Archive for the ‘Teaching Writing’ Category

How many ways of seeing are there? How can we learn to see differently, see deeper? Most courses could incorporate asking students to “read” images or interpret their environment through observation, and the generous folks from the Hood Museum are available to lend their expertise, enthusiasm and time to help you design learning experiences that use items from the Hood collection. This session highlighted two such collaborations. Kathy Hart, Lesley Wellman, and Amelia Kahl, from the Hood demonstrated how “reading” works of art were used to develop students’ observation and critical thinking skills as well as provide a basis for further inquiry and research. Using examples from courses taught by Sara Chaney and Stephanie Booth (The Institute for Writing and Rhetoric) workshop participants gathered in the Bernstein Study Storage Center to see some of the art works and hear how they were used.

Sara Chaney’s course focused on visual analysis and was structured to afford students several opportunities to view photographs and artwork from the Hood collection in order to “read,” “unpack” and “decode” these images. Led by Lesley Wellman, Assistant Director and Hood Foundation Curator of Education, students had two class sessions in the Bernstein Study Storage Center. In these sessions, students closely studied selected photographs, and explored their reactions and interpretations through discussion. Working with Amelia Kahl, Stephanie Booth chose provocative and often disturbing pictures for her course “Memory, Trauma, and Place.” Using a set of writing prompts, students wrote an essay on a photo they chose.

As John Berger (Ways of Seeing) asserts, what we know and believe affects the way we see things. Learning to see things deeply and reflectively can reveal layers of meaning in not only paintings and photographs but in the many scenes and images we scan unconsciously on a daily basis. This kind of intentional and reflective seeing can also reveal cultural biases and assumptions that we hold. This workshop was a refreshing reminder of how there are many kinds of “texts” available for the courses we teach.

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This term’s TWIT (Teaching with Information Technology) session focused on ways in which teaching and learning is facilitated through technology, but the technology itself takes a background seat to the task at hand. Often, we appear to be showcasing the technology over the learning, when what we prefer is the usually the opposite.

Prof. Tom Jack, from the Biology department, and Christiane Donahue, from the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric, kicked off the session with a dual-class collaborative wiki activity designed to increase Biology students’ ability to communicate science to a lay audience and increase non-scientists’ ability to interpret science.

Tom teaches BIOL99, a Senior Honors Thesis class, in which students work on preparing their senior thesis. In this particular assignment, the students are asked to write their scientific abstract, then an abstract for a lay audience and also to prepare a two-minute video describing the thesis for the lay audience.

Students in Christiane’s WRIT7, a first-year writing course, have been developing their ability to read and provide feedback to peers in a process designed to improve their own writing. For this assignment, they become the audience for the BIOL99 students. They read the abstracts, watch the videos and then, as someone almost certainly unfamiliar with the senior topics, provide insightful critiques and feedback on the materials.

The process is designed to strengthen the skills of everyone involved, and it is all mediated through the wiki tools available in Blackboard, the campus LMS. The videos that the BIOL99 student make are filmed in a studio space within the new Class of 1978 Life Sciences Center, against a green screen. The senior students then select a representative image of their work to insert via post-production.


In the second presentation, Prof. D.G. Webster, from the Environmental Studies Program described the development of a webpage using text written by students and images they shot during a trip to the New England Aquarium in Boston. Students in D.G.’s ENVS17 Marine Policy class documented their visit to the aquarium with an eye toward sustainability and seafood. After writing up their reports and submitting their images, D.G. worked with the department administrator to add the pages to the department website using OmniUpdate. The work now stands as an effective advertisement for the course the next time it is offered.

Prof. Webster also presented the work of students in her ENVS16 Business and the Environment course. In the course, the students explore “green” businesses and D.G. provides a series of writing prompts for the students to use after selecting a business for research. The students respond to the prompt by writing blog postings to a private GoogleSites webspace. By the end of the term, the students have sufficient material to organize their blog postings into a more formal final report, which is also assembled using GoogleSites. Unfortunately, due to litigation risk, the students’ final projects are only made available to the instructor and to each other, although we were able to see a few during the presentation.

