Your Student’s Background in Writing
Your students have had a varied history of writing and composition instruction, but some patterns do exist. Because most are graduates of California public schools, it is likely that their high schools, even in affluent districts, had large classes with many demands placed on their teachers. As a result, they probably did not receive much direct instruction in writing, nor did they receive much specific response to their writing. In addition, their assignments probably called for information retrieval, summary, or statements of opinion—not the kind of argumentative or analytical tasks required by most university-level assignments.
Depending on the level of class you’re teaching, your students may have completed some of UCLA’s writing requirements for undergraduates:
University wide Analytical Writing Placement Examination
A requirement of all UC students, this is satisfied by a majority of UCLA students by taking a placement exam in the spring of their senior year of high school. If they do not pass the exam, they must take either English Composition 2 or ESL 35. Satisfying this requirement with a grade of C or higher is a prerequisite for Writing I.
A majority of UCLA students meet this requirement, which focuses on general academic writing, by taking English Composition 3 or ESL 36. Satisfying this requirement with a grade of C or higher is a prerequisite for Writing II.
For students in the College of Letters and Science, this requirement introduces them to discipline-specific writing. They fulfill the requirement by taking a course designated with a “W” (e.g., English 100W) taught within a department or program in the College. First-year students can satisfy both the Writing I and Writing II requirements by participating in the year-long Freshman Cluster Program.
Given that writing is central to a liberal arts education—and is a vital life skill—teaching writing effectively is essential. Your primary job when teaching writing is to help students refine and develop their central ideas. To emphasize clarity and logic, you’ll want to think through your students’ writing process and consider the ways you can best help them.
Think of an individual assignment as a group of activities—a “package”—that collectively focuses on the writing process. These activities can include clarifying the assignment for your students, breaking down the assignment into stages, helping them with the process of drafting and revising and, finally, evaluating their work with points or a grade. You may even help your students to reflect on their writing once they’ve complete the assignment.
When drafting a writing prompt, the following questions will help define the assignment’s objectives, as well as help to determine what you should cover in class to best prepare your students to write:
- What is the primary intellectual task the assignment requires?
- What do students need to know to successfully write this assignment?
- What do they have to do?
- What is the scope of the assignment in terms of course readings and outside material (what is required and what is prohibited)?
- Are the “helper” questions included to stimulate student thinking clearly marked as such, rather than as questions for them to answer one by one?
- Where might students get into trouble with this assignment?
- Where would you begin if you were writing this assignment?
Then break down the assignment into the steps your students must take to complete the assignment, such as gathering data or identifying relationships among texts. To take them through the process of doing the assignment, create in-class activities or give them take-home work to discuss the next time you meet. Sometimes it’s helpful to show your class a couple of examples of the sort of work you’re expecting from them. Most departments keep archived copies of good student writing.
Determine which writing and conceptual skills are required by the assignment, and then let your students practice them. Create short reading assignments and in-class exercises that exemplify the kinds of thinking and writing your students should do to complete their full assignment. If the size or scope of your class prohibits in-class exercises, instruct your TAs to conduct them in their discussion groups. While you or your TA should demonstrate the skills students will be employing, such as how to do a close reading or work with different types of sources, you should have students do some of this work themselves. You might, for instance, have small groups brainstorm evidence to support a particular thesis, or ask students to bring in thesis statements for the class to critique. The bottom line is that students can’t learn writing skills and strategies from just watching you. As a plus, your students’ hands-on engagement with the material and methods of inquiry will lead to an active, multi-vocal classroom.
Responding to Student Writing
Although undergraduate writing frequently exhibits problems in grammar, syntax, word choice, and punctuation, restrain yourself from writing too much on a student’s text. Let’s face it: you can write better than they can. But your students will become discouraged if you rewrite their work. Instead, signal your reaction as a reader who is, for example, confused, surprised, or even delighted, rather than as someone looking solely for technical precision. Encourage your students to express their thoughts more clearly and concisely, while pointing out patterns of error or awkwardness instead of attempting to “fix” each problem.
You’ll make the most impact on your students as writers if you assist them in recognizing and then addressing their conceptual or rhetorical difficulties. This way, they can apply what they learn to other writing situations they encounter, both on and off campus. You can provide feedback on your students’ writing in several ways. Consider these three ways to respond to your students’ work.
