INTRODUCTION: The focus of English Composition is to help students identify and practice the conventions of college writing. My class time focuses on discussion, peer workshop, and in-class exercises. The course emphasizes revision, so for their midterm grade, students prepare a portfolio containing two of the first three essays they’ve written (thoroughly revised), at least one early draft of each, and a “Table of Contents” that includes brief summaries of their essays.
When midterm-jitters settle in on campus, it’s a challenge to keep my students and me from losing our footing. There’s less teamwork, less boldness. The questions students ask show a slip in their confidence: “If I ‘fix’ the things you commented on in my papers, will that be enough for a good grade?” I tend to indulge students more, telling them what to do instead of encouraging them to explore the options. We begin focusing so much on product that we forget what we’ve learned about process.
To keep students engaged in the development of their essays from rough draft to final draft, I added a self-assessment to the midterm portfolio. The self-assessment, a short informal essay discussing their revisions, asked students to use the vocabulary they learned during the first half of the semester to analyze their writing, citing from their essays to support their observations. The purpose of the assignment is not to argue for a grade, but to articulate their writing challenges as well as their revision strategies. After I grade the portfolios, I choose a thoughtful passage from each self-assessment to publish in a handout for the class.
Although I planned this activity for a first-year writing course, it could be adapted for use in courses that practice the principles of ‘writing across the curriculum’ (writing to learn), courses that encourage multiple drafts for writing assignments, or any courses where instructors want to ensure deep learning of content.
- To keep students responsible for developing their essays (rough draft to final draft).
- To give students the opportunity to demonstrate deep knowing of the course content and show their authority on the topic of writing.
- To improve students’ ability to evaluate their own work, a valuable critical thinking skill.
SUPPLIES/SETUP: (Both handouts are appended below)
- Handout 1: Self-Assessment Assignment
- Handout 2: Excerpts from Student Assessments
1. At least two weeks prior to the due date for their portfolios, give students Handout 1: Self-Assessment Assignment.
2. Have students read the assignment aloud; make sure they have clear understanding of the requirements.
3. On the due date, collect portfolios. Comment on their self-assessments as thoroughly as you do on their finished essays. Point out and praise where they have demonstrated proficiency with a writer’s vocabulary. Ask questions in the margins where you would like them to elaborate or have a deeper look at their prose. Students will appreciate a quick response from you on this project.
4. Select a short insightful passage from each student’s self-assessment, and create a handout of these excerpts for students. (See Handout 2 below for a sample.)
5. In the next class period, pass out the handout of Excerpts from Student Assessments, saying to students: “One by one, when you see your name, please read your passage aloud.” You might want to remind them to read slowly and clearly.
6. Offer no comments after students read. There will be a moment of fidgeting because they’ll be looking for you to say something. It’s important for you to wait through the pause and let them begin the discussion. In my experience, students will eventually make thoughtful, gracious comments that expand on what they have written or heard from others. This is the students’ moment to be the authority. [The reading and discussion will take 20 to 30 minutes]
I felt as excited about reading the self-assessments as I did about reading my students’ final essays. Although some were not thoroughly written, each demonstrated the student’s ability to make meaningful comments about his or her writing. The self-assessment continued our conversation about my students’ work during the evaluation process. Their analyses helped me to see whether they had absorbed the content of the first half of the semester. Noting what students didn’t discuss in their assessments was helpful, too. For example, many made reference to “meaning,” “discovery,” and “purpose” in their essays; however, none used the words “thesis statement.” This omission and others showed what I needed to emphasize in subsequent classes.
The self-assessments kept my students’ voices present as I graded and shifted the tone of my comments on their final essays. I did less correcting, more responding. I still had to make the final decisions on their grades, but I didn’t feel as much of a loner. The evaluation of student work seemed two-way, a conversation instead of a monologue.
This assignment didn’t cure the midterm jitters, but provided unexpected relief. Students were proud of their work. Several mentioned that they couldn’t wait for me to read their assessments. It satisfied them to demonstrate their knowledge of good writing: “Here in this section, I’ve done it—my voice has authority . . . In this paragraph I’m trying out new sentence patterns . . . I’m seeing connections between ideas. . . Check out this lead, and look how I’ve thought about my title. . . My transitions have helped move my essay along . . . I’ve finally learned how to use a semicolon . . .” As their reader, I praised these victories, but when students identified those moments themselves, they experienced what Skip Downing refers to as “deep knowing.”
