Learning to write is like learning to play tennis: written feedback is not always useful

Sometimes giving feedback on student writing is straightforward. They have missed something important, so we tell them what they didn’t know, or we tell them to do what they missed: for example, “criterion is singular and criteria plural”, or “You need to put the reference in brackets.”

But written feedback telling our students how to write is not always so useful. Sometimes our students need to learn things that cannot be conveyed by written feedback. Leaning to write involves developing very complex skills – for instance, knowing how to make a clear point, or how to link one idea to the next – and these skills are learnt in the same way we learn to play tennis. Giving written feedback on these writing skills is like reading a book to learn how to swing a racquet. Instead, the skills can only be learned by isolating them and then practicing, using regular feedback from an expert coach to improve our performance.

The process of learning is something like this:

  1. Teacher gives instruction about what the aim is and how to achieve this
  2. Student attempts it
  3. Teacher gives feedback on what the student did well, what needs adjustment, and how to adjust
  4. Student uses feedback to adjust their performance closer to the aim and tries again
  5. Teacher gives feedback on what the student did well, what needs adjustment, and how to adjust
  6. Student uses feedback to adjust their performance closer to the aim, and tries again
  7. Teacher gives feedback on what the student did well, what needs adjustment, and how to adjust
  8. Keep repeating until student has met the aim, and is at the adequate level of performance

 

An example of this process for writing might be something like this:

  1. Teacher explains that a paragraph should only make one main point, and gives an example
  2. Student writes one paragraph, attempting to only make one main point
  3. Feedback from the teacher: “I can’t tell what main point you were making. What is the main point? Tell me out-loud and then write this down.”
  4. Student re-writes the paragraph, attempting to make it about the main point they said out-loud
  5. Feedback from the teacher: “I can see that you have included this main point in the paragraph, but you have also included this point and this point. Can you see that they are three different points, where each is about a different topic? You need to break this into three paragraphs, one for each point.”
  6. Student re-writes one paragraph, attempting to isolate only the first main point
  7. Feedback from teacher: “Great, it looks like you are only writing about the one main point. However if I didn’t know your topic, I couldn’t tell what the main point is in your paragraph because you have hidden it as the third or fourth sentence in the paragraph. Re-write the paragraph so the first sentence is the main point, and the rest of the paragraph elaborates this main point.”
  8. Student re-writes the paragraph, attempting to put the main point in the first sentence.
  9. Feedback: “Great, you got it! Now try this again on a different paragraph, and I’ll give you some feedback.”

This process is effective for several reasons. First, it isolates a specific skill needed for academic writing which the student can concentrate on, rather than swamping them with vast amounts of feedback on multiple different skills. Second, it is quick and easy to do for a student. The student only has to complete a small task which takes very little time (much less than writing a whole chapter), and so they can quickly repeat multiple iterations (sometimes during a supervisory meeting), improving each time. Third, it is quick and easy for the teacher. Rather than having to struggle through an entire chapter where there are problems in every paragraph, the teacher is able to give quick feedback just when the student needs it to improve. Lastly, it allows the student to adjust their performance of the writing skill. It is never enough to tell them how to write a good paragraph – they can say “I get it” but their performance indicates they do not. Students need to try it, find out where they are going wrong, then adjust and try again, find out how to get better and then adjust, etc.

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Posted in Postgraduate education, Writing

Engaging teaching

Why am I interested in learning about some things (movie history) but I couldn’t care less about other things (motorcycle engines)? If we can crack the secret of intellectual curiosity we can make our teaching engaging for any student.

Posted in Learning, Learning to teach, Uncategorized

Promising leads for improving teaching

There are many ways to improve teaching, but in my experience when enhancing my own teaching or mentoring other teachers, there are three paths that are most likely to lead to improvement.

1. Covering too much

We commonly try to cover too much for students to digest, especially when we first start teaching a topic and we don’t yet know how long it takes to cover the material. For example, our lecture might be so full that we have to move to the next powerpoint slide before students have a chance to read it, let alone to understand it.

Path to improvement: Cut what you include so you only cover the essential and fundamental material. Make sure you give students enough time to understand what you say (which takes much longer than the time required to say it).

2. Mismatch of expectations

What we want from our students is often different from what they expect to do, and what students expect from their teacher is often different from what we are offering. For example, students expect to be given the lecture slides before the lecture, but the lecturer doesn’t want to do this; students expect to do less readings than the lecture expects them to do; students expect to be told the right answers, while the teacher expects independent critical thinking. Incompatible expectations like these often underlie troubles in teaching, though they are not always apparent. For instance, you might think your students are unprepared or lazy, but actually the problem is that they expect to be able to silently listen to a lecture while you expect them all to contribute to class discussions.

