Online writing

Reducing the Stakes with Online Writing: A Case Study

Heather VanMouwerik is a doctoral candidate in Russian history at the University of California, Riverside. You can follow her on Twitter, @HVanMouwerikor check out his work on his website.

I have written several articles on digital literacy and pedagogy for GradHacker, many of which suggest ways to integrate digital components in undergraduate courses. The overarching theme of all my advice is simple: start with clearly articulated learning goals, then find the right digital tools to achieve them. Not only does this help you focus on learning goals instead of being distracted by shiny new technology, but it also ensures that your students understand the value of digital homework and that you are not overwhelmed with troubleshooting. .

So today I wanted to do something a little different. Instead of giving more advice in this direction, I wanted to explain to you how I approached and finally solved an educational puzzle with a digital tool. The rest of this article will tell you how I successfully developed a low-stakes online writing assignment for a beginner’s English composition course, which might be useful for graduate students designing their first college course or instructors. more experienced students who wish to integrate a bit of digital into their pre-existing classes.

The blogging project

The problem: Undergraduates come to school with little writing experience, which makes it more difficult for them to transition into the college culture and convinces them that they are not and never will be “good” writers. The syllabus for Introductory English Composition courses focuses on the mechanics of formal essay writing and emphasizes imitation of scholarly style rather than developing an individual’s unique voice. This is part of why students find writing boring, stressful, and difficult, all understandable reasons why they try to avoid it at all costs. Due to severe time constraints (my university has a 10-week term), students leave English composition with only minor improvements in their writing. Additionally, professors in other courses complain about undergraduate essays, saying they often put format (five-paragraph essays, for example) above content.

The hypothesis: Having taught several composition courses, from beginner to intermediate level, I believe that students need to be trained in the formalities of writing scholarly essays. however, this high-stakes writing, that is, formal, graded assignments with a rubric, should be paired with low-stakes writing – ungraded, informal, and often fun assignments that emphasize experimentation and allow failure. During the term, students are exposed to new ways of writing, new types of information and (hopefully) new inspiration, which requires students to have time and space to treat. Yet the only chance they have to explore these things is when they’re being graded, a frightening prospect for students that dampens their interest in experimentation. I offer a writing project, parallel to formal essays, in which students are required to write almost daily in a wide range of styles. This project is considered low-stakes because students are not graded on quality or passing, only on completion. Her goal is to take away some of their induced fear of writing and help them find joy in the process.

Metrics: When designing this mission, I decided to evaluate its success or failure in two ways. First, using an entry-exit survey, I wanted to see how many students said they liked writing and if any students changed their minds during the term. Second, I looked for improvement in formal essay writing scores. Although most students improve during the term, I wondered if low-stakes writing would have an effect on the degree of improvement.

First failures: With this model in mind, I taught English composition three quarters in a row. Unfortunately, the low-stakes writing assignments in those first two terms were relatively unsuccessful.

In the fall, my low-stakes writing was pretty old school. For each class, students typed and printed a 250-word response to a prompt. They returned it and I graded them superficially (check more/check/check less). This turned out to be an overwhelming amount of paper for me to assess each week. Also, I think the students found it to be a rather formal way to make an assignment meant to be informal. Overall, these writing assignments accounted for only 5% of their final grade, meaning that many students put little or no effort into them. So, based on my column, this project did not come to fruition. Students showed only normal increases in formal writing scores, and the three people who said they liked writing at the start of term dropped to two by the end (a failure that still haunts me).

In the winter, I continued to demand daily written responses. This time, however, I asked students to post them on blogs they created through the university’s Blackboard system. I thought the format would be less formal and the system private and secure, but it turned out that Blackboard blogs weren’t up to the task. Not only did they get choppy when students wanted to include anything other than text, but they lacked personalization – everyone’s blog looked alike, which was reflected in the consistency of their writing. When designing the course, I increased the total weight of the assignment to 15%, which had a noticeable effect: almost all students submitted all of their posts. Yet again, students showed only moderate gains in their formal writing scores, and the number of students who enjoyed writing remained the same. During the exit survey, several students complained, as they could not see a connection between low-stakes writing and high-stakes writing. They felt that daily writing interfered with the time they had to focus on graded essays.

These failures taught me three important lessons about low-stakes writing. First of all, low stakes does not mean low effort. Students did not benefit from this assignment, as they considered it to be of lesser importance than formal essays. Logically, they invested their time and energy in what mattered to them: their final grade. If low-stakes writing is to succeed, it must carry substantial weight in the course rubric. Second, and this is where digital tools come in, I needed to find a way for students to feel more comfortable with the medium of low-stakes writing. Preferably, they should be able to write from various platforms, easily customize their blog and add non-text content. Finally, I needed to be much more explicit about the connection between low-stakes and high-stakes writing, to be clear about its pedagogical importance.

Finally, Success! During the spring term, I started a completely revamped low-stakes writing task, and (spoilers!) it was a success by any measure I had. At the beginning of the term, I had a student (journalist in training) who liked to write; in the end, I was 13. Also, the students increased their grades during the term more than in my first two terms, which earned me my first and second A+ assignments as a composition teacher in English ! Although the sample size is too small to make statements beyond the anecdotal, my measures show significant student achievement.

The project: The latest iteration of the blog project had two components. First, each student was to create a private Tumblr and periodically (~1-2 per week) post creative responses to assigned prompts. Since this is a public platform, I walked them through setting up their security preferences and encouraged them to use aliases in their profile, which they shared with the class on a Google doc. This section of the project was scored solely based on whether or not the Tumblr post was completed on time.

Second, instead of a final exam or paper, students had to write a reflective essay that assessed their Tumblr posts against the readings we did in class, as if their Tumblr was written by a stranger. . This metacognitive approach gave students the opportunity to look at their work somewhat objectively, determining what worked and what didn’t. Although Tumblr posts were an example of low-stakes writing, this reflective essay required students to mix the different formal writing structures and mechanics of the high-stakes scholarly writing we have studied throughout. throughout the quarter.

These two components achieved two objectives. First, it allowed me to justify weighing the project heavily in their final grade for the class. With 25% of their total score at stake, students took blog posts very seriously. Second, the reflective essay clearly articulated the connection between low-stakes and high-stakes writing, meaning that students did not feel that low-stakes writing was a waste of time.

Conclusion : In this example, the digital tool has clearly placed itself in the background of the project’s learning objectives. Still, I don’t think I could have achieved these goals without the help of Tumblr itself. First, it was easy to use, since most of my students were already familiar with the site, and responsive enough to be accessed from a variety of devices (students without computers, for example, had no problem posting from their phone). Second, posting on Tumblr is much less formal than typing, printing, and handing in an assignment. This relieved the students of much of the pressure to do the assignment “well”, and instead gave them the sense of freedom that low-stakes writing thrives on. Third, Tumblr is endlessly customizable. The students invested time in their site because they could make it their own. By adding photos and changing colors, they curated a space they could feel comfortable in and owned. And finally, it allowed students to continue experimenting with low-stakes writing outside of class. Some of my students have written multiple articles on a single prompt, taking their responses in various directions; some eventually made their Tumblr public and, to this day, post there regularly. All of this was necessary for my students to be comfortable enough to experiment, break the rules, embrace their uniqueness, and (finally!) enjoy writing.

Did you get lost in an educational puzzle? How did you find an answer? Please let us know in the comments!

[Image provided by Flickr user Alan Levine and used under a Creative Commons license.]