By Charles Raffaele, Ph.D. Student, The Graduate Center, CUNY
Writing abilities are among the most important skills for psychology students to develop for work in the “real world” after college, regardless of the area of higher education or employment they pursue. Writing effectively is necessary for tasks ranging from communicating with collaborators on a project to generating proposals to convince others to invest time or money behind a plan, as well as for everyday situations in which writing with finesse and efficiency are essential. In addition, writing can be a method for students to perform higher-order thinking, using writing as a tool to help put varied thoughts into a logical sequence, organized discretely around a focus or in the service of a broader goal.
For the purpose of helping professors in their implementation of writing in coursework, Kaitlin Mondello and I recently gave a presentation at the GSTA’s 2018 Pedagogy Day event on how we teach writing skills to students and teach content to students by way of these writing skills. Our workshop was based in the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) movement, which addresses the importance of writing’s place in any and all academic disciplines, and has developed over decades (see Northern Illinois University’s A Short History of WAC page for more information about the history of this movement). WAC has yielded various approaches to implementation of writing in the classroom may be utilized for achieving the aforementioned purpose. This current blog post, following generally the structure of the workshop Kaitlin and I gave, will cover a few central ideas of WAC. These will be advanced roughly in the sequence of, initial planning of writing → construction of writing assignments → use of rubrics for showing which competencies an assignment taps → how to leave effective feedback on students’ papers.
Backwards Course Design (Starting with Objectives and Designing Assignments Accordingly)
Start with your personal course objectives: What is it you want your students to get out of the course? Do you want them to remember a lot of theory or research findings? Apply psychological ideas to the real world? Attain a more general critical/questioning lens? By identifying what your learning goals for the students are, you will be better able to construct writing assignments that help your students to achieve those goals. See the American Society for Microbiology’s page Starting at the End: Using Backward Course Design to Organize Your Teaching for more information about this approach.
Ensure you are constructing writing assignments all from a ‘writing to learn’ standpoint – this is not elementary school, where children are largely ‘learning to write.’ This is also not high school, where students are mainly already writers, but are often engaged in more rote or other low- to mid-cognitive engagement writing tasks (e.g., summarization, regurgitation of facts). This is college, where the writing in which pupils are most importantly engaged revolves around constructing knowledge (i.e., taking course content and giving their own analyses or making connections utilizing the content). Your own existing assignments that may not fully meet this criterion may be modifiable to attain these characteristics. For example, perhaps the assignment you already have asking students to summarize Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory and its key elements could be modified to have students analyze a situation (either from their own experiences or one you provide to them) through the lens of the theory. This adjustment to the assignment would cause them to put their own signature on the paper and thereby ingrain it more firmly in their own memory.
Incorporating Both Low- and High-Stakes Assignments
Utilize both low-stakes and high-stakes assignments. Low-stakes assignments are small and low-grade impacting (e.g., 3–5 minutes of freewriting in response to a question), while high-stakes assignments are large, formal and high-grade impacting (e.g., a 4–6 page paper organized into paragraphs including APA style references). Effective use of these in tandem can help more of your students achieve execution of higher-order thinking on important topics by writing well-organized in-depth papers (i.e., in high-stakes papers), built up to by their having been provided lower-level scaffolding to help them work towards those higher goals (i.e., in low-stakes assignments; e.g., by trying out possible paper topics, or practicing how to cite relevant information from a journal article).
Using Rubrics (Communicating Expectations to Students Systematically)
It is very important that a rubric for an assignment doesn’t (a) just redundantly re-describe the assignment, duplicating the instructions in your initial written prompt, or (b) indicate arbitrary criteria that do not line up with your learning objectives or with the weighting system used for grading the assignment. Instead, a well-constructed rubric should help students gain further insight into the skills you’re asking them to practice/demonstrate before writing and, after receiving feedback, allow them to know better on which areas they performed well/poorly. It will also help you grade in an objective, standardized, and transparent manner. A few rubric formatting tips that may be useful:
Use what Bean (2011) calls a task-specific, analytic rubric. The task-specific guideline recommends use of one rubric per assignment rather than one rubric for all assignments. Rubrics that highlight the assignment-specific elements make grading and feedback clearer for students. The analytic guideline recommends using a rubric with different sub-grades for each competency rather than a rubric that combines all competencies into a global evaluation or grade. See Figure 1 for an example of a task-specific, analytic rubric.