Path to improvement: First, find out what students expect. For example, their complaints and requests written in evaluation questionnaires are often a good indicator of their expectations. Second, judge whether giving them what they expect will help their learning. If it will help their learning, for example getting more feedback, then find a way to give them what they want. If it will not help their learning, then convince them why your way is better. It is not enough to tell them why you are not doing what they expect, you have to win them over so they see the merit in your approach.

See my other post, Disciplined learning, for more ways to motivate students to do what is good for their learning, even when they are reluctant to tackle these learning tasks.

3. Our teaching doesn’t work for these students

Sometimes how we teach, or the way we explain something, fails to work for our current students, even though it normally works, or it worked with a different group of students in a different context. The problem is a mismatch between our teaching methods and our particular students. We have pitched our teaching incorrectly for our students because we don’t know these particular students well enough. See my other post, Teaching is about who you know, for more on why knowing our students is necessary for teaching.

Path to improvement: First, find out more about your students so you can judge what is likely to stimulate their learning. Find out about their interests, plans for the future, prior learning, expectations of the course, etc. See my other post, Getting to know your students, for more on how you might get to know your students before you teach them.

Second, regularly check what your students understand so you can judge if your teaching has worked, or if you need to modify your approach. For example, ask multi-choice questions during class, or ask students at the end of your lecture to write for you what they now understand, and what they don’t yet understand. If most of your students give the wrong answer, or most students don’t understand something you have taught, you know that your approach to teaching this material was not effective for these students. You then need to reteach it for your current students, and teach it differently for the next group.

Posted in Learning to teach, Mentoring, Students | 1 Comment

Digging deeper: How do I tell where to go deeper?

When we write academically, one of our main tasks is to deeply explore the topics we write about. It is not enough to present a superficial overview, so we need to drill deep. Yet it is often difficult to judge where we need to go deep, or whether we have gone deep enough. Many students think they have deeply explored a topic, only to find that their marker disagrees.

To figure out how I deepen my own writing, I ‘reverse engineered’1 my own process of thinking. This might provide some guidance for tackling an otherwise mysterious process of digging deeper.

How do I judge where to drill?

First I sketch an overview of the topic to get the lay of the land. I need a map of the intellectual terrain that shows the relationships between all the main ideas, points or concepts which I could investigate. For example, if I’m writing about reflective practice, the overview might include ideas such as Gibbs reflective cycle, reflection as learning, the difference between reflection and learning, reflection on practice, and reflection as practice. I might also isolate the different elements involved in reflective practice such as uncovering assumptions, evaluating past practice, planning future practice, etc.

Next I rank the most promising areas for drilling. I look at each idea and decide which are the main ideas important for understanding the overall topic, or which need the most attention (perhaps because of some gaps in our understanding), or which ideas I am most interested in.

Finally I choose to focus on only the top ranked ideas, and I include only the quantity of ideas I can cover in the available time and word limit. For example, if I only have 1500 words and one week, I might choose to only investigate one of the main ideas, such as uncovering assumptions as one important aspect of reflective practice.

Sometimes I explain how I judge where to focus my investigation using the metaphor of travelling to a new city, rather than the metaphor of drilling. This is a useful way of understanding a research project like a thesis. A research topic is like a new city, and I start my exploration by wandering around the new city, reading almost randomly, until I have a good sense of the whole map. But you cannot research the whole city, so next I have to choose one building to explore, and one floor within that building, and one room within that floor in which I will work for an extended period of time. This means my research is on the city, the whole topic, but I investigate the city by working in depth on only one small area.

How do I judge if I have gone deep enough?

I start by asking what needs elaboration, justification and illustration about the idea that I am probing. For example, what do I mean by an assumption and what do I mean by uncovering an assumption? Why is this important for reflective practice? What is an example of someone uncovering an assumption, and how does this example illustrate the process of reflective practice?

I write my answers to these questions, and then ask about this new writing: what needs elaboration, justification and illustration? For example, if I described uncovering as assumption as finding out my prejudices, then I now need to answer the questions: what do I mean by a prejudice and what is an example of a prejudice?

I keep writing further drafts, and re-reading what I have written, looking for anything that needs explanation, justification and illustration until there is nothing more to elaborate, justify or illustrate, and the questions no longer arise. Then I know I can’t go any deeper.

Sometimes when I tackle 2 or more ideas, I write so much about one of the ideas that I can no longer fit all the ideas into my available word limit. In this case I have to delete one of the less important ideas as I cannot do justice to all of them. I might replace the deleted idea with a phrase like: “Another important idea is reflection during practice, rather than reflection after practice, but this is beyond the scope of this essay.”

