For the past several years, I’ve supplemented the usual, high-stake writing assignments (papers over 1000 words) with short reflection posts to the course LMS. These essays are limited to 250-300 words and I grade them on a 5-point scale. Depending on the course, I might assign anywhere between 8-12 posts. They are quick to read, easy to grade, and valuable to enhancing class discussions. Students score samples at the beginning and mid-point of the semester to calibrate themselves to the rubrics and to establish a standard for quality work.
My intention with these assignments is to cultivate regular writing (and thus thinking) habits, to prepare students for classroom participation, and to give students many opportunities to practice putting arguments forward and supporting them with class resources. With the brief post I make to the entire class that summarizes my feedback and offers suggestions for improvement, some students are able to make significant improvements in mechanics and style.
The majority of students, however, find a formula that earns them a ‘4’ on a continual basis. Part of this trend stems from the bell-curve distribution of performance and the limited point values to choose among. However, I am starting to believe that the repetitive nature of the assignment encourages students to settle into a groove (or funk?) that will predict their performance for the majority of the semester. Although the topics for the prompts change from assignment to assignment, the process of writing remains unchanged.
My recent experience in article co-authorship, collaborative peer review, blogging, and the various genres of writing one finds in the life of an academic (formal letters, public presentations, assessment reports, scholarship, and creative work) seems at odds with the repetitive writing format we often expect of our students. We train them to write in the style of our disciplines or to the “standards” based model of expository writing. If writing is not improved in repetitive writing activities of the same type, then perhaps we are not introducing students to enough variety of writing practices to give them the the perspective needed to make notable changes.
I plan to diversify the short writing assignments in the future, although I will still use a simple, 5-point rating system. In addition to posts to a discussion forum, I’m considering a class blog project, co-authored papers, and creative/fun fictional writing, among others, to stretch the students’ exposure to various styles and formats. The old adage that one improves by repeating a task over and over again is often challenged when a variety of complementary skills is lacking. This is why athletes cross train and why our students learn to think analytically, quantitatively, and critically in a diverse, core curriculum.
I’m curious what types of short writing assignments others use.
One of the most commonly used components of online course management sites is the discussion forum. Many instructors require students to post reflections on assigned readings with the ultimate goal that an intellectual dialogue will materialize in the forum. I’ve experimented with this approach for several years now and have developed a 5-point grading rubric that has yielded more insightful student writing and has improved assessment efficiency:
A “5” Response follows directions and is well organized, clear in prose, and original in thought. The submission is highly polished and free of grammatical and spelling errors. The author references supporting resources properly, makes clever use of analysis and course terminology, and demonstrates a high level of critical thinking and persuasive writing. Excellent.
A “4” Response follows directions, presents good organization and clear prose, and provides some original ideas. There may be a misspelling or grammatical error, but the submission is acceptable in writing style. The author refers to appropriate resources and provides some discussion of the piece, event, or essay. The author may occasionally get off topic and include some ideas that do not strengthen the submission. An original thesis is present, but the argument may be lost at times. Good.
A “3” Response has some recognizable organization and readable prose, but summarizes rather than argues. There are large block quotes or paraphrased passages from the assigned reading that are not effectively integrated into the argument. There are frequent misspelled words and grammatical errors and the formatting does not always follow directions. A musical piece is discussed, but not tied into the argument, and there is little evidence of critical thinking. Average.
A “2” Response rarely follows directions. The topic is related to the assignment but there is no argument that responds to the prompt. There is no reference to the provided resources or poor use of them. The submission is rife with grammatical and spelling errors. It appears that the student has cut and pasted information from various sources and strung the ideas together into an incoherent mess. Components are missing, such as a discussion of the required piece, event, or essay. Poor.
A “1” Response is incomplete. The word count may be well under the requirement and the author has clearly not read the directions and taken interest in the assignment. The writing style is incomprehensible at times and the focus is unclear. The student has submitted a related, but off topic writing sample for this assignment. Failing.
A “0” Response is absent or plagiarized.
For this system to work, students must have a clear understanding of what “critical thinking” means and be able to recognize the difference between quality and poor college writing. In my experience, students will submit their best efforts once they have actively explored a range of samples I provide them. I give the students 2 or 3 anonymous posts from previous semesters along with the rubrics. Groups evaluate the examples and assign grades using the 5-point scale. I ask each group to report their grades and explain why one submission demonstrates critical thinking and another does not. The concensus is usually that critical thinking requires the author to present an original idea and support it with examples from both within and outside of the assigned reading. The rubrics are helpful, but the followup assessment and discussion are what really encourage the best student writing for the semester.
Online course management discussion forums are a useful tool for engaging students outside of class with a discussion of major course topics. However, it is not enough to grade students on their “participation.” The public forum is a fruitful opportunity to push students to put their best work forward and to adopt critical thinking habits for the semester. The 5-point rubric offers students clear expectations for quality work and gives instructors an efficient evaluation tool.