Look for the next TWIT session in April.

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Laura Braunstein (Library), and Karen Gocsik (Institute for Writing and Rhetoric) facilitated this session on focusing our students’ research processes. At the start, everyone present introduced themselves and shared a question about or challenge they’ve encountered in teaching students research. Those topics/challenges included helping students develop questions of an appropriate scope, finding a balance between instructing students on the writing process and giving them time to practice their writing, and guiding our students in identifying topics that are of interest to readers (not just of personal interest to the writer).

We then divided into pairs and, with Laura Braunstein’s guidance, worked through a very effective activity based on one developed by Aimee Bahng, Assistant Professor of English. This activity, “Levels of Questions,” provides a scale by which to rate “levels of arguability” of research questions.

  • Level 1: Questions that can be answered with knowledge you have right now.
  • Level 2: Questions that can be definitively answered with scholarly research.
  • Level 3: Open-ended quesions to which an answer can be proposed based on scholarly research but that cannot be answered definitively.
  • Level 4: Questions that cannot be addressed with scholarly research, either because of lack of evidence or because they ask something that cannot be answered by citing evidence.

In our pairs, we used the scale to rate a list of sample questions we had been given. As level 3 questions are the ideal level for student papers, being that they are debatable, we rewrote all the level 1, 2, and 4 questions to meet level 3 criteria.

When we reported out, we found that many of us had rated our questions differently. Some of these discrepancies were due to disciplinary differences. “How did language evolve?” is a level 2 question in some disciplines, while in others it may be a level 3 question (and perhaps even a level 3 question that needs to be narrower in scope, depending on the course.) We noticed that sometimes subtle changes in vocabulary moved a question from one level to the next. Some rated the question “Should parents be worried about giving their children too many vaccines?” as a level 2, while some rated it a level 4 due to the use of the word “worried”.

The discussion was lively and interesting. All present seemed to be in agreement that the activity is a valuable tool to use in classroom instruction.

After completing this activity, we looked at a student paper on “The Great Gatsby” from a past WRI2-3 class. Karen Gocsik introduced us to a strategy for helping students hone their research questions in their writing. Referencing Aristotle’s topoi, she explained to us how she aided a student by asking her “What question is each of your paragraph’s answering?” By doing this, we (as had her student) saw that some whole paragraphs answered level 1 questions such as “What are the personal attributes of the female characters in the Great Gatsby?” By reading the paper in this way, we saw that each paragraph of the student’s paper addressed a level 1 question….until the very end. The student’s closing sentence was, in fact, a level 3 question. Her conclusion was actually the ideal starting point for her paper.

In summary, this was an engaging, thought-provoking, hands-on session–the kind I like best. I encourage you to look at the adaptation of Aimee Bahng’s assignment, and considering using it, or modifying it, in your classes.

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In this session, which was co-sponsored by the Library and the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric (IWR), participants explored the the challenges faced by students and faculty when integrating audio, video, images, and text into student research. Karen Gocsik, IWR faculty, shared that a student of hers once wanted to use two YouTube videos in a paper he was writing on house churches in China. The videos he selected were personal videos that appeared to be made by members of the churches, and they showed scenes that contrasted sharply with each other. Karen shared some of the problems these videos presented:

  • How does one understand the content of the videos? How do we sufficiently contextualize them in order to read them accurately?
  • Are the scenes shown in the videos representative of house churches in China, or are they anomalies?
  • How could the student incorporate the clip in his paper, similar to a block quote from a textual source, rather than just citing it as evidence?

The workshop participants contemplated these, and other questions, about incorporating multimodal sources into research papers. During the discussion, we looked at the Journal of e-Media Studies. This  freely available online journal, which is published at Dartmouth, incorporates text, audio, video, and still images in its articles in unique ways. (Example.) Participants discussed the benefits and drawbacks of this type of publication, and the ways these methods might be effective employed in the classroom.

