Write Through The Semester
Report for English Subject Centre and Keele Innovations Fund
29th September, 2003
Write Through The Semester
Report for English Subject Centre and Keele Innovations Fund
Organisation is another notion which this portfolio has lead [sic] me to discover. For example the portfolio instructs that week 6 requires “a plan of your assessed essay”. My jaw fell in utter disgust along with the rest of the student nation on receiving such a blow. Surely week 6 is intended for far more testing activities in creation such as constructing skyscrapers out of beer cans as opposed to a sterile essay plan, my heart sank. However, the truth of it is that as a result of the portfolio my essay began in week 6 and was completed in plenty of time (at least not the night before!). Such planning ahead is now firmly embedded within my student moral principles (along with never refusing a free drink and always using a tea bag at least twice). Another advantage in this early bird approach was plenty of time in which to do other work which I didn’t start in week 6 (and in retrospect perhaps should have) ... (47)1
I have a complete lack of knowledge about many of the later plays, but it is all right because I know how to evaluate a website … it is a futile way of making me work. The Education system has constantly disappointed me, by forcing me into restrictive ways of performing tasks. This … has destroyed my creativity and stifled any talent that may have been growing. It is only recently that I have gained the confidence to shake off the shackles of an oppressive education and stand up for what I think. These methods of working that are forced upon us students in the form of this ‘portfolio’ just serve to aid in the corruption of free-flowing thought … This method … has caused my level of competency of essay writing to regress somewhat … I have probably reduced the number of marks available to me by not supporting the course, but I do feel much better for venting my annoyance. (26)
I had received a first on my [previous semester’s] essay … and believed the portfolio would be a waste of time … However after the first five weeks my opinion began to change … [My peer group was not working well so] in order to … receive some response to my essay I exchanged work with my friend who is also on the course, but not in my group … [WTTS] has made me appreciate that at this level, we are all able to contribute some level of original thought to the work that we do. (18)
Table of Contents.
Description of the Project 4
Description of the Evaluation of the Project 5
3. Conclusions of the Evaluation of the Pilot Year 6
Mid-Semester Questionnaire. 6
Reflective Essay 6
Focus Groups 9
Tutor Interviews 10
4 Conclusions of Pilot Year Evaluation and Amendments to the project in its second year. 11
4.1 Tutor Involvement 11
4.2 Peer Group Evaluation 13
4.3. Peer Commentary 14
4.4. Scheduling of WTTS 14
4.5 Relation of Assignments to Content of Module 14
4.6 Main Benefit of WTTS 15
5 Final Comments 16
Appendix One: detailed Results of mid-semester evaluation 19
Appendix Two: Reflective Essay Evaluation: Detailed Results and detailed student comments 21
Appendix Three: Proformas for Self/ Peer Assessment 26
Write Through The Semester
Report for English Subject Centre and Keele Innovations Fund
Description of the Project.
Write Through the Semester is an Introductory Writing Course which aims to help students improve the literary skills so many of them currently lack on entry to HE, and thereby allow academics to spend more time on content and less on form in their responses to their students' writing. Research suggests that student writing improves most markedly when writing tasks are linked directly to the students' discipline(s), and that students engage most effectively with individual tasks when the relation of those tasks to an end product is clear. We tried, therefore, to develop a model which would be embedded in a specific discipline, piloted in a module in English, yet adaptable to the requirements of other disciplines inside and outside our own institution. There were, however, a number of difficulties which needed to be taken into account in planning the course. Self-evidently, improvement in students' writing demands that they write regularly, often, and reflectively. But there are only very limited extra resources available to invest in the teaching of such skills, and, currently, none to be invested in any extra marking of student work. Similarly, student time is also limited and consideration must be paid to the danger of producing for the students an excessive workload. The challenge then was to formulate a writing course which would:
be directly related to the material the student is studying in a given module;
get students writing weekly;
encourage students critically to reflect on the act of writing on an ongoing basis;
encourage students to evaluate their writing and the writing of others on an ongoing basis;
avoid an excessive workload for the students taking the course;
bear an obvious relation to the end product of that module (the assessed essay);
be rewarded at a level commensurate with the effort expended on the assignments by the students;
operate insofar as is possible with minimal weekly intervention from tutors;
result in a comparable marking load to that generated by more conventional modes of assessment;
avoid, insofar as is possible, inflation or deflation of average grades for the module as a whole (this is also important for the assessment of any change in the quality of student writing).
