Gather Ye Samples While Ye May: Planning Now for the Spring Semester

Matthew Luskey

At the end of the semester, especially one as trying as this, it may take all we have to just get through the next two weeks. Students are remotely navigating their labyrinths of final projects and exams, and instructors and TAs are working through their backlog of grading. It’s probably not a good time to implement a new strategy for teaching with writing. And yet, while “Old Time is still a-flying,” it is useful to think about gathering work from this semester to support your teaching in the spring. Students often cite the benefits of models and samples to support their writing; with Canvas and Google Suite, sample gathering can be done efficiently and effectively. Here are five ways student samples gathered today can support teaching and learning tomorrow.

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What to Gather and Why

1. Samples that demonstrate substantive revision 

As research has shown, it can be difficult for students to engage in deeper levels of revision, which might include significant organizational changes or the re-visionioning of a central line of reasoning, due to the perception that such revision is an indication of “bad performance” (67). Student writing samples that include a first draft and a significantly revised draft can signal the central role revision plays in writing development.

Example: A Computer Science instructor teaches a course on social, legal and ethical issues in computing. The course requires students to submit two drafts for each of the assigned essays. During the three weeks allotted between the first drafts and the revised drafts, students are strongly encouraged to confer with a writing fellow in the course or a Student Writing Support consultant in the Center for Writing. Along with building in time for students to draft, confer and revise, the instructor provides select samples of first drafts and significantly revised drafts from students who previously took the course. These drafts are discussed briefly in class (previously onsite and now via Zoom meetings) with particular attention given to the substantive revision strategies that allowed the writers to develop and refine their thinking in their final drafts.

2. Samples that typify student struggle with a piece of writing 

For some instructors, reading through a stack of student papers and frequently making the same marginal and end comments can seem like an act of eternal recurrence. Comments that offer ways for students to better demonstrate and articulate conceptual thinking or to enact specific genre conventions are certainly beneficial to the student who receives them. However, they can be of even more benefit if they are discussed in advance of grading. In anticipation that students will often struggle in typical and important ways on a writing assignment, spend a little time at the outset discussing samples that demonstrate these conceptual, disciplinary or genre struggles. Such samples can be particularly useful in studio-style workshops—onsite or online—that support students in working through typically challenging features of writing.

Example: A number of Anthropology instructors and teaching assistants have gathered and shared excerpts from previous student writing that are representative of student struggles with concepts and conventions important to the field, such as the accurate use and labeling of figures, charts and graphs; the posing of feasible research questions; and the interpretation of transcripts in linguistic analysis. These excerpted samples are included in Google Slide decks that can be used in onsite or online class workshops that focus on ways to detect, diagnose and remedy common writing struggles.

3. Samples that demonstrate scope and variety for a specific assignment

Some instructors may be reluctant to provide samples of student writing out of concern that students will treat them as a precise template to reproduce in their own work. However, student samples that demonstrate the breadth and variety within an assignment can expose students to the opportunities for exploration, not simple reproduction.

Example: An instructor in Writing Studies assigns a reflective portfolio for a final project. The assignment asks students to create a reflective narrative of their writing, though the form that narrative takes is not confined to one format. The instructor includes student samples from previous semesters that demonstrate reflective narrative in prose, slide presentations, webpages, and even a Choose Your Own Adventure story.

4. Samples that demonstrate effective peer response commentary 

Peer response activities can be an effective and efficient way to provide formative assessment on a writing assignment. But peer response often requires guidance and support in order to be useful. Along with providing a clear protocol for peer response, it is helpful to include specific examples of effective peer commenting. Samples of good peer commentary—often context-specific, descriptive, and actionable—can be discussed briefly prior to a peer response activity as a way to prime the pump and to signal the care and value instructors have put into the activity. Contrasting an effective comment with a poor one can also steer students away from ineffectual response strategies.

Example: Prior to assigning a group-based peer response activity, an instructor in Civil Engineering shares specific samples of effective peer commentary from previous courses. The students and the instructor identify the qualities of effective response and then use those qualities as guidelines for their own peer response workshop.

5. Samples that celebrate and inspire student work

Students may struggle to substantially revise drafts, to accurately enact disciplinary conventions, and to provide effective peer response comments. But they will also succeed in their writing. Providing samples that demonstrate student writing successes is both an affirmation of hard work and an inspiration for future students. Along with gathering student-produced exemplars, ask students to share insights about their specific writing processes. As James Lang has noted, students appreciate firsthand accounts of how other students have succeeded on specific assignments.

Example: Several departments at the University of Minnesota—Art History, Biology, Sociology, and Writing Studies, to name but a few—routinely gather student exemplars that demonstrate and celebrate success on signature writing assignments. These samples are often included in online anthologies or showcases that provide current students with inspiration and aspirations to be included in future celebrations.

How to Gather and When

One of the affordances of online teaching is the ease of gathering student samples. In their Canvas sites, instructors have the option of downloading an entire set of submissions or downloading individual student assignments within Speedgrader. Downloaded samples can then be easily redacted and stored in folders on the instructor's Google Drive. For onsite courses where students are submitting hardcopies of assignments, instructors will need to take a few more steps, either requesting two copies of an assignment or making a clean copy before grading and returning it. Regardless of whether one is teaching online or onsite, it is important to request student permission to use their work in future courses and to ensure students that samples will be redacted and often excerpted, unless they are being shared in showcases or anthologies. In subsequent semesters and in anticipation of future gathering, a permission to use letter can also be integrated into the syllabus and posted on a course Canvas site.

Do not tarry. The optimal time to gather these samples is now. 

Further Support

A few spots remain in the Writing Across the Curriculum Program’s Teaching with Writing Online: A January Short Course. This three-module course supports faculty members and instructors as they devise (or revise) online writing assignments and activities appropriate to a particular course. Each module contains structured synchronous discussions and workshops and a set of pre- and post-discussion asynchronous activities. As participants work through the modules, they will receive specific feedback on assignment design and strategies for promoting success and engagement in online environments. They’ll also have a chance to become familiar with a variety of online commenting and grading tools. Read more and register!