The Best Way to Encourage Reluctant Writers

In 2009, Chris Hulleman of The University of Virginia and the Motivate Lab ran a study in which reluctant and developing ninth-graders were put into two groups in their science classes. One group (the control) supplemented their work in class with a 1-2 paragraph response each month that summarized what they’d learned while the other group (the value group) supplemented their work with a 1-2 paragraph response explaining how the topics they’d covered in class could potentially be relevant and valuable to them.

Outside of the paragraphs, everything else about their instruction was exactly the same, and yet the results at the end of the semester were anything but similar. The students in the value group saw their grade point averages soar nearly a point higher than the control and the grade gap between white and black students in the value group shrank by a staggering 65%!

Results of the study from The Motivate Lab
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Four Quick and Easy Ways to Build Relationships with Students Through Their Writing

In recent years, research has begun to support what good teachers have known all along: Strong student/teacher relationships generally lead to strong learning outcomes.

For example, John Hattie in Visible Learning argues that establishing a positive teacher/student relationship is one of the most impactful things a teacher can do to speed student learning. His effect size of .72 for strong student/teacher relationship is nearly double his threshold of .40 for a highly effective practice, meaning that a good relationship can inspire nearly two years worth of growth in a single school year.

Image from The Australian Society for Evidence Based Teaching

The reasons for this are fairly simple and intuitive: When students feel close to teachers they are more willing to take risks, have higher motivation, and grow more engaged because they see the content of the class as more valuable and the teacher as more credible.

Where it gets tricky is the question of how we are supposed to build those relationships when our classes have so many students and our days have so little time. 

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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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Why Our Students Forget and What It Means for How We Teach Writing

Let’s start with a test:

  1. What is something you read in the last 24 hours? Anything at all. A book, an article, a poem. Now, try to remember it in as much detail as possible.
  2. Next, think about something you read last week. What do you remember of that?
  3. Lastly, think about something you read last month. What do you remember of that? Can you even remember what you read last month?
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