The First Two Weeks Of The Semester
During the first two weeks of classes, most students are genuinely enthusiastic. When I attended community college, I started each semester with a new pack of highlighters and a new planner, both of which I intended to really use that semester. At the start of each term, I was committed to taking that semester seriously and starting a whole new life. Of course, by the third week or so, I was scrambling yet again – hustling and bustling to submit assignments, meet family expectations, and sustain friendships.
As an educator, I feel a similar sense of excitement when a new semester begins. I try to ride that wave of enthusiasm and invite students to enjoy those first few class sessions as well. So, rather than simply reviewing the details of the syllabus, I tend to use those first couple of classes to share stories about myself (so students can get to know me better) and ask them share stories about their ideal future and long-term goals (so I can get to know them better).
During those first few sessions, the energy is high, students submit informal quick-write assignments, and I even get a few students dropping by office hours to introduce themselves and ask if I know so and so, who recommended them to this class.
But as we start our first formal assignment, a summary and response essay, the enthusiasm and engagement drops. Over a third of students do not submit a draft on time. Some submit late, after I nudge them. Others continue to disengage from the course. By the end of week three, it feels like a whole different class.
Perhaps to make myself feel better, I have habitually assumed students disengaged to prioritize other responsibilities and parts of their lives. Yet since the start of my teaching career, I’ve wondered: What happens between our initial informal assignments and submission of the first formal paper? Why is there such a huge drop off in engagement? Can I do anything to reverse this trend?
A few semesters ago, my chemistry colleague Dr. Devoun Stewart started using elements of contract grading in his courses, and he presented about the experience during Spring 2020 convocation.
Dr. Stewart used a contract for ten percent of the total grade, the percentage that is commonly allocated to participation. To earn that ten percent, students had to contribute to the collective achievement of the class. One way to do this was by answering questions posted by their peers on a public discussion board, such as explaining complex concepts or showing how to solve typical quiz or test questions.
My colleague found that the policy increased engagement and a sense of community among students, and students who were on the cusp of not passing had an alternative way (worth ten percent) to demonstrate expertise that was not being captured adequately through the course assignments, quizzes, or tests. He also saw an improvement in both course pass rates and students’ scores on an American Chemical Society test they take as part of the course.
In conversations with Dr. Stewart, I realized this was his way of applying equity values in his classes. He was creating a lane for the typical A students to serve the struggling students and an opportunity for students to create a different sense of community – not through assigned collaboration but through collective empowerment. Everyone benefited when the expertise was redistributed across the collective. The A students got their As by helping others, and the struggling students got the support that they needed but perhaps weren’t getting through other campus resources.
The Bridge: Translating the Sample to a New Context
I started envisioning ways to adapt my colleague’s strategies in my English classes. As explained earlier, I had noticed that early, informal assignments, especially ones that were submitted in a public discussion forum, had higher engagement rates. Perhaps this was because students who did not know how to start or complete the earlier assignments could look at the work of other students and mimic their responses.
After all, students can generally create answers to personal questions like “What does your ideal future look like?” But they may not know how to structure a more formal academic assignment. Through this lens, public discussion forums give students access to peer-written models that are specific to the assignment and context they’re working on.
I thought about collecting all student work through discussion forums, but my immediate internal reaction was: This won’t work. My colleagues will think I am promoting cheating!
But then, I thought about the ways I have developed my own skills in different writing conventions.
When I had to produce my own syllabus during a graduate course, the professor gave us about a dozen past syllabi and encouraged us to borrow and revise any part that made sense for our use. Before writing my master’s thesis, my first reader asked me to look at five different theses in our discipline and submit a rhetorical analysis to develop a better understanding of the genre. When I wrote my first federal grant, I looked at previous successful grants and mimicked their format, organization, and style. Even the policy I was thinking about adopting was borrowed from an application of contract grading that my colleague, Dr. Stewart, had himself already revised.
I realized that most of the higher stakes writing I have done in my life leaned on a process of mimicking what others — often those who have written effectively in a particular context — have already done.