Respond in writing: Whether you’re responding to student writing on a hardcopy or online, first read the essay through quickly without marking anything. You’ll get an idea of the main issues to comment on rather than getting caught up in all the mistakes you see. Focus your notes in the margins on just two or three main issues, such as argument, development, and organization. Try to avoid making generic statements such as, “interesting” or “relevance?” Instead, respond briefly to the particular point: “I’m confused. Do you mean X or Y?” You should note repeated blunders in grammar or diction. If you see multiple problems in sentence expression, mark up one paragraph or a few lines as a model for how the student can rework the prose. We’re good at pointing out what’s not working, so don’t forget to say what is working, such as good insights into the material. Your comments at the end of a student’s work should begin by acknowledging what it has succeeded in doing, even if it’s only recognizing what it has attempted to accomplish. Refer to the notes you’ve made in the margins as concrete examples of the principle issues you’re discussing in your end note. Let your students know that you’ll be looking for improvement either in the revision (if allowed) or in the next essay assignment. You may want to recommend that they see you or a campus tutor for more clarification or assistance.
Respond in peer review: If peer review workshops are appropriately structured and focused, they can supply students with useful feedback on their drafts and help them be more critical readers of their own work. Peer review can complement or even replace the instructor’s comments, particularly late in the quarter when students are more fluent in discussing writing. You can use peer review for most stages of the writing process, from thesis statements, to individual sections, to entire drafts. Provide specific written directions for guiding the peer review, either on a handout, on an overhead, or on the board. When planning your class, remember to account for the time it takes for students to swap, read and make written and/or verbal comments on their peers’ work. Avoid making groups of more than three or four students, and make sure to get permission from each of them to have their work read by their classmates.
Respond in conferences: Holding individual or small group conferences to talk about student writing is optimal in many ways. Whereas we normally read in isolation and can only guess at what the writer means, the writer’s presence enables you to clarify the intended meaning and allows the student to understand his or her goals for the paper. Encourage each student to take notes on the conversation, which should be as dynamic as possible.
Grading Student Writing
You’ll find that evaluating writing assignments with some sort of grading guide leads to a fairer allocation of grades or points. Grading rubrics usually describe the features that will constitute A-range work, B-range work, C-range work, and so on (or the equivalent points). You can sketch your own set of grade expectations for a particular assignment or develop one collaboratively with your TAs. Focus on the main features of a piece of student writing—for example, its analysis or structure—rather than solely on one feature, such as the thesis or grammar. Holistic assessments of student writing accomplish this by valuing the effectiveness of the whole piece—its thesis, evidence, logic, language, grammar, mechanics—more than its individual parts.
Referring students to one of UCLA’s tutorial centers is an excellent way for them to have a thoughtful conversation about writing and can relieve you of being their only source of consultation. Recommending a tutor is especially useful if you want a student to work on the patterns of grammatical or syntactical error or a particular stage of the writing process. Apart from the Athletic Department’s tutoring program for its athletes, the primary campus resources are listed below:
Covel Tutorials Composition Lab and the Covel Tutorials ESL Tutoring Lab offer free peer tutoring in 228 Covel Commons. Students are required to make appointments M-R 9am-9pm and F 9am-5pm (310-206-1491). Drop-in tutoring is available M-R 7pm-9pm. Tutoring referral forms are available; you can also arrange for a Covel tutor give a brief presentation to your class.
Academic Advancement Program (AAP) Tutorial Services offers free tutoring to AAP students in 1214 Campbell Hall. Students are eligible for AAP “if their academic profiles and personal backgrounds may impact their university experience and their retention and graduation from UCLA” (AAP website). You can encourage your AAP students to reach their Humanities tutor at 310-206-1556. http://aap.ucla.edu/#/programs/peer-learning/
The WRITe program is a resource for TAs across all disciplines who teach writing. The WRITe website offers five short teaching modules that provide short, clear lessons on some of the most common and fundamental writing problems we see at UCLA. It also provides a wealth of supplementary teaching materials that instructors may choose to teach as class lessons using overhead transparencies, pass out as handouts, or post to their own course websites. Please visit http://write.oid.ucla.edu for more information.
The quality and fairness of exams is a critical, and often stressful, aspect of work for most instructors. When constructing examinations and quizzes, first decide what goals, definitions, concepts, and values are absolutely essential to the unit you are teaching. Similarly, establish which intellectual skills you want your students to acquire. Then consider the constraints on the exam format and schedule. Will exams be in-class, take-home, open- or closed-book, multiple choice, short answer, or essay? How many exams will there be – a single midterm, two midterms, a series of quizzes, or a final? Students feel a compelling need, sometimes from the first day of class, for this information and to know the relative value of each exam.
In order to write effective exam questions, you need to keep in mind that learning involves various levels of cognition that range from recalling or recognizing information to critically analyzing or synthesizing information.
