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My first boyfriend’s car was his family’s old SUV named Bessie.  Having moved the kids across the country for college, carried the family on many happy vacations, and suffered the daily commute, it had exceeded the promised 200,000 mile lifespan.   Like any teenage male with a secondhand car, Bessie’s owner dreamed of installing a new radio, fixing up her rust spots, replacing the cloudy glass of the headlights, and replacing the damaged seats.  But he couldn’t find the time or money for the cosmetic repairs amid all the more urgent fixes Bessie needed just to drive safely.  Bessie had made it to her third transmission.  She needed her emissions system replaced.  A collision required her to get new struts.

What does Bessie have to do with teaching students to write?  We should focus on making the paper work before we fix the cosmetic details.  Like a car needs a working engine, transmission, and suspension to be safe and reliable, a paper needs a strong thesis, compelling evidence, and sound analysis.  The grammar, proofreading, and are like a shiny paint job and detailed interior.  They make it compelling, but they’re useless if the thing does not function.

How can we as instructors focus on the paper’s engine, rather than the upholstery?

 

  • Focus less on grammar.

In one meta-analysis of teaching techniques for writing, students in a grammar/mechanics treatment scored slightly less (-.29 of one standard deviation) than their peers who did not receive a specific instruction in grammar.  The other modes of writing instruction in the study (including freewriting, use of models, involving students in the use of scales to evaluate writing, combining sentences, and activities of inquiry to develop skills for dealing with data) all showed improvements over control conditions.

Limit yourself to two local comments per page so that students will focus on your global comments at the end of the paper.  Also make sure your rubric reflects your priorities.

 

  • Use peer review thoughtfully.

While students struggle to identify a strong thesis or compelling argument, most students can find local-level errors easily, especially in each other’s work.  Use this to your advantage.  If your assignment has multiple drafts, you should read the first draft to direct the student’s overall argument, structure, and evidence.  Then use a peer review exercise for the second draft to address problems like topic sentences, grammar, and proofreading.

 

  • Use student writing as a diagnostic.

We’ve all had the experience of struggling with a particular paragraph or section in our writing.  When you go back to your draft, you can still tell that’s where you had a problem wrangling your argument into shape.  The sentences are clunky, and maybe they use a lot of to-be verbs.  You might have more than your average number of typos or proofreading errors.  Your transitions and paragraph structure are probably weak there too.

The same thing happens in student writing.  Writing is next to impossible when we do not know what we are trying to convey.  That paragraph with all the technical errors is trying to explicate a text the student did not understand.  Or maybe that evidence really is a counterargument they are trying to shoehorn into their evidence.  Or perhaps their thesis is too vague or too narrow to account for the topic of that paragraph.  Instead of marking every grammatical error, explain what the errors show you about the argument.  Make suggestions for the student to rethink or reframe that paragraph or section.  The technical problems will likely smooth themselves out when the student knows what he or she is trying to say.

 

  • Implement a “never again” list.

If you still feel the need to grade and address grammar more directly, try implementing a “never again” list.  Every student will keep their personal, ongoing list of errors they vow “never again” to commit.  After each assignment, every student will identify a new error to add to the list.  For every new assignment, students attach their updated list to their paper.  You will only grade the grammatical points each student has added to his or her list (and perhaps make a suggestion for a new error to add for the next time).  This strategy limits the scope of the errors you will be marking while building student proficiency.  This technique can be especially helpful for students with poor written English or English language learners.

 

References: 

Hillocks, George. “What Works in Teaching Composition: A Meta-Analysis of Experimental Treatment Studies.” American Journal of Education 93, no. 1 (1984): 133–70.

Walvoord, Barbara E., and Virginia Johnson Anderson. Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment in College. 2nd edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2009.

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