Teaching, at least as I envision it, consists of trying one thing after another, watching most of them work for at least some period of time, then ultimately failing, leading to some other idea that follows this same pattern. This cycle doesn’t discourage me. On the contrary, it’s what makes teaching exciting. If I could simply continue doing the same things every year, teaching would be rather boring, even for someone like me who really likes routine.
One of the best examples of this has to do with providing feedback on rough drafts, as I’ve tried, and continue to try, a variety of approaches to help students write better final drafts. Having just graded final papers in all of my classes over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about what works and what doesn’t.
Here’s a bit of history, though, from my approaches. When I first started teaching, I would assign a paper, take it up, then grade it. I think I had tried peer editing at some point, but it never really worked. I then read an article in The Teaching Professor (a great resource, by the way) that laid out a defense of peer editing. The article said that, if nothing else, peer editing made students have a draft, which should lead to better final drafts just by that one step. I started using peer editing, and I found the article was right.
I was never fully satisfied with it, though. Students didn’t seem to be very good at it, even though we did a couple of sample papers as a class, and I gave them a sheet to guide them through the concerns I thought were most important. Most of the students felt they had no ability to provide feedback, and some of them were right. When I would look at what they had marked later, they had not only provided weak feedback, some of it encouraged students down a path that was not productive. Some of the comments were simply wrong.
I still had one-on-one conferences with students, so I could deal with some of those concerns, but that led to the question of why I had the peer editing at all. The main reason I continued is that I want students to see each others’ writing. The weaker students can benefit from seeing how the stronger writers handle a variety of issues; the stronger students can give feedback to those students who need more of it. Unfortunately, students are not always sure who is who, so stronger writers end up listening to weaker ones and making changes that hurt their paper.
In the past few years, based on an article I read in The Chronicle of Higher Education, I began doing group conferences, effectively combining peer editing and the one-on-one conferences. This provided two benefits (so I thought): 1) I was there to guide the discussion and counteract bad advice from other students; 2) it provided me with another couple of days of class, as I wasn’t having to use class time for peer editing.
The second point proved to be true, but the first one is only true some of the time. Students, especially ones in first-year writing classes, don’t know how to weed out the good advice from the bad, even when it comes to me. They’ll listen to their peers tell them that the paper flows well or that they like the voice, while they ignore my comments about the lack of a thesis sentence or evidence, matters that should concern them much more.
Upper-division students do much better at listening, but even they comment that they would prefer to have a one-on-one conference with me. Some of them do like feedback from their peers, but some of them say that it is not helpful and that it simply takes away from time they could be talking to me.
So, moving into next semester, the question, as always, is what to do about all of this. I’m going to try another adjustment to see if it works better. I still want them reading each others’ drafts, so I’m going to keep peer editing, but I’m planning to move it outside of class. Students will have to meet in groups before conferences with me, then turn in those peer editing sheets, so I can see what they’re saying to each other. I’m not sure the feedback will be all that helpful, but it will at least have them engage with what their peers are doing. Then, I’ll have them meet with me for an individual conference where I can try to make clear what the major concerns are.
Of course, this approach has problems, as well, but every approach in teaching has problems. What I know more than anything else after my time teaching is that nothing works perfectly or forever. Every plan is a trade-off, gaining something, but losing something else. The same is true in life, of course, if we’re honest with ourselves. Perhaps that’s why I enjoy teaching so much.