Figure 1. Example of a task-specific, analytic rubric (Bean, 2011)
In using an analytic rubric, keep the number of competency categories to 3–6. Fewer than 3 categories gives the student too little detail on the breakdown of their grade, and more than 6 can be over-encumbering to both you who have to grade the student in all those categories and the student who has to interpret such a complex breakdown.
Giving Effective Feedback on Students’ Papers (Minimal Marking, and in a Coach-Like Style)
Have you ever received feedback on a paper and been discouraged by the reviewer’s comments that only mentioned what was ‘wrong’ with your paper? Or a reviewer leaving so many notes on your paper that you don’t even know where to begin in reviewing them? If you are willing to adjust how you look at students’ written work when giving feedback, these issues could be ameliorated for your students. In addition, making certain adjustments in how you give feedback may help your students improve their writing more efficiently, both in terms of revision and in future writing they generate from scratch. The suggested adjustments are these: when you grade, only point out the few most important points for the student to be aware of, and give both positive feedback and feedback on areas that could benefit from modification, rather than areas that are ‘wrong’. This manner of feedback-giving is more like ‘coaching’ in that it is similar to how a sports coach would both encourage what the learner is doing right and also suggest areas to modify as the learner continues practicing the skill. It is also similar to how a coach would only give the feedback that is appropriate to helping the student reach the next level of ability. For example, a student writing a paper for your class may feel more encouraged to keep trying and persist in editing previously misunderstood theoretical aspects of Information Processing Theory if you also compliment the student on the paper’s accurate description of effects the theory had on the field of psychology. In addition, this student may feel more encouraged to make the aforementioned edits if you stick to just mentioning those and not every grammatical mistake the student made. (Note: See Figures 2 and 3 for examples of both unsuccessful and successful feedback given on student work.)
Figure 2. Example of unsuccessful feedback given: All on grammar and none on content/ideas (Bean, 2011)
Figure 3. Example of successful feedback given: Concentration on content/ideas, and a combination of encouragement and suggestions for future revision (Bean, 2011)
All in all, WAC’s approach to feedback helps us realize that feedback is not most crucial for justifying a grade – it is most crucial for helping students continue to develop their skills in the field. After all, did we become college instructors to only make sure students know why their grades were as far below an A as they were, or to provide students with manageable next steps they can take and inspire them to reach for those stars?
Through the use of these foundational elements of WAC applied with psychology instruction in mind, you may find substantial changes in your experience of teaching and the work you receive from students. These may be achieved with only a few easy-to-implement (but of great significance) adjustments to your use of writing in teaching. In fact, I hope I will experience these enrichments in the future as an instructor as well, as my semesters of teaching college thus far have all been before my induction as a WAC Fellow at Queensborough Community College. I am excited for my return to the classroom and possibly realizing the benefits I have seen happen for professors who are taught to incorporate the main WAC principles into their classrooms. In the end, we all recognize the importance of writing in college teaching from the outset, so why not make it a personal goal to improve the way writing is implemented in our courses to the greatest degree possible?
Bean, J. C. (2011). Engaging ideas: The professor's guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Acknowledgments: A big thank you to Dr. Kaitlin Mondello, who as mentioned in this post I had the pleasure of presenting on WAC with recently at the GSTA’s 2018 Pedagogy Day event; the Writing Intensive Training Program at Queensborough Community College, where I have had the opportunity to perform the bulk of my training and work in WAC; and Dr. John Bean, whose great ideas I take from routinely through his book cited here.
Charles Raffaele is a doctoral student in the Learning, Development, and Instruction specialization in Educational Psychology at The Graduate Center, The City University of New York. His research focuses on theoretical domains of second language acquisition, the use of multimedia and games in learning, and intersections between these. He is an editor of the GSTA Blog, webmaster for DE-CRUIT and the AERA SIG Studying and Self-Regulated Learning, and a member of the Child Interactive Learning and Development (CHILD) Lab.