INTRODUCTION:  I observe that many students enter college composition courses displaying “victim” attitudes about writing.  Some believe that good writing is a “talent” or “gift” that a lucky few are born with, and conclude that they have no “talent.” Some complain that essay grades are arbitrary and based on the whims of English professors, while others insist they will never need to write in “real” life anyway. I see students ignore my comments and suggestions for revision as they skip right to the grade.  Sometimes they conclude there is nothing they can do to change a low grade.  I decided to write a case study based on my observations of student writers who, for various reasons, were failing to read or make use of my written feedback to improve their writing.

PURPOSE: I wanted my students to learn that…

  • Becoming a better writer is a learned set of skills (not a “gift” to the lucky few)
  • Learning to write well occurs gradually, benefiting from both effort and attention to feedback
  • Revision (in the form of many drafts) is the key to better writing—even for professional writers

SUPPLIES AND SETUP:

  • Copies of the case study “Professor Endnote’s Advice” (see Resources below)

DIRECTIONS:

1. Have students read the case study and rank the four characters according to their response to feedback about writing improvement. (5-10 minutes)

2. Ask students to write an anonymous response to the question: “What advice would you give these struggling students?” Collect these papers. (10 minutes)

3. Create groups of four students.  Put the anonymous papers on a chair or table.  Have one student from each group get four papers and distribute them to the group.  Allow groups time to read and discuss which paper gave the best advice and choose a spokesperson to read that paper to the rest of the class. (10-15 minutes)

4. Encourage a lively discussion among the groups, or have students write a journal entry on their own feelings and struggles with writing. During the discussion, seek to highlight or draw out the idea that effort (not luck) leads to improvement in writing skills.  (10-15 minutes)

NOTE: An alternative would be to have students rank the characters (see bottom of case study), write the reasons for their choices, put them in like-minded groups, and have a debate among the groups. (25-45 minutes depending on the size of the class)

OUTCOMES AND EXPERIENCES:

When I used “Professor Endnote’s Advice in my basic writing class, I watched an excellent debate/discussion dealing with attitudes toward attending college and writing.  One student, for example, believed that Sam’s dream of becoming a chef would cause him to control his temper and reconsider “giving up.”  Another student commented that Sadie’s problems were the result of immaturity.  She was sure that Sadie would “grow-up” soon and start attending class.  Ironically, the student who criticized Cynthia’s lack of “time management skills” was experiencing the lack of such skills in her own life. The topic of time management led another student to describe how he had to leave his house at 11am to be at our class by 2:15 pm.  He had a long freeway drive and didn’t want to be late. I believe these students gained insights about how to change their attitudes toward time management, class attendance, and having patience for revision in their own writing through this activity.  It is much easier to discuss someone else’s writing problems first and then deal with one’s own.  

When I used this case study in my first year reading and composition course, I asked for written comments.  Here are some examples of student advice on writing that were read aloud:

  • “Dear Sam: Don’t get so frustrated with that second D.  What do you expect when you wait until 3 am to write your paper?”

  • “Sam: Good writing doesn’t come naturally for everybody.  When you work hard you will benefit.”

  • “You [Sam] saw what happened on your paper when you took your time and got help.  When you rushed on the second paper, you received a poor grade.  It’s obvious which system works better.”

  • “Cynthia: you know the class material very well, but you still have to be there and on time.  It says something about your character, and your grade depends on attendance too.”

  • “Well, if you [Cynthia] act like you’re still in high school, then you’re going to be treated like you’re in high school.  Responsible people would turn work in on time.”

  • “Look Cynthia, as I said in the beginning of the semester, you have to show up and turn your papers in on time!”

  • “Donald: proofread your own papers too, even after getting help from tutors.  They’ll help with certain organization and grammar problems, but only you know exactly what you want to write.”

  • “Donald: you have to set your priorities.  Do you want to be a musician or do you want to get an education?”

  • “[Donald] Get it together! Class is more important than band practice. How’ll you ever write lyrics if you don’t know how to write?”

  • “To Sadie: YOU create your future.  If you don’t go to class, you suffer the consequences—not your family and not your friends.”

  • “Sadie, spend your class time paying attention to the teacher and doing your work instead of talking with your friends.  No matter what you do in life, everything requires some sort of writing.”

  • (Diving Deeper) “A great man once said: ‘Failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.’  I don’t remember who said it but it is a good thought.”

  • (Diving Deeper) “The professor and Writing Tutor aren’t responsible for the choices the students make at all.  No one can force an action upon another.  To quote Morgan Freeman, ‘I don’t have to do anything, but stay black and die.’”

This activity allowed my first year Reading and Composition students to comment honestly and with a sense of humor.  It was fun to hear their comments read aloud, and students seemed to enjoy writing them.  Of course, we applauded each reading. Lest anyone think I have two classes who don’t need advice on writing, the examples are from the best papers read in the small groups.  Since all the comments were anonymous, my students felt free to give themselves real “advice” or feedback about college writing. This kind of feedback will likely be remembered as well or better than the many comments that I write in the margins and at the ends of student papers.

PERSONAL LESSONS:

As both a writing teacher and writer, I typically listen to my Inner Critic far too often.  I feel I can tell my students to “show, not tell” and explain to them that “writing is a recursive process” until I am blue in the face and still not believe they have heard me.  After using the case study, “Professor Endnote’s Advice,” my Inner Critic’s voice went something like this: “It’s time for the research project-the assignment my freshman students dread. It was a waste of time to have them read a case study.  They need work on getting topics and using MLA format.”  It took one of my students to teach me I was wrong, that a case study really can teach critical thinking and concepts, and that the On Course Principles work–even for the teacher. 

