From the editors: We love to include something in the current issue that links back to a past issue, especially the one before. John’s article does just that. Not only is it about evidence-based strategies, last month’s Think Tank topic, but it also starts with a stress story!
I assigned the essay two weeks ago, and the deadline is in six hours. Yet, I only have submissions from four of the twenty students in the class! Did I make a mistake with the due date on Moodle? After confirming it’s correct, I decide to send a reminder email to all the students. Just before I hit “send to all,” two more submissions come through. At midnight, the deadline for submission, all but one essay–there’s always at least one–has been turned it.
How often do university teachers relive this scenario? It wouldn’t be a problem if the students had taken all the time available to think, write, revise, think more, and revise more before submitting. Unfortunately, this is rarely, if ever, the case.
Teaching writing is my favorite class. Ironically, it is the class that leads to the most stress. After opening up the papers to provide feedback and getting out my bottle of Advil (Ibuprofen) for use after correcting those papers submitted the final hour, I start going through and circling grammar mistakes, showing what is wrong with the formatting, and making recommendations of alternative word choices. I then stamp a grade on the paper and upload it with comments, comments the students have received numerous times on other essays. It is clear, students often don’t spend the time it takes to think, write, review, and revise their work. Are there ways to slow down the process to help students think about their writing more deeply?
Robert Bjork (2012) introduced the term Desirable Difficulties (DDs) to help in understanding how implementing a certain amount of difficulty in learning can help slow down the learning process and lead to deeper learning. In the Second Language (L2) classroom, DDs are often used by spacing activities and closely related recall activities in learning vocabulary or recalling the content from a reading activity. What about for writing? Can DDs help in slowing down the process of writing and enable (or force) students to think more deeply about their writing?
After trial and error (quite a bit more error than trial), I’ve come up with three simple things you can implement to slow down writing and help foster deeper thinking by adding a touch of difficulty to the process.
- Use “Mentored texts” with a twist
- Expand the writing checklist
- Limit corrective feedback
Use “Mentored texts” with a twist
Mentored texts are sample writings that the student can study and imitate to help grasp specific styles of writing. These can be provided through readings from a textbook or other material, but I find using sentences written by myself, the teacher as a writing mentor, written in front of the students on an overhead projector works the best. Yes, I did say overhead projector! For those who are unfamiliar with what that is, please refer to your dusty old Encyclopedia Britannica.
While the use of mentored texts can vary, the type of activity here has a twist. Before implementing this activity, be ready for a lot of grumbling and frustration from the students at the beginning. You can thank the difficulty part of the Desirable Difficulty for this. The activity was adopted from David Didau (2012) and requires the teacher to choose a sample mentored text on a different topic than the one assigned. The more different the topic is, the better. The students will need to print out the sample model essay and then write their own essay following the formatting, paragraph, sentence structure, and use of argument support if required. The teacher can decide how much leeway to give students, but it is best not to give too much.
Mentored text opening sentence: I have been inspired by many people to become a language teacher.
Student’s opening sentence: I was motivated by my father to learn the guitar.
So, I’m standing–sitting if it is first period and I have not finished my coffee yet–in front of the class with the live computer feed on the projector screen. Students sit there mesmerized by my computer to projector connection skills, skills that got me connected in only four attempts this time. I type my sample mentor text about being inspired to become a language teacher on the screen for students to follow.
After twenty-plus years of teaching, I’ve learned to accept the puzzled look on my students’ faces wondering why anyone would be inspired to be a language teacher. The lesson must go on, so I plow through and take the students through a possible student sentence following the mentored example step-by-step. At this point, the puzzled-student look will subside as your students each write a sentence they can actually relate to from their mentored text. When confident, the students should move forward to complete their own essay following the mentored text.
A general rule of thumb for this exercise is the more advanced the level of writer, the stricter the adherence to the model syntax. For Common European Framework (CEFR) level B2 and above, I would have the students use the exact same tense as the mentored text. You could give the students a sample lesson by modeling it in real time as you yourself do it using just a couple of sentences first and have them peer review those to make sure they have the right idea. This works well to help students find grammar structures they are not familiar with in context. This is possible because the students are forced to slow down and focus sentence by sentence and at times, word by word. Try slowing the process of writing down and if it works well, let others know where you found out about it. If it doesn’t work well, cite David Didau instead. The next step is getting students to proofread their work critically, which leads to the writing checklist.
Expand the writing checklist
Years ago, I’d be grading papers that clearly hadn’t been proofread, usually leading me to scream as if my team were losing the Super Bowl, or at least I think it would be similar. Being a Dolphins fan, I really wouldn’t know. Then I realized, if I gave them a checklist to go through when proofreading, or to force those who don’t proofread in the first place, the problem would be solved. Well, no. I quickly found that many students would just check the boxes off with little, if any, extra time looking for the mistakes on the checklist. Of course, some students took the checklist seriously, the same ones who took the assignment seriously before the checklist. So, I decided it was time to take it up a notch and make them slow down and think, in a pedagogically efficient way for their and my own good.