The sweetest part of this assignment was choosing a passage from each assessment for the handout. When I gave them copies in class, my students eagerly flipped through the pages to find their words. By this time in the semester, they were accustomed to reading aloud from their work, but this reading seemed different. They had straighter, more serious posture, perhaps because they had become the authority on writing. I had randomly assembled their passages, and as students read, a voice came from the left side of the room and then one from the right, one from the center and then from the right again. The effect was musical. One student said, “We sound like a poem.” Another said, “Can we do it again? Can we put it on tape to take with us?” Someone else said, “Wow. We sound smart!”
I regret not putting together a PowerPoint presentation of my students’ excerpts. Next time, I will. They appreciate when I write epigraphs on the board or show a quotation on the overhead. It would be good to let them see their wisdom on “the big screen,” too.
One of the On Course instructional principles suggests that students construct learning primarily as a result of what they think, feel, and do (less so by what their instructors say and do). That insight helped me with this activity. In order for my students to “think, feel, and do” as writers, I need to treat them like writers, providing them with opportunities for exploring, opportunities for expressing what they discover.
The pleasure I took in showing my students how competent they are made me realize that I’m much more at ease with being a coach than I am with being the authority or judge, roles that students tend to see me in at grading time. I’ll continue to look for strategies that teach content while supporting the teamwork that is so important in a writing class.
Ideas for this assignment came from “mailroom wisdom,” conversations with colleagues between classes. A Shakespeare professor uses a version of this strategy to help students with difficult reading. He gives students a passage to consider and has them respond to it in class. He then collects their work and chooses the best sentences from each student’s writing to publish in a handout. In his opinion, “Where there’s one insightful sentence, there’s another and another.” He feels it’s a boost to students’ confidence when they see their ability to make sense of complex text. “It makes them proud when I quote them,” he says. A math professor uses a similar approach with difficult concepts in his courses.
Handout 1: Self-Assessment Assignment: 20 Points
As part of your midterm portfolio, write a short essay discussing your writing process. Use vocabulary from our list of the elements of good writing to illustrate how your writing has changed. Discuss your frustrations and surprises. Cite words, phrases, and lines from your essays to support what you have to say. For fun, you may want to experiment with simile or metaphor: You could begin your essay with the prompt “Writing is like . . .” or “Writing is . . .”
Your essay should be a minimum of two pages. Title your essay, staple it in the upper left-hand corner, and include it in your portfolio along with your revised essays.
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Handout 2: Excerpts from Student Assessments (samples)
“Writing is not just passing in one draft and calling it good; rather, it is rewriting in order to discover what I am trying to show in my paper. I love the term “Aha.” Class workshops are great experiences for me. I feel encouraged by the comments, and know I can trust them because of their honesty. My fellow classmates give me the gas I need to feel I can actually write and do it well.” Nichole
“Writing is like going to a psychologist and not having to pay for it. You get to tell all your thoughts and feelings and then sit back and examine them. I have found writing to be therapeutic for my stressed out teenager’s mind. When you are away from home and don’t have a close friend to talk to, you can just let it flow on the page. Sometimes I find out more when I go back and examine what I said.” Tyler
“Writing to me involves learning a great deal about myself and the subject I’m writing about. I hope I will continue to grow as a writer, one who is not afraid to say what I feel, one who is not afraid to take on a subject for its confusion and find in the last sentence a total beginning of some other dimension.” Jeremy
“In my rough draft of ‘Magnolia,’ I wrote this sentence: ‘I made my car a place where I could escape from everyone and everything.’ I had to ask myself the question, ‘Yeah, so what? What did I escape from?’ That’s what I had to add to the final draft of this essay, and it’s something I worked on until the last day before this portfolio was due. Details and examples are frustrating for me. They’re coming more easily now, but I still have to fight hard to get them on the page the way I want them to be.” Kristin
“Expanding my audience, I share my essay. The questions my readers ask are valuable to me. The more diverse my audience, the better, for every reader has a different background and will experience my piece uniquely. I have learned where I need to work on my transitions, where to add more detail, where I need a better word, where I have gone off on a tangent. Reading aloud, questioning my work, and sharing it with others has been important to my writing process.” Anastasia
“One of my greatest steps forward came in class when we spent time choosing lead sentences from other students’ paragraphs, like being critical of my friend’s hat rather than my own, mine being on my head, hidden from my view. “Look for the most powerful sentence to begin the essay,” you said, and I did. As I sorted and shifted other people’s work, I learned to understand sentence order, something I had never thought much about.” Carol
“I felt at the beginning of the semester that I didn’t stand a chance of producing an essay of quality work. I felt obligated to compete with the other students. I tried using vocabulary that wasn’t me. I tried sentence structures that I couldn’t figure out myself. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I realized that I had to find my own way of telling my story and making it meaningful.” Greg
–Marilyn Wegner, Faculty, Humanities, University of Maine at Farmington, ME