Recently when conferencing with one of my students about her research paper, I was in the midst of explaining how she could better “show” her readers the nature and direction of her research rather than “tell” them. I added that she could clarify even for herself why she was interested in her topic.  I suggested she could do this by using an anecdote or creating a character whose behavior would be an example of what her paper would be about.  We went ’round and ’round this subject until at one point she said: “Oh, you mean like Professor Endnote. Right?”  (Aha!) “Yes,” I said, “Exactly right!”

RESOURCES:

Case Study: PROFESSOR ENDNOTE’S ADVICE

SAM, CYNTHIA, DONALD, and SADIE were friends. When they entered college, they found they were in the same English class—Writing the College Essay. PROFESSOR ENDNOTE advised the class that good writing comes gradually, with practice and revision.  He told them there were three primary rules for success in the class: “Show up, Do the work, and Participate actively.” He hoped they would choose to do their best work on all assignments, turn them in on time, and offer their best comments, questions, and answers in class when appropriate.  He also introduced them to JOE, the Writing Tutor, who was there once a week to help.

SAM knew that his dream in life was to be a Hotel Chef.  Though he struggled, Sam was determined to persevere in learning to write well because he knew good grades in English would be important to get in the training program.  However, even after writing two drafts, he earned a D on his first essay based on both form and content.  Sam got the professor’s ok to revise the draft again with Joe’s help.  Sam’s grade on this essay was raised to a B.  Joe, the Writing Tutor, congratulated Sam and reminded him that improvement in writing does not occur overnight, but that revision was the key, so he had to keep working on it.  On his second essay, Sam wrote the rough draft at 3 am the morning before class with no time for revision of either form or content.  This time he also received a D.  Sam angrily confronted the professor after class.  “You’re unfair,” he said after quickly glancing at the grade.  “You’re just a hard grader.  I really worked on that first essay when I went to the Writing Center!  Why did I only get a D on this one? I don’t understand your grading system!  You English teachers are all alike.  Am I supposed to revise ALL my writing?  I give up!”  Sam stormed out of the room.

CYNTHIA was a bit older than her friends.  She started college right out of high school, left to work for a while, and was now returning to get her general education requirements to transfer to a University.  Cynthia received an A on her first essay and on her journals. Then she was absent for two weeks.  Returning with a vague excuse, she turned in the second essay assignment one class period late. Class policy was that late papers would receive one grade lower for each class period the paper was late, up to two class periods, after which they were no longer accepted.  She was aware of the class policy on late papers, but her third excellent essay also received a C because it was two class periods late. Professor Endnote warned Cynthia that attendance and active participation were important components of student success in his course, and reminded her of the late policy.  Toward the end of the course, she submitted her fifth essay assignment two class periods after the due date, receiving another C.  During the next class session she stated loudly, “This junk is ridiculous. You treat us exactly like we’re still in high school!  I already know this stuff!”

DONALD wrote his first essay on the concept of his Inner Critic, and in it, he discussed how his critic stopped him from becoming a better drummer in the rock band he played in.  His first draft of the essay was disorganized and contained several errors in grammar, punctuation and spelling; however, the content was so convincing and specific that after revising it, Donald received an A.  He took his first draft of the next essay to the Writing Center.  Joe, the tutor gave Donald help in organization and providing specific support, but warned him that he would still have to proofread his own papers for spelling, grammar, and punctuation.  Donald knew that he could get specific help for revising grammar and spelling from tutoring and using his handbook, but decided he didn’t have time.  Practicing with his band was more important.  “I know Endnote will cut me some slack.  He knows I’ve got good ideas, and I can always get somebody to proofread for me if I ever have to do any writing when I’m out of school,” he thought.  He got a C- on his next formal essay. “I tried to do what you wanted, but going to the Writing Center doesn’t help,” he told Professor Endnote.  Donald decided that he had never been any good at writing and thought about dropping the class.

SADIE wasn’t sure whether she wanted to attend college, but, since her parents insisted and her high school friends were doing it, she decided to try.  She was absent four times and late five times in the first six weeks.  She didn’t complete the first draft of her first essay, so she had no opportunity to learn how to revise or edit it. Though she heard about it, she never tried going to the Writing Center. When she attended class, she spent all her time chatting with her friends instead of working with the Tutor or on activities with her group. She turned in her unrevised, unedited rough draft of the second essay on the due date, but never picked up the revisions to make on the final draft.  When she discussed her progress with Professor Endnote, he suggested that he would allow a third revision if she would go to the Writing Center for guidance.  Sadie responded that she was pretty sure that she would never need writing skills anyway.  “I shouldn’t have to take this course. It’s a stupid requirement,” she told her friends.  Her parents nagged her constantly about transferring to a University and suggested she get some special tutoring, but by the seventh week, she was considering not coming to class anymore.

* * * * *

Which student will respond best to feedback and succeed in this class because of it?  Rank each person listed below in order of your prediction of best to worst response to feedback, with 1 being the most responsive and 4 being the least responsive. 

                        _____ Sam      _____ Cynthia       _____ Donald  _____ Sadie    

Diving Deeper: What advice would you give each of these struggling students?  How responsible are Professor Endnote and Joe the Writing Tutor for these students’ responses to feedback?

–Sharon Osburg, Faculty, English, El Camino College, CA

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