On the Bright Side: Students Share What Has Worked this Semester

Matthew Luskey

The end of the semester and the end of the year provide an opportune time for reflection. Previous TWW tips have encouraged instructors to use this time to take stock of what has worked well in their courses as an impetus for future course planning. Daniel Pink’s recent book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, affirms this practice: “Endings of all kinds—of experiences, projects, semesters, negotiations, stages of life—shape our behavior in four predictable ways. They help us energize. They help us encode. They help us edit. And they help us elevate” (146).

River Park Winter Trees

To support your efforts to look back and look ahead, this month’s TWW post features undergraduate students across the disciplines who have identified key moments over the past semester that supported their development as writers. What were the conditions in their courses that aided their development? What instructional practices were especially effective? What kinds of feedback and resources matter most? Not surprisingly, the answers to these questions are varied. However, several facets stand out for students when it comes to their development as writers: (1) explicit teaching; (2) clear and honest feedback; (3) transparent assessment; (4) scaffolded and guided support.

Here are four student reflections, followed by a brief commentary suggesting ways to integrate these effective practices into your own courses.

Mentor Texts and Meta-Teaching

In my History class this semester, we discussed various essays by famous Hindu nationalists, examining the writing techniques the writers made use of. I enjoyed the professor’s survey on the commonalities in the rhetoric used by people of very different backgrounds. For instance, Gandhi and Savarkar, whose philosophies were like night and day, employed similar ways of harkening back to the past to make a point about the present. I found this lesson helpful, not only in gaining a better understanding of our various texts, but in making me think about my own persuasive essays that I have written (and will write), and the ways that I might be able to draw on what we discussed (rhetorical techniques, allusionary language, etc.) to formulate more meaningful papers. We also discussed why some of the writers were not successful in presenting a coherent argument, despite the fact that they employed strategies that other writers had been using. It is helpful to see firsthand why one person’s historical metaphor fails while another person’s writing rings true.

~ Reid, Art and History Majors

Reid’s experience in his History course affirms the benefits of combining the use of mentor texts with meta-teaching—a strategy that entails discussing the assigned course readings for their content and for their compositional features. Opportunities to teach good writing strategies—from persuasive techniques to the effective use of graphs, figures and charts—can occur alongside discussion of course content. Moreover, by calling attention to the writerly elements in the course readings, instructors can help demystify the specific genres and conventions at work in their disciplines. Read more about ways to use meta-teaching strategies in your classes.

Flipping the Classroom

This semester, I experienced for the first time the concept of a flipped classroom, and instantly took a liking to it, as it got through the required content without making students sit through boring lectures. That way, during class time, we could practice the concepts we learned and have doubts clarified on a one-to-one basis, something that seemed impossible in such a large lecture.

~ Sourojit, Computer Science and Creative Writing Majors

When instructors “flip” their classroom, they allocate class time, traditionally reserved for lecturing on course content, for active learning strategies, such as group discussion, problem sets, case-based learning, and peer instruction. In the flipped classroom, the traditional presentational approach to course content is offered outside of class time, often via pre-recorded screencasts and lectures integrated into a learning management system. For the purposes of teaching with writing, the flipped classroom provides excellent opportunities for instructors to coach and facilitate student learning through the use of various in-class writing activities. Given the significant shift in teaching and learning required to flip the classroom, instructors might want to spend some time familiarizing themselves with the flipped classroom model and consult with educational specialists at the Center for Educational Innovation and the Center for Writing.

Genuine and Transparent Feedback

For my creative writing class, what really helped was genuine criticism. We had exercises at the start of the semester to identify some goals we had for writing, and the instructor made sure to refer to those every time the instructor graded us. Although the prompts were broad and we could put our own spin on them, the instructor constantly encouraged us to be “brave” with our writing, which confused me at first a little. The instructor was very open to having a conversation about the comments and grades outside of class, to better understand what direction we could take our writing in and that helped tremendously. This instructor has taken the time to understand us as writers. We also have outside-of-class conferences to talk about our bigger projects/papers and to keep revisiting our writing goals. What really worked for this class was the clear feedback I got (even if it was just straight-up criticism), and the instructor's willingness to revisit the comments and talk further about it so the writer (myself) could improve.

For my supply chain course, my instructor is an exceptional grader. The instructor, after every exam or problem set, is very transparent about the class average, and about the questions people struggled with. The instructor spends some time in class talking about expectations of the course in order to get a letter grade (so what to do for an A, B, etc). It has really helped keeping up with a class that has a lot of different components to it, like exams, problem sets, group projects, and attendance. I've never had this kind of transparency and willingness to help students improve and aim for a certain grade.

~ Asma, Economics and Statistics Majors

In her reflection, Asma draws on two distinct courses to identify the benefits of timely and specific feedback—at both formative and summative stages—that is aligned with clearly identified learning goals and grading criteria. For many instructors, developing task-specific grading rubrics is well worth the labor, serving both as an effective and efficient assessment tool and as a teaching aid. The WAC team in the Center for Writing is happy to consult with instructors on the development of clear and transparent grading criteria. For examples of discipline-specific grading criteria, take a look at the writing plans created by the faculty in academic units participating in the Writing-Enriched Curriculum Program.

Forest Road

Modeling Resources

In my Health Services Management courses, the Library Course Page provides access to so many scholarly websites I wouldn’t easily have access to, specifically PubMed. This has helped me a ton with my research projects, especially when professors teach me the ways to search for different kinds of information using this database.

~ Marie, Health Services Management Major

Research has shown that students are much more likely to use a potential resource when instructors engage in guided practice—taking time to show students how they specifically use a tool. Spending time in class demonstrating how to use a resource, or creating a captioned screencast, can help students practice their own research skills and potentially transfer them to new contexts.

What has worked for your students?

Have your students identified key learning moments in your course? If so, don’t be bashful. We invite you to share positive experiences from the past semester in the comment section below.

Further Support

As many of you know, our WAC program also hosts the popular Teaching with Writing event series. This year, in addition to fall and spring events, we are pleased to feature the Teaching with Writing Winter Workshops on January 15, 2020. Faculty, graduate instructors and teaching assistants are encouraged to register for workshops and consultations focused on course and assignment planning, effective feedback strategies, and efficient and inclusive grading practices. Visit us online and follow us on Twitter @UMNWriting. To schedule a phone, email, or face-to-face teaching consultation, click here.