Friday, September 28, 2007

Evaluating student writing and other topics

At today's Teaching Lunch (although few were eating) we talked about evaluating student writing. Frances began by showing an example of a customized essay evaluation scheme she used one year that was a modification of the U of T A&S Statement on What Grades Mean (see She is troubled by how much writing she should be teaching in her courses - how much class time should be devoted to teaching writing and research skills as opposed to other course content? She wondered if she should stop assigning papers at all, if writing instruction isn't part of the class explicitely, for should we be grading students on skills that they haven't been taught?

No one thought it was a good idea to stop assigning papers. Pamela and Laurel described classes where they assign various smaller assignments leading up to a final paper, each of which targets skill development of a different sort that is relevant to the final paper. All assignments are thus strategically integrated to help students practice different aspects of writing and research that should result in a better final paper. Pamela has a complex system of check boxes addressing various aspects of a paper, including examples; she also has a set of examples of common writing mistakes that she hands out to students before papers are due.

John M said he has thought of assigning student research papers in two stages: first a 5 page version of a paper is due, and once feedback is given on that paper, a 10 page version of the same paper would be completed. John K also has found it beneficial, if labor intensive, to assign a series of smaller papers instead of a large semester-end paper.

Walid saves examples of A papers to show to students who come to his office to ask for grade explanations; this helps students actually see what an excellent paper looks like.

Amira suggested that students could comment on each others' papers, using a specified set of guidelines for how to do so.

In the end, it was generally agreed that we should all be helping students with their writing, and that it seems to work best to integrate some aspects of writing instruction into the overall set of assignments designed for a course, so students can practice in different ways throughout the course. Sending students to the writing centre is a good idea, although hard to enforce, as is providing information on good writing on a website.

Frances wondered how much of this should become an explicit part of the course itself - i.e., how much classtime should be devoted to this sort of skill development? Pamela said she uses tutorial sections for this.

It was noted that the writing centre can give advice to faculty and graduate students, not only to paper-writing undergraduates. Maybe writing centre people could even come into our classes to discuss good writing with our students.

We also then discussed the general issue of skill development - library research skills, specialized bibliographic skills of various sorts, writing book reviews, etc. - noting that this is also important for graduate instruction. John K mentioned that when he was a graduate student one of his exams involved the development of a very specialized bibliography, and then an oral component where he was questioned on how to find things in certain collections, for instance. It was agreed that more instruction of this sort would be good for our graduate students as well as for our undergrad majors and specialists (in addition to the first or second year students, although for them it would be done at a different level).

Another topic addressed at this meeting was the collaborative drafting of a Wabash Center grant for the purposes of evaluating our undergraduate curriculum. A committee will be formed to write this grant; the committee will include interested graduate students as well as faculty. Some of the ideas discussed, in addition to general curriculum overhaul, include:

- inviting scholars from elsewhere, e.g. Calgary, to help evaluate our programs

- having a faculty retreat to discuss this task

- establishing a website of best teaching practices drawn from our own faculty

- paying for a writing consultant for the department; this person would be available to our faculty and TAs for advice on writing assignments and evaluation

Finally, a couple more ideas for future Teaching Lunch topics were identified: we could have someone from the plagiarism office come speak to our group; we could also have someone from the writing centre come and tell us more about their services.

We realized that the U of T Teaching and Learning Symposium (see is on October 25, the date of the next scheduled Teaching Lunch. So we'll schedule the Teaching Lunch instead for November 1st, the following Thursday, from 12-1. Thanks for a stimulating conversation to all who attended today's session.

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