductive model based on testing evidence and making arguments. The exercise of reflective judgment is also a form of critical thinking. (“Critical Thinking and Broad Knowledge”)
While widely accepted as an educational imperative, critical thinking, as the above statement (excerpted from meeting notes for a Critical Thinking dialogue group at Western Washington University) indicates, is quite variously conceived and described. . . . Clearly, however, how an institution or department defines this intellectual practice will influence where in the curriculum critical thinking is taught, how it is taught, and, equally importantly, how it is assessed. For those in the process of formulating a working definition, familiarity with the following widely utilized models may serve as a helpful starting point.
According to Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (1956)—a cross-disciplinary model for developing higher-order thinking in students—learning how to think critically involves the mastery of six increasingly complex cognitive skills: knowledge (i.e., possession of specific facts or pieces of information), comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.
Bloom’s Taxonomy conceives critical thinking mastery as a sequential process, that is, one cannot move to the next cognitive tier without successfully negotiating the previous level. (“Teaching Critical Thinking”). Thus, some view the taxonomy as “a set of microlevel skills which may be used in critical thinking but do not represent critical thinking” (French and Rhoder 195). Philosopher Richard Paul objects to the taxonomy’s product-oriented conceptualization of thinking as a “one-way hierarchy” as opposed to thinking being a process that involves the recursive use of interrelated skills (French and Rhoder 195). Nonetheless, Bloom’s Taxonomy has been and continues to be an influential model for those developing critical thinking programs, as its inclusion in the Dartmouth College Composition Center’s critical thinking web page attests (Gocsik).
- Knowledge: the remembering (recalling) of appropriate, previously learned terminology/specific facts/ways and means of dealing with specifics (conventions, trends and sequences, classifications and categories, criteria, methodology)/universals and abstractions in a field (principles and generalizations, theories and structures). defines; describes; enumerates; identifies; labels; lists; matches; names; reads; records; reproduces; selects; states; views.
- Comprehension: Grasping (understanding) the meaning of informational materials. classifies; cites; converts; describes; discusses; estimates; explains; generalizes; gives examples; makes sense out of; paraphrases; restates (in own words); summarizes; traces; understands.
- Application: The use of previously learned information in new and concrete situations to solve problems that have single or best answers. acts; administers; articulates; assesses; charts; collects; computes; constructs; contributes; controls; determines; develops; discovers; establishes; extends; implements; includes; informs; instructs; operationalizes; participates; predicts; prepares; preserves; produces; projects; provides; relates; reports; shows; solves; teaches; transfers; uses; utilizes.
- Analysis: The breaking down of informational materials into their component parts, examining (and trying to understand the organizational structure of) such information to develop divergent conclusions by identifying motives or causes, making inferences, and/or finding evidence to support generalizations. breaks down; correlates; diagrams; differentiates; discriminates; distinguishes; focuses; illustrates; infers; limits; outlines; points out; prioritizes; recognizes; separates; subdivides.
- Synthesis: Creatively or divergently applying prior knowledge and skills to produce a new or original whole. adapts; anticipates; categorizes; collaborates; combines; communicates; compares; compiles; composes; contrasts; creates; designs; devises; expresses; facilitates; formulates; generates; incorporates; individualizes; initiates; integrates; intervenes; models; modifies; negotiates; plans; progresses; rearranges; reconstructs; reinforces; reorganizes; revises; structures; substitutes; validates.
- Evaluation: Judging the value of material based on personal values/opinions, resulting in an end product, with a given purpose, without real right or wrong answers. appraises; compares & contrasts; concludes; criticizes; critiques; decides; defends; interprets; judges; justifies; reframes; supports.