Our solution to these problems was to devise a series of short assignments, which have intrinsic --and collateral-- value in themselves, but which also build up progressively to the submission of a first draft of an assessed essay at the beginning of the second half of the module, and then, by a series of peer- and self-evaluations, to a revision of the assessed essay. The final assignment in the initial year of the project was a short reflective essay, which evaluated the usefulness of the project from the student's point of view. Throughout the semester, students were required to exchange their writing, every week, with two (or in some cases three) of their peers, and to deposit copies of their writing in a portfolio which they eventually submitted to their tutor. The mark scheme for the module was devised to ensure that students could not pass the module without submitting the complete portfolio but were also rewarded for the work they did in completing it. The mark scheme devised ensured that tutors awarded marks only for qualities they already felt comfortable in judging (in this case, for example, hard work; and the argumentative essay); and that any change to the average grade of students taking the course would reflect change in the quality of their writing.
2 Description of the Evaluation of the Project.
The project was extensively evaluated in the first year. We tried to maximise the objectivity of the evaluation by embedding in the project’s plan a clear distinction between the person responsible for devising and instituting WTTS (Susan Bruce) and the person responsible for evaluating its success (Monica McLean). In addition, we hired contract researchers to undertake substantial statistical analysis of the students’ responses to WTTS, as well as to conduct focus groups and interviews with those who were teaching on the course in 2002.
The evaluations undertaken were as follows:
1. A mid-semester questionnaire, distributed to all students in class around week 6, which aimed to ascertain: the use the students had made of the Handbook; their level of confidence about their writing prior to taking WTTS, and after it; what they liked and did not like about WTTS; whether any problems were occurring with its delivery (and if so, what they were).
2. An obligatory reflective essay as the final course assignment, entitled, ‘”Writing this Portfolio was a Complete Waste of Time”: Discuss’. All these essays were read by Susan Bruce. She produced a chart detailing what she thought were the most common remarks, with the help of which a contract researcher analysed all the essays and drew the information together into statistical conclusions.
3. Focus Groups were conducted (by our contract researchers) with all of the tutorial groups involved with WTTS in its pilot year.
4. Interviews with all tutors teaching on Elizabeth Tragedy (2 f/t staff members; 2 postgraduate teaching assistants) were conducted by one of the contract researchers, using questions devised by Monica McLean.
3. Conclusions of Evaluation of Pilot Year
3.1 Mid-semester Questionnaire.
Detailed results of the answers the students gave to the questionnaire are available in Appendix one. The most notable results were in the area of the students’ perception of their confidence in their writing skills; in the students’ engagement with the course handbook; and in their reaction to the optional workshops.
Confidence. The students’ confidence in their writing skills appeared to be significantly improved by having taken the course. Thus whilst 54% of the respondents said that they felt ‘confident’ or ‘very confident’ about their writing skills on entering HE, and 57% said that they felt ‘confident’ or ‘very confident’ after completing the English Department’s Introductory course, 85% of the students said that they thought that they would feel ‘confident’ or ‘very confident’ after completing WTTS. Just as marked were the relative percentages of students who felt that their anxieties about writing had been substantially alleviated by WTTS. 23% of students felt ‘anxious’ or ‘very anxious’ about their writing on entering HE. This rose to 28% of the cohort after they had taken the Introductory course. But only 2% of the students felt that they would feel ‘anxious’ after completing WTTS, and none replied to this question with ‘very anxious’. It would seem then, that the most substantial benefit in terms of confidence in their ability to write was afforded to those students who were anxious about their writing skills (the numbers of those who said they ‘didn’t really think about it’ remained pretty constant between semester one and semester two).
The Handbook. A markedly high percentage of the students (93%) stated that they had read through the entire handbook (and thus would at least have read material on punctuation; on how to present an essay correctly; on assessment of the quality of their own and others’ essays and so forth). Of the 7% who said that they had not read through the handbook, most had read the relevant sections to each assignment, and some had skimmed the handbook.
The Workshops. Together with Claire Slater-Mamlouk of the University’s Skills Centre we had scheduled two optional workshops for the students. Take-up for these was very disappointing, so poor that we were in the end only able to run one workshop (on thesis sentences; only 7 students turned up to this). According to the results of the mid-semester questionnaire, however, only 15% of the students had actively decided not to go. Most of the rest either intended to go, or were prohibited from doing so through time-table clashes, part-time jobs, or poor time management. (Those who did attend the workshop, incidentally, all said on their evaluation forms that it had been useful to them).
3.2. Final Reflective Essay.
The most extensive statistical analysis came from the analysis of the reflective essays. The students were in this assignment free to mention or not mention anything they wanted to within the terms of the essay and thus the percentages mentioning a particular aspect of the course should be understood differently than they would be had a student specifically been asked to comment on a particular aspect of WTTS (as in a questionnaire, for instance). Many students, for example, chose to structure their essays around the series of assignments which they had been given. Thus 93% mentioned the website reviews (which accounted for the first batch of assignments), whilst only 40% specifically mentioned having to revisit their Yr1 first semester essay (which was only a part of one assignment). 83% of students did not mention the reflective essay itself. So, for instance, the fact that 29% of the students requested more tutor involvement in the course does not imply that 71% of the students did not want more tutor involvement, but rather that 29% of the students actively requested more involvement without any prompting.