After you have written your questions, examine them and classify them according to the categories of thought involved in answering them. You may find that most of them simply involve memory, and that with a few small changes you can produce questions that require a higher level of thought.
Examinations usually produce a high degree of anxiety for students. You can help minimize this by establishing a policy regarding exams and grading and by stating it explicitly. Determine whether you will offer review sessions, if makeup exams will be possible, or if questions will be answered during the exam. In addition, tell your students when the grades will be posted or when the corrected exams will be returned.
More on Grading
Grading is a major concern of most instructors. Some new instructors are quite harsh at the beginning to show that they have high standards. Others, who disdain the grade system, are quite lenient. Often, instructors, after acquiring some experience with grading, settle on a middle ground. Be cautious of trying to force your value system on students as you grade their work. When you express your values, make it clear that you are doing just that and not explicating some ultimate truth. Remember that whatever grading standards you use, they are inevitably somewhat arbitrary, and to some extent reflect your values.
Grades should conform to the practice in the department and to UCLA policy. Grading policies of the department, college, or campus may limit the grading procedures that can be used and force a basic grading philosophy on each instructor in that administrative unit. Departments often have written statements that specify a method of assigning grades or mandated percentages of A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s and F’s that may be indicative of implicitly stated grading policies.
Grading plans should be agreed upon ahead of time with the TAs assigned to the course; they should then be communicated to the class at the beginning of the quarter. By informing students early in the quarter about course priorities, the instructor helps students to structure their work. Students should be informed about which course activities will be considered in their final grade; the importance or weight of exams, quizzes, homework sets, papers, and projects; and which topics are more important than others. All of this information can be communicated effectively as part of the course outline or syllabus.
Grading plans stated at the beginning of the course should not be changed without thoughtful consideration and a complete explanation to the students, preferably in writing. Altering or inconsistently following a grading plan is analogous to changing the rules in the middle of the game. It becomes extremely difficult and frustrating to participate. When the rules need to be changed, all of the players must be informed and, hopefully, will be in agreement as to what the new rules are.
Any grading components of a course should be approached with care and accuracy. Carefully written tests and/or graded assignments (homework papers and projects, for example) are keys to accurate grading. In view of the many ways course grades are used, each should most accurately reflect the level of competence of each student.
The number of components or elements used to assign course grades should be large enough to enhance high accuracy in the final grade. The minimum number of tests, quizzes, papers, projects, and/or presentations needed must attempt to secure as much relevant data as is reasonably possible to ensure that the course grade will accurately reflect each student’s achievement level.
Instructors can alleviate some of the anxiety associated with grading by considering methods which de-emphasize individual competition and focus instead on learning. Group projects are one way to achieve this. Another suggestion is to avoid grading on the basis of a normal curve. If standards are constant from year to year, students can work with each other even in classes where exams and grades are based on individual work. A basic understanding of concepts and relationships is frequently improved by discussing ideas with peers. Encourage the formation of study groups to enhance learning in this regard.
Because grading standards are unavoidably subjective, it is useful to try to see each student during office hours (or your TAs’ office hours depending on class size) before the end of the quarter and estimate his or her probable grade. This technique generally works well because it allows students to know where they stand and gives them some control over their final grade, as well as the responsibility of deciding what to do about it. However, for some, grades may not be the best or most-informative form of feedback about student achievement. For these individuals, a letter grade does not necessarily indicate meaningful or valuable feedback.
No matter what method you use, some students invariably will complain about their grades. Take these students seriously; recalculate their scores or reread their exams. It is possible that you made a mistake. If you did not, be firm but gentle, state your standards, and refrain from extended arguments.
Undergraduates at UCLA place considerable importance on their grades. Some instructors spend hours discussing grades with students. This occurs frequently in classes in which grades are based on essay exams. At times it seems that every student who receives a “D,” most of those who get “C’s,” and many of those who get “B’s” come in for their hour to argue that their essays deserved the next higher grade. There are ways to reduce the frequency of such incidents. The key is communication. Let the students know what you expect, and be reasonably consistent in asking for it. It is advisable to hand out a sheet delineating your expectations. (i.e. importance of critical analysis, reference to readings, use of outside sources, paper length, structure, etc.)
Since many students are not used to writing such papers, shorter papers with the option of writing the paper twice helps improve writing greatly. On the first reading pay careful attention to the structure of the arguments, pointing out both strengths and weaknesses. Ask questions that direct the students’ attention to points they may have missed, responses to the arguments that they need to consider, other sources, and so forth. Doing so leads to comparatively few complaints about grades, because students appreciate that they are given sufficient opportunity to get help and improve.