SOURCE: http://faculty.washington.edu/krumme/guides/bloom.html (no longer available)
Beyer’s evaluative thinking model
Barry Beyer, a prominent contemporary thinking skills theorist and teacher, interprets critical thinking as a more specifically evaluative activity than Bloom’s Taxonomy would imply:
Critical thinking is not making decisions or solving problems. It is not the same as reflective thinking, creative thinking, or conceptualizing. Each of these other types of thinking serves a specific purpose. We make decisions in order to choose among alternatives. We solve problems when we encounter an obstacle to a preferred condition. We engage in creative or conceptual thinking to invent or improve things. Critical thinking serves a purpose quite different from these other types of thinking. (Beyer 1995, 8)
For Beyer, the crux of critical thinking is criteria: “The word critical in critical thinking comes from the Greek word for criterion, kriterion, which means a benchmark for judging” (Beyer 1995, 8-9). Thus, critical (or, to use Beyer’s preferred term, evaluative) thinking provides the means to assess the “accuracy, authenticity, plausibility, or sufficiency of claims” (Beyer 1995, 10).
Beyer asserts that critical thinking involves 10 cognitive operations, which can be employed in any sequence or combination as needed for the thinking task at hand:
- Distinguishing between verifiable facts and value claims
- Distinguishing relevant from irrelevant information, claims, or reasons
- Determining the factual accuracy of a statement
- Determining the credibility of a source
- Identifying ambiguous claims or arguments
- Identifying unstated assumptions
- Detecting bias
- Recognizing logical fallacies
- Recognizing logical inconsistencies in a line of reasoning
- Determining the strength of an argument or claim (Beyer 1988, 57)
Further, Beyer argues that successful critical thinking requires “complex and often simultaneous interaction” of the following six elements:
- Dispositions. Critical thinkers develop habits of mind that “guide and sustain critical thinking”, including skepticism, fairmindedness, openmindedness, respect for evidence and reasoning, respect for clarity and precision, ability to consider different points of view, and a willingness to alter one’s position when reason and evidence call for such a shift.
- Criteria. Critical thinkers know about and have the ability to construct appropriate benchmarks for judging the issue at hand.
- Argument—defined as “a proposition with its supporting evidence and reasoning.” Critical thinkers are skillful at constructing, identifying, and evaluating the strength of arguments.
- Reasoning—the “cement that holds an argument together.” Critical thinkers determine the strength and validity of a conclusion by examining the soundness of the inductive or deductive process through which the conclusion was reached.
- Point of View. Critical thinkers are aware of their own point of view and capable of examining other points of view in order to better evaluate an issue.
- Procedures for applying criteria and judging. Critical thinkers have a repertoire of strategies appropriate to the subject matter and type of judgment to be made (Beyer 1995, 10-20)
In other words, critical thinkers habitually question the authenticity of anything that confronts them to ascertain exactly the extent to which it is an authentic instance of what it purports to be. In addition, they make judgments based on certain standards or other measures that serve as criteria for plausibility and truthfulness. And they pay special attention to the reasons and reasoning that undergird conclusions and claims.” (Beyer 1995, 22)
Critical thinking as a divergent process
While Beyer depicts critical thinking as a “convergent,” narrowing process, others prefer to view it as a divergent, expanding, exploratory practice (French and Rhoder, 184-85) —a way to open up new solutions as well as evaluate those that have already been identified. For example, consider this statement from Peter Taylor of the UMass/Boston Graduate College of Education’s Critical and Creative Thinking Program. (In February, 2001, Taylor led a critical thinking workshop at OSU, sponsored jointly by the College of Liberal Arts’ Center for Excellence in Teaching, Learning, and Research, the Center for Water and Environmental Sustain-ability, and the Office of Academic Affairs; and organized by Anita Helle [English] and Denise Lach [CWest].)
My sense of critical thinking […] depends on inquiry being informed by a strong sense of how things could be otherwise. I want students to see that they understand things better when they have placed established facts, theories, and practices in tension with alternatives. Critical thinking at this level should not depend on students rejecting conventional accounts, but they do have to move through uncertainty. Their knowledge is, at least for a time, destabilized; what has been established cannot be taken for granted.
This view suggests a much closer connection between critical and creative thinking than Beyer, for instance, would subscribe to. However, many of the concerns that underlie the current interest in furthering college students’ critical thinking skills recognize and affirm this connection.
Teaching considerations and strategies
. . . B. Lehman and D. Hayes propose the following strategies for promoting critical thinking in the classroom:
- Help students recognize what they already know about a topic. [For suggestions, see next section.]
- Help students learn to recognize their biases and keep an open mind about the topic. Have students list and share opinions on the subject, but postpone evaluation until more information is gathered.