And yet, in my class, this process of mimicking the experts of the space was reserved for only low-stakes situations, such as weekly reflections and reading responses. Most unfortunate, what was stopping me from expanding this practice was a concern for what my colleagues might think, as opposed to the benefits to my students.
The Remix: Implementing Revised Versions of What Already Works
When Covid-19 pushed us all online, I figured this would be an ideal time to implement any strategy that might sustain engagement. My first step was to make all assignments public. Students would submit all materials, formal and informal, through a public discussion forum. In the prompt, I included all the information typically included in a formal assignment handout (context, prompt, requirements, and resources), but this time I also included a note at the bottom:
“Submit a draft as you normally would but submit it into this discussion forum. Your draft will be public. You are not required to respond to any one’s work, but if you see something that catches your eye, feel free to start a conversation. Likewise, if you’re feeling stuck and don’t know how to start, look at the work of your peers, try to identify some of the patterns and choices they’re making, and feel free to mimic or revise the choices they make – not the content they write.”
For one student, the change in submission format was too much. The week the assignment was due, she sent me a concerned email that one of her peers might be plagiarizing her work:
“I just wanted to let you know I did my work first… I did not take from his essay… I just don’t want you to think that I am copying… This is my first semester in college, and I don’t want to get kicked out because of plagiarism.”
I reviewed the material she was worried about, and, for the most part, I understood her concerns. Her peer had re-worded her thesis statement, revised most of her topic sentences, and re-arranged the body paragraphs in a different order. And like her, the student had used personal narratives in his introduction and conclusion.
The content, however, was different. There were different examples and different (lighter) levels of analysis. The student had ultimately used her paper as an outline, reorganized the structure and filled in the rest with his own materials.
I knew this student from a previous class. He was someone I consistently had to nudge to submit his work. In our previous class, I offered to meet with him after class, helped him set up tutoring sessions at the writing center, and accepted his work past deadlines. Yet, for this assignment, he submitted this draft before the deadline.
When we revised drafts later in the semester, he improved the quality of analysis and added more examples in his body paragraphs. He also revised his topic sentences and expanded his thesis. His final draft, the one he submitted at the end of the semester in his portfolio, looked significantly different than his earlier draft. In his portfolio cover letter he reflected:
“This semester I had more time to focus on my classes and the examples made it easier to start my essays. I think I’m the kind of person that just needs help getting started. Once I know exactly what to do I can usually take it from there.”
I noticed more participation in that first assignment I turned into a public forum, and by the end of the week, everyone had turned in a draft (some after a few reminders from me).
Based on this response from students, I decided to tweak this submission format a bit more and provide further context. In the next module, I added Mark Ronson’s TED Talk on the value of sampling in music to showcase how sampling is not about hijacking someone else’s work. Instead, sampling helps writers “insert themselves in the narrative of a song and push the story forward.”
I also added the following note to students:
“We will submit our next essay the same way we submitted our previous draft, through a public discussion post. I will also provide some model essays from previous classes to help you get an idea of how your peers have previously responded to this assignment. I encourage you to look through the work of your peers and the model essays I provide, see what they’re doing, see what they’re not doing. See if their intros build enough context. Read their body paragraphs – and see if they offer enough evidence and clear enough explanations. And, look at their conclusions to see the different ways they wrap up their conversations.
I also encourage you to sample and remix any part of the essays I’m providing in the next few pages. That is, see if something they’re saying matches what you want to say or how you want to say it, borrow their structure (sentence or paragraph), and make it your own. That’s not copying – you’re not copying their stories, nor their thesis, nor their conclusions. Instead, you adopting their style until you find a style of your own.
This is a common practice in the academic discourse. It often happens organically when students begin to write like the writers they read. Some of us don’t have enough time for that process to happen organically; so, again, I encourage you to borrow, sample, remix and make any part of these essays your own.”
The Evolution: Incentivizing Early Engagement
During fall 2020, while we remained online, I decided to tweak the practice and my grading policy even further. I continued to collect all assignments through public discussions forums, added the materials noted above to our Week 1: Introduction Module, and structured the public submission space a bit more.
