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When I went to school, students would turn in their major papers by the due date, or lose 10% per day for 5 days and then they’d get a zero.  When the papers were returned 2 or 3 weeks later, we’d ignore the underlined spelling mistakes, the little circles where the commas should have been, and the few comments written in red ink.  We’d just look at the mark at the top and toss the paper in the trash.  Funny thing, I got exactly the same mark on all of my English papers–a B.  I was happy with that.  I went to university without a clue as to how to use a comma, let alone write a paper.  I took one English class in university–it was the basic one for people who were unprepared for university writing.  I didn’t earn close to a B.  There were many section of this course. Apparently my case was not unique.

Somehow I ended up being an English teacher.

Perhaps a lot of the responsibility for my failings as a high school writer rest with me, but I vowed that I would do anything I could to make sure that what happened to me, didn’t happen to my students;  I would have to take a different approach to teaching student how to write.

Improving Student Writing

The first thing to eliminate was the deduction of 10% per day for late assignments.  Marks measure competence if they are used for punishment they no longer measure competence.  For the same reason, I don’t give zeros for assignments that are not turned in.  Also because I don’t think students have the right to decide to not to do the work and still pass the class. (I’ve written on these issues here.)

The major feature of my system for teaching students how to improve their academic writing is to have them submit an early draft of their paper on which they receive detailed feedback.  They then immediately revise and resubmit their paper.  I use this system for summative assessment–each written piece of student writing  in a series from an analysis paragraph, to an essay, to a larger term paper.

Students can turn a first draft of their paper.  This is optional, but most students choose to do it because they get a lot of individual feedback on this paper.  They receive a mark out of six on six different categories: 1st Paragraph (thesis), Analysis, Format, Organization, Expression, Conventions (grammar, punctuation, etc.).  They also receive a lot of comments. I usually return the papers within 12 hours of the time it was due.

Based on this feedback, students can make revisions and resubmit the paper.

The students who did not turn in the first draft, for one reason or another, receive feedback as well.  I dedicate a good part of the next class to going over the general issues I noticed in the paragraphs I marked.  This helps all students improve in their paper writing.

There are those who don’t turn in either draft.  These cases are referred to a Vice-Principal who employs any number of strategies that helps students get their work done.

Benefits to the Student:

  1. Higher marks: The second drafts are so much better than the first drafts.  So students’ marks are higher.  Although they like the higher marks, this is not the most important benefit.  They’ve actually earned the higher marks because the papers are so much better.
  2. Better Writers:  Students are actually working with my feedback–trying to understand and apply it to their writing.  I don’t begrudge my high school teachers for writing little of significance on my papers, because they knew I wasn’t going to read their comments anyway.  I love it that my comments are read, even scrutinized, and then applied to significant effect.
  3. Immediate feedback:  Within 12 hours of turning in the paper students know what they can do to improve the next draft.  By making improvements to a paper just written, student learning improves. This is so much more effective than having to remember the comments on a paper written a month ago and apply them to a new one.

How to Flourish

There are a few things that students need to understand in order to get the most out of this approach, to take full advantage of the learning opportunities.

  1. Use class time efficiently.  Class discussions, group discussions, and assignments all help you with understanding the material that you will be writing your paper on.  Take careful notes on the discussions.  All of the points you will make in your paper, are being discussed, explored and references at these times.  This is especially important for busy people and those who struggle to understand more conceptual content.
  2.  Start work on your first draft early.  A minimum of two weeks before the due date.  Make the paper a priority.  If you are having a hard time getting your head wrapped around the task talk to me.
  3. If you have a lot of other things happening in the weeks before the due date, establish a work plan for completing the paper and keeping up with your other commitments.
  4. Turn in the best first draft you can.  The feedback you receive will be far more impactful on your learning if you submit your best work.  For the same reason, turn in a complete paper, including citations and a Works Cited page.
  5. If you can’t turn in the whole paper, turn in what you have.  I can give you a lot of good feedback on the first two paragraphs and a Works Cited page.  Just turn in these.  Just a caution, though–you will have a lot more work to do from Saturday to Thursday as you write your second draft.
  6. Don’t ask for an extension: If you do the above, you will learn a lot more and an extension will be completely unnecessary.