- Formulate open-ended questions to help students analyze, synthesize, and evaluate the topic.
- Guide students in finding and using diverse sources to explain and support their ideas.
- Have students check the validity of sources and qualifications of authors.
- Help students see there is no single, final authority. By reading several sources on the same topic, students will discover that information is often conflicting and contradictory.
- Help students develop criteria for evaluation. As students learn to support their opinions with logical thinking and comparison of sources, they [develop] critical thinking skills. (Smith 350) . . . .
The writing–critical thinking connection
For centuries, the rhetorical assumption about language was that “one first finds knowledge and then puts it into words” (Bizzell, Herzberg, and Reynolds 1)—in other words, thinking always precedes writing or speaking. Today, however, we recognize that “knowledge is actually created by words” (Bizzell, Herzberg, and Reynolds 1) and that writing and thinking are recursive, interdependent processes that promote and enhance one another.
James Sheridan points out that “the act of generating written discourse is not merely a result of critical thinking but also a stimulus to new thinking and new discoveries” (52). This claim echoes Linda Flower’s assertion that “writing is a generative act—a process of not just ‘expressing’ but ‘making’ meaning” (193-94). The fact is that “when students write, they cannot remain passive players in the learning game” (Gocsik-source no longer available). As Peter Elbow suggests, “writing helps us achieve the perennially difficult task of standing outside our own thinking” (27). Hence, the concept of “writing to learn,” which has become so integral to Writing Across the Curriculum courses and programs.
Using writing to uncover knowledge
As well as using writing to reinforce and integrate new information, writing can be a way of discovering existing knowledge. Many critical thinking experts advocate beginning any new learning unit by identifying what students already know (but often don’t know they know) about the topic. This strategy promotes critical thinking and active learning by allowing students to “establish a context for new information and share ideas with others” (Smith 350). Two writing strategies that can assist in this discovery process are freewriting and the “write-and-pass” exercise:
- Freewriting. Describing freewriting as an activity that “helps students break the writing-is-grammar chain [, which] stultifies the freedom and risk-taking necessary for innovative critical thinking” (53), James Sheridan suggests the process has only two requirements:
- (1) “You cannot stop writing during the 10-minute exercise.” (2) “You are forbidden to think. [. . .] Write whatever comes into your right (or left) hand. You must keep on writing. Even if you say ‘I don’t know what to write,’ write that. You cannot scratch your head. You cannot gaze pensively at the ceiling. Just write. You are not responsible for what you say; your hand is doing it all. Say anything. Say ‘This is the worst exercise I ever heard of and I can’t believe they’re paying this guy good bucks to have us do it.’ Yell, scream, shout, kick (in written words). Say anything, but keep writing” (52)
With unfocused freewriting, students write about whatever they want. With focused, or directed, freewriting, students are given a topic or question to write on.
- Write-and-pass. Another informal writing assignment that helps students discover what they already know is to ask them to spend a few minutes writing everything they can think of about a given topic or question (for example, “What is critical thinking?”). After several minutes, students pass what they’ve written to the person next to them, and that person reads and expands on the original response. The process is repeated a few more times; generally, with each pass, adding new information becomes more challenging.. The exercise provides a way both for students to focus their thoughts on a particular topic and to benefit from one another’s stores of knowledge.
Assessing critical thinking: current models
[A]n informed choice of an approach to assessing critical thinking can be made only after faculty have [asked and answered] these questions: What do we think critical thinking is? How do the critical thinking skills, processes, and strategies work together, and what aspects or combinations of them do we wish to assess? What are our students like? What are their motivations [and] environments? What are our assumptions relative to the knowledge and abilities that students need prior to engaging in college-level critical thinking? (Carpenter and Doig 34-35)
Carpenter and Doig’s observation comes from a 1988 review of assessment instruments developed for specific critical thinking courses and programs. Alternatively, the rubric developed in 2002 by Washington State University’s Critical Thinking Project can be used in subject-matter courses across the curriculum that focus on critical thinking. This rubric includes the following criteria for student writing:
- Identifies and summarizes the problem/question at issue.
- Identifies and presents the student’s own perspective and position as it is important to the analysis of the issue.