For all formal assignments, students were given a prompt with two weeks to compose a formal first draft. Drafts received feedback and participation points. The participation points depended on whether or not the draft met all assignment requirements, such as the page minimum and answering all parts of the prompt. The final draft, which was submitted in the course portfolio at the end of the semester, was the draft that received a final grade and was evaluated with a more standard rubric.
The first five students to submit a draft to the discussion forum received full participation points, and I offered immediate public feedback, highlighting the strengths of the draft, areas for improvement, and changes that could improve its quality. This helped me incentivize early engagement from the group of students who are eager to know their grade and receive feedback.
My feedback was directed at two audiences. The first was the writer of the draft, so they could make appropriate revisions on their next draft. But, perhaps more important, the second audience was the rest of the class, who could now see my feedback to those five model essays.
Sample feedback to model essays:
“I like this essay because it shows clear command of the conversation. You, as a writer, establish a confident tone through your effective use of transitional sentences. You walk the reader from one point to the next without any room for misinterpretation. You’re also not afraid to write bold yet simple topic sentences. This works as a strategy in this draft because you use follow-up sentences to explain yourself.”
“This essay had one of the better introductions to this prompt. As it is, your use of a personal narrative does a great job at building context (and a bit of anticipation) for the conversation ahead. I would try to add some sources or citations to the intro to move it quicker into the more academic tone you later develop. I would also revise the thesis to be more comprehensive – try to move beyond the list-style thesis that typically helps write five-paragraph essays. Your conclusion is strong because you return to the broader topic introduced in the intro and again use reflection/narrative to wrap up the conversation.”
The process accomplished a few things. Students who already had strong writing skills, and students who were more engaged, submitted their assignments early, and their drafts provided models for the rest of the class. My public feedback enabled the rest of the class to recognize what choices were worth mimicking, helped demystify my expectations, and provided an opportunity for “just in time” remediation.
It also helped re-engage students who had stopped participating. When I emailed these students mid-way through the semester, it was easier to convince them to submit missing assignments because they had access to several different peer models, along with my feedback. Two-thirds of these students went on to successfully complete the course.
Overall, I believe the practice prompted one group of students to engage early, which gave another group access to tools and models to complete their work on time, which gave yet another group — the group that gradually disengages and ultimately drops the course — even more tools and models to reconnect and complete the course successfully. As was the case in my colleague’s chemistry course, the expertise of the top performing students was not restricted to their own individualized experience. Instead, their work helped to create multiple avenues of engagement (and sometime re-engagement) for the rest of the class.
Conclusion: Tapping-In To The Experts In The Room
When I was a community college student scrambling to get through my courses each semester, I felt a lot of things: tired, stressed, anxious, insecure – but I never felt lost. I was fortunate enough to have a variety of people in my circle who showed me how to meet expectations and requirements I did not understand. That is not the experience of the students who gradually disengage in my courses.
Unless students are a part of a learning community that intentionally surrounds them with mentors and models, they can become overwhelmed and lost in all the implicit and explicit expectations they must meet. Students communicate this in the writing classroom when they tell us, “I don’t even know how to start,” or “I know what I want to say; I just don’t know where to start.” When a student feels lost and without a clear sense of direction, they often disengage. They let other priorities take precedence, committing their time to things they are already familiar with.
I can certainly relate to that experience. There are plenty of home renovation projects that I have walked away from; two back and forth trips to Home Depot are enough to remind me that I don’t know what I am doing, and I am most likely only going to waste my money and time.
However, the home projects I have completed are ones I did alongside my brother-in-law, Julio, who is a licensed contractor. He knows exactly what we need and don’t need to purchase, lets me borrow the tools I don’t already own, and can generally tell me the steps he should help me with and the ones I can complete independently.
When our students start to feel lost and are ready to walk away, they need an expert who can model the way forward. If we are creative as teachers, we can enable their peers to be these models. We can showcase the expertise that lives in our classes so that other students can see how expectations are met. From there, they can decide what tools they might need to borrow, what steps they can take on their own, or what steps they might need help with.