The checklist is a great way to make sure students catch small mistakes before submitting their essays. They work well for academic essays where specific formatting guidelines depending on the style (e.g., APA or MLA) are required and help to remind students to check capitalization and punctuation. While the checklists with simple boxes to be checked once completed are helpful, many students just breeze through the checklist, barely thinking about what each point really has to offer. They simply scan their essay before checking the box for a particular point, and some just check each box automatically thinking the purpose of the checklist is for them to simply practice putting a checkmark into the box, without even looking at the words, the words to the right of the checkbox that give the checkmark its meaning.
To get students to think more deeply about each individual point on a checklist, you can simply have them write a sentence or two describing why they are sure the box is ready to be checked. For example:
☒ Each sentence uses capitalization correctly.
Student: I checked each sentence to make sure the first word of the sentence, the proper names, and abbreviations were all capitalized. I found that I forgot to capitalize a couple of city names when going through my essay.
☒ Each paragraph has a topic and concluding sentence.
Student: All my sentences had topic sentences, but only a few had concluding sentences. I wrote concluding sentences for each paragraph, but I am not sure if they are correct. Can you comment or give advice on this?
This is a simple step to add but can force students to slow down in their proofreading and spend more time finding mistakes or questions they may have. Reading through a paper and seeing some evidence of thinking in not only the drafting of a piece but also the proofreading of it, can energize the teacher to give deeper feedback since they know the students have put enough time into thinking deeply about their writing. Ideally, students will do this for each draft submission. Once this part is done, it is time for you to give feedback.
Limit Corrective Feedback
There are different types of corrective feedback, but the feedback discussed here is corrections related to grammar, spelling, punctuation, and word choice. This is where the Advil can come in handy. Reading and correcting a paper that was clearly not been proofread is both frustrating and time-consuming. The worst feeling is when students expect you to correct the mistakes for them and they simply re-write the essay with your corrections. This takes little in the way of deep thinking and is extremely easy for the student. A way to challenge students to think more deeply and learn from their mistakes is to make revising the second draft a bit more difficult by limiting the teacher correction. The most straightforward and obvious way is to correct and comment on the first and or second mistake of one type and have the student go through the essay to find the rest. The teacher can choose whether to point out other parts of the writing that need to be addressed but, at most, should only circle the mistakes after the initial correction and explanation has been provided.
After the students have slowed down to think as they followed the mentor text and checklist activities, I now have the completed papers and I’m feeling optimistic about the quality. Yet there are still mistakes and errors in the papers. “Of course, there are. They’re students writing in a foreign language.” I tell myself. Here, a student has used the singular form of the word “uniform” instead of the plural form as needed. It’s circled with a comment stating, “needs to be plural” (Yes, I teach them the meaning of plural). There is another use of uniform in the singular when it should be plural in the next paragraph. No problem. I go back to my original comment and add, “check for other similar mistakes.” I do this a few times for other mistakes and have a tailor-made grammar activity for the student to follow up with in their own writing.
In short, to make the student think even more, the teacher will have them find and correct the mistakes as shown in the first correction. Following this, students can describe the mistakes and their thought process from the initial draft by writing a short post-draft paragraph to the teacher. This gives the student the opportunity to put their thinking into writing and for the teacher to see if they understand or not, known as feedback-driven metacognition (Agarwal & Bain, 2019). Quality feedback such as this allows for students to find gaps in their knowledge (Hyland & Hyland, 2019) that can help lead to long-term learning instead of simply correcting mistakes for short-term performance.
Here we reviewed three writing activities that can lead students to slow down and think more deeply about their writing. All of these are versions of commonly used writing activities. Are there ways to tweak writing activities you use in class to slow it down? Breaking down the writing piece into a series of smaller activities that take longer and build upon each other is a good way to deepen student thinking. But, for this to work well, the teacher must be willing to experiment and take chances. If the process is presented clearly, with specific milestones (due dates), you may get the essays submitted earlier than just before midnight. You’ll still have the one essay unsubmitted; there is always one. But think how much fun it will be having this student write a story explaining how their dog ate the essay off their cloud drive. This will surely cause them to think deeply.
Agarwal, P. K., & Bain, P. M. (2019). Powerful teaching: Unleash the science of learning. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Hyland, K., & Hyland, F. (Eds.). (2019). Feedback in second language writing: Contexts and issues. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
John Duplice is a lecturer of English in the Center for Language Education & Research at Sophia University. He is also a PhD candidate in Applied Linguistics at the University of Birmingham. John has taught for twenty years in Japan and the U.S. and has been involved in M.B.E. since 2015.