- Identifies and considers other salient perspectives and positions that are important to the analysis of the issue.
- Identifies and assesses the key assumptions.
- Identifies and assesses the quality of supporting data/evidence and provides additional data/evidence related to the issue.
- Identifies and considers the influence of the context (e.g. cultural/social, scientific, educational, economic, technological, ethical, political, personal, and so on) on the issue.
- Identifies and assesses conclusions, implications, and consequences. “Critical Thinking Rubric” no longer available online.
Each item in the rubric includes a description of what would be considered “scant” vs “substantially developed” coverage of that item. The Washington State Critical Thinking Project website is no longer available online.
A Final Note
In this article, we have focused on what Kerry S. Walters describes as the “logicistic” model of critical thinking—that is (according to Walters) “the unwarranted assumption that good thinking is reducible to logical thinking” (1). In Re-Thinking Reason: New Perspectives in Critical Thinking, Walters explores an alternative model being forwarded by an emerging “second-wave” of critical thinking research and pedagogy. Second-wave advocates argue that while “logical skills are essential functions of good thinking, […] so are non-analytic ones such as imagination and intuition, and the good thinker knows how to utilize both types” (2). This reconception of critical thinking is grounded in current scholarship in the fields of philosophy, psychology, education, feminist theory, and critical pedagogy; Walters’s book serves as an introduction to and dialogue among some of the proponents and practitioners of this alternative. While beyond the scope of this article, the second-wave perspective on critical thinking deserves our serious attention and consideration as well.
This article was previously published in entirety in Teaching with Writing, Winter 2003.
Works Cited (some sources no longer available):
Beyer, Barry K. Critical Thinking. Bloomington, IN: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, 1995.
________. Developing a Thinking Skills Program. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1988.
Bizzell, Patricia, Bruce Hertzberg, and Nedra Reynolds. The Bedford Bibliography for Teachers of Writing. 5th Ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000.
Carpenter, C. Blaine, and James C. Doig. “Assessing Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum.” Assessing Student’s Learning 34 (Summer 1988): 33-46.
“Critical Thinking and Broad Knowledge Meeting Notes.” 2 Nov. 2001. Center for Instructional Innovation, Western Washington University. 4 March 2003. http://pandora.cii.wwu.edu/gened/dialogue/critical_notes_nov.htm Source no longer available.
Elbow, Peter. “Teaching Two Kinds of Thinking by Teaching Writing.” Re-Thinking Reason: New Perspectives in Critical Thinking. Ed. Kerry S. Walters. Albany: SUNY Press, 1994. 25-31.
Flower, Linda. “Taking Thought: The Role of Conscious Processing in the Making of Meaning.” Thinking, Reasoning, and Writing. Ed. Elaine P. Maimon, Barbara F. Nodine, and Finbarr W. O’Connor. NY: Longman, 1989. 185-212.
French, Joyce N. and Carol Rhoder. Teaching Thinking Skills: Theory and Practice. NY: Garland, 1992.
Gocsik, Karen. “Teaching Critical Thinking.: 1997 Dartmouth College Composition Center. Source no longer available.
Scriven, Michael and Richard Paul. “Defining Critical Thinking.” Draft Statement for the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking. Foundation for Critical Thinking. 27 Feb. 2003. <http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/definint-critical-thinking/766>
Sheridan, James J. “Skipping on the Brink of the Abyss: Teaching Thinking Through Writing.” Critical Thinking: Educational Imperative. Ed. Cynthia A. Barnes. New Directions for Community Colleges, No. 77. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992. 51-61.
Smith, Carl B. “Two Approaches to Critical Thinking.” The Reading Teacher 4.4 (Dec. 1990): 350-51.
Stewart, Ruth. “Teaching Critical Thinking in First-Year Composition: Sometimes More Is More.” Teaching English at the Two-Year College 29 (Dec. 2001): 162-171.
Taylor, Peter. “We Know More Than We Are, At First, Prepared To Acknowledge: Journeying to Develop Critical Thinking.” 12 March 2003 <http://www.faculty.umb.edu/pjt/journey.html>
Walters, Kerry S. Re-Thinking Reason: New Perspectives in Critical Thinking. Albany: SUNY Press, 1994.