How to Make Writing Less Scary for Students

Writing is scary for pretty much everyone. For example, I as I write this sentence, I can’t help but worry that…

  • My words are orphans; I am not there to clarify their meaning or defend their honor. They must speak without me.
  • Printed words stand as public monuments to my imperfection in this moment.
  • I can never be sure how my writing will be received. As far as I know, no writer has figured out the magic formula for how to always predict with accuracy how an audience will respond to the words on the page.
  • Writing can be easily compared. Once set down, my words can be instantly compared with every author that has come before.

The bulk of our students likely face these same fears, and a great many of them also likely face other fears, ranging from worries that they don’t measure up to their classmates, to anxiety over whether mistakes will lower their grades, to generalized fears born from previous bad experiences with writing papers for school.

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Want to Significantly Improve Your Feedback to Students? Stop Giving It in Isolation

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The lecture long dominated the classroom. The concept behind it was simple. Teachers have information and students don’t. So the teachers give information to the students, who have the choice to absorb the information or not.

These days we understand that there are often better approaches than to just throw information at students. We know that students usually learn best when a class revisits key ideas, skills, and content multiple times in multiple different ways.

The one common glaring exception to this trend away from here-is-the-information-do-what-you-want pedagogy and towards deeper, more recursive practice in our classes? The feedback we give.

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Why We Should Separate Grades and Feedback

Grading and feedback are often conflated. For nearly a decade I used the term “grading” as a synonym for nearly any type of response to writing without so much as flinching, but I know now that they are actually very different and in some ways opposing activities.

Grades are where we rank students by placing them into boxes. At its core, the goal of grades is essentially to divide the “winners” from the “losers.”

Feedback, on the other hand, is the information we give to writers to help them rise to the next level. At its core, the goal of feedback is make everyone a winner.

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Why We Should Let Students In On Our Pedagogy

This last semester I unwittingly began what has turned out to be a rather surprising pedagogical experiment. In short, over my career I have generally tried to keep my teaching and my writing about teaching lives separate. The reasoning behind this was pretty simple. I assumed that my students would have little interest in learning how the sausage that turns into a class is made, and if I’m being honest, I was a bit self-conscious about students seeing my written work, lest they judge me.

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