Lastly, in an academic tradition that relies heavily on writing as the means of communication and assessment, do students have the technical and intellectual skills to effectively incorporate multimodal sources in their research? And, likewise, do faculty have the skills to assess them?

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Thursday, October 21st, Karen Gocsik from the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric (IWR) offered a workshop at DCAL entitled “Reorienting Our Response to Student Writing.”  This workshop emerged from the IWR’s ongoing 3-year research project, which is assessing student writing in the first year.   Through their assessment project, the IWR is gathering data about first-year writing in order to determine how students transfer knowledge about writing from task to task and course to course.  For Karen, the assessment process led her to think about how her written response to student papers may or may not be encouraging transfer.  The premise that Karen is currently exploring in her classroom is whether or not a response that focuses on what students are doing may increase transfer of rhetorical ability from one writing assignment to another and from one course to another.

The workshop provided a hands-on opportunity to respond to sample student writing, first from a more traditional method of providing feedback regarding what the writer is saying, and secondly, using a method that asked readers to notice what the writer is doing.   Helpful questions to guide this last type of feedback were “What rhetorical moves is the student making?” and “What would you like the student to understand about these moves, generally?” We practiced these two kinds of responses using samples of student writing, and then shared our results.  Some helpful tips that came out of the discussion were:

  • Acknowledge what the student is doing well, so that they will know what strategies to transfer
  • Make several suggestions so students can decide for themselves what and how to revise
  • Think about how you phrase feedback, to facilitate rather than to direct revision
  • Consider how offering feedback on both what the student is saying (content) and what they are doing (rhetorical moves) may help students see how certain writing principles can be carried over to other classes and disciplines.

This last item – helping students transfer what they have learned about writing in one context to another—was the major “take-away” from the workshop. Teaching for transfer is challenging; augmenting feedback to include comments on general writing principles may help students with their writing in other contexts.

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What’s the goal of a syllabus?  What does it tell you about the design of the course and the instructor’s teaching philosophy?  What assumptions and values inform the syllabus?  How can the syllabus better address student concerns? These questions provided the framework for the discussion “From Soup to Nuts:  Crafting the First-Year Seminar Syllabus,” the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric’s first professional development workshop of the term.  The session brought together both new and experienced First-Year Seminar instructors who will be teaching a new writing course this spring.

Participants looked at a syllabus from 20 years ago written by a relatively inexperienced faculty member and a more recent, much more learner-centered syllabus, while reflecting on the courses they are preparing for spring.  The session, led by Karen Gocsik, raised questions to help with course design and provided some useful advice.

How do we get to know our students?  How can we include opportunities to determine their interests and abilities? Some suggestions are to use a pre-course survey and diagnostic assignments during the first week.  We can also ask our students to share with us a paper from their previous writing class that they are particularly proud of to gain insight into their writing preparation.

What are the big questions to be addressed in this class? These are what the students will connect with personally or connect with other classes and eventually take beyond our class.  What are our assumptions and expectations?  Are they implicit or explicit?  How can we connect our goals with our students’ goals?

How rigid or flexible should the syllabus be?  What’s a good balance between course content, writing, and research? One possibility is to include an overall schedule in the syllabus with a more detailed schedule provided every few weeks.  This allows us to make adjustments to meet students’ needs, make room for that interesting conversation, and take into account scheduling issues we could not anticipate.

Where will the learning about writing and research come in?  How can we guide the students to see how the readings and other course materials are in conversation with each other? How can the students join that conversation? Where are the opportunities for reflection on student learning? We can begin by thinking about the goals for each week and for each assignment and how those goals relate to the larger course goals.  Crafting a good writing seminar syllabus means learning to move back and forth between those big questions that remind us why our course exists and the specific goal(s) an individual assignment is designed to meet.

For more on constructing a syllabus, see DCAL’s syllabus template and IWR’s materials for faculty: syllabus and assignment design.

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yeah, it's long -- I didn't have time to make it shorter

Feral Librarian

Research libraries & higher education. Sometimes music, sports, & other stuff.