 

[1] Golding, C. (2011) Educating for Critical Thinking: Thought-encouraging questions in a community of inquiry, Higher Education Research and Development 30(3), 357-379.

Posted in Reflection and improvement, Writing

Snow writing

snow writingLike many people, I schedule writing time to make sure I fit it in my busy week. But sticking to your schedule is often difficult, and there are many good reasons why you might miss your writing time (like getting snowed in and unable to travel to work). Sometimes you just have to find creative ways to stick to your schedule, no matter what.

Posted in Postgraduate education, Writing

The Slow Professor

Slow professor

The Slow Professor had me revise what it means to be an academic. It is well worth a read in full, but in short, I think the message is: stop worrying about time management and making time and fitting things in and instead focus on the pleasures of the academic life. Putting this another way, the authors of The Slow Professor encourage us to resist the corporatisation of academic life (a symptom of which is speeded up, efficient performance and the resulting need for time management) and instead devote yourself to what is academically pleasureable, meaningful and interesting. Devote yourself to collegial discussions, crafting your ideas into an article, working in the lab, the library or the field, fostering the love of your subject in a new generation, and creating ah-ha moments for your students.

Posted in Book review

My student complains I don’t give enough feedback, but I give lots of feedback!

Here is my reflective, diagnostic process for figuring out what to do when I face situations like this.

My initial analysis of the situation: Although my feedback practices normally work for my students, they aren’t working for this student. I need to diagnose what the problem is and work out a strategy that will support this student.

My diagnosis process:  I talk with the student and read their work, so I can form a hypothesis about the underlying problem, then I devise a solution based on my hypothesis, and trial this solution. If that fails, I rule out the first hypothesis and go to an alternative, trialling a different solution based on the second hypothesis. And so on until I find a solution.

One diagnosis I always reject: It’s their problem (because they aren’t smart enough, or they shouldn’t have been let into my class, or they don’t do the work, or they simply ignore my feedback).

I don’t even consider this diagnosis, first because it is based on the fallacious idea: “I’ve tried everything, and it didn’t work, so it must be the student at fault.” But I haven’t tried everything, and it is impossible to try everything, so it is a fallacy to blame my current lack of a solution on my student. Put another way, it is an unjustifiably defeatist response. Instead I take the mindset that there is always a way to enable every student, but I may have to do some work to figure it out.

But most importantly, I ignore this diagnosis because it is irrelevant. The only relevant point is that my teaching is not working for this student. Blaming my student (or even blaming myself) is missing the point. The job I have as an educator is to devise methods that will work for this student.

As an aside, because teachers can be overworked, it is both honest and appropriate to think: “I don’t have time to sort out this student at the moment”. Then you can come back to a diagnosis and teaching solution when you have more time, perhaps when you are designing your next round of teaching. Just don’t fool yourself that there is nothing you can do.

 

Here are some of the diagnostic possibilities that I do consider, each one followed by a possible ‘treatment’. The list is not exhaustive, but does cover many of the most common areas of trouble for students.

  1. My feedback is not clear for this student.
    • Explain in several different ways, and find a way of expressing yourself that does make sense to this student.
  2. I am asking too much of this student, too fast. I’m asking them to do tasks that are too hard for them.
    • Break the task into do-able steps, and support the student to tackle each of these steps.
  3. They are terrified of the task, or they think they are incompetent.
    • Build their self-confidence and self-efficacy. Tell them they will succeed with time and effort. Give them doable tasks so that they experience a sense of success.
  4. They don’t understand what feedback is, what it is for, or why it is important.
    • Explain what feedback is, and convince them that it is beneficial for them.
  5. They don’t understand how to use the feedback I give.
    • Give them guided practice at using feedback to improve. Show them how you would use your feedback to improve a small aspect of their work, then ask them to follow the same process, using other feedback to improve a different aspect of their work.
  6. They expected more or different feedback than what I provide.
    • Negotiate with the student to align your expectations with theirs. Find out what they expected, and either convince them to change their expectations to what you actually provide, or change what you provide to better meet their expectations, or some combination of the two.
  7. The student has some deeper conceptual misunderstanding about the nature of the task for which I am giving feedback, for example, about what it means to write a critical essay. While they lack this foundational understanding, any feedback or instruction I give them will be misunderstood and pointless.
    • Identify concepts that are crucial to the task (sometimes called threshold concepts) – such as ‘argument’, ‘evidence’, ‘reasons’, and ‘convincing the reader’ – and help the student understand these concepts. Build this understanding before you tackle the issue of feedback directly.
Posted in Postgraduate education, Reflection and improvement, Writing