Once again, we have given more detailed extracts from the reflective essays in an appendix (Appendix 2), and confined ourselves here to the main conclusions.
A clear majority of the students thought that overall, writing the portfolio had been beneficial to some degree. 72% of the essays disagreed -- to varying degrees -- with the proposition that writing the portfolio had been a complete waste of time. About 14% of the students thought that it had been a complete waste of time, and about the same percentage were unsure. But of those who said it had been a complete waste of time, a considerable number were contradictory (for example: ‘it was when studying my essay more critically that I realised I had devoted too much space to ‘”Hamlet” in both the main body of the essay and the conclusion, and I then corrected this. In conclusion, although doing the portfolio this semester did have it’s [sic] advantages such as improving my critical abilities, it didn’t really improve my writing skills’ (15)).
There was huge approval of the idea of working in peer groups. 68% said that they liked this idea, as against 15% who said that they did not. But a clear majority thought that peer group work entailed significant problems: 56% thought that the peer group work had not worked, as against 27% who thought that it had.
There was very significant approval of having to start – being forced to start – their assessed essay very early in the semester. 64% of the students independently noted this aspect of the course was something of which they approved; while 10% said they did not like this aspect of the course.
Almost all those who mentioned it said that they wanted the assignments to be more directly related to the texts. 32% of students independently suggested this as a possible improvement to the course.
A significant proportion of students wanted more tutor involvement in the course (29% of the essays made this plea).
A significant proportion of students mentioned the workload entailed – 46% (not always negatively, however, and often in conjunction with what they believe to be a heavy reading load for the module (one or occasionally two plays per week)).
Statistical information needs to be read in conjunction with the things the students actually say. Because we undertook such extensive evaluation of WTTS we have reproduced only a relatively small sample of student comments here. A more extensive selection of comments is reproduced in the appendices.
From mid-term evaluations.
‘Have started essay already – really pleased’
‘I am more critical about my writing, especially my grammar and vocabulary’ (N.B. neither of these were singled out in the course as special points of concern).
'The website reviews seemed quite pointless to begin with but helped in the long run.'
'Essay grading was really really good as you find yourself picking up on things that you wouldn’t in your own. You look at your own more objectively.'
'I didn’t enjoy the Internet Detective it was quite tedious and didn’t feel as if I gained much from it.'
'I think more about the structure of my essay, the paragraphs and how the essay flows. I also pay more attention to my introduction and thesis. I think more about the formation of an argument.'
'It is a useful way of getting students to develop their own writing skills. The assignments give it pace, so it is not left until the last minute.'
'It is a lot of work when put together with all the reading and note-taking we have to do each week, and I feel that the relevant writing skills can be gained through tutors comments on assessment work and their guidelines for improvement in the future.'
'Commenting on others’ essays highlighted to me what not to do.'
'Drain on time due to the mind-numbing pointlessness of the tasks which caused me to waste more time attempting to find ways of avoiding the work.'
From reflective essays
'The portfolio suffers from [two] weaknesses, problems with the order of assignments and a lack of motivation in the students.' (8)
'Move the portfolio to the first semester.' (8)
'At first I felt uncomfortable writing comments and criticisms on other people’s work. I felt patronising passing comment when my own work was not of a high standard. However I think in retrospect, this has given me more confidence in my own writing, a skill which I can use throughout university.' (10)
'For the first time ever since I have been writing essays of a higher standard, my misconception that the essay needed to be written in order of introduction, main body and conclusion was shattered. I actually wrote my conclusion just after writing my plan, which was then followed by the introduction and I finally took paragraphs from the main body of the text and wrote these separately before linking them all together. I felt confident for the first time that I could take my essay to pieces and then put it all back together again.' (11)
'To conclude, I think that this course is generally a success and that all first year English students should take part in it. '(11)
'[The 1st assignments] seemed to have little, or even no relevance to the Renaissance Tragedy course.' (12)
'The [brevity of the assignments] … helps me to be more concise … My writing is therefore easier to understand and is better structured. It enables me to keep to the specific argument.'
'Overall I have enjoyed working on the portfolio. I feel that the aims of the course have worked in my favour and that my writing has improved. I am more aware of the quality of writing rather than quantity.' (16)
'I do believe … that everyone has a different writing style and to try to standardise this is futile. '(21)
'Prior to the internet exercises, I have always been somewhat embarrassed to ask tutors about punctuation and other points of writing, assuming that they expect their pupils [sic] to already be aware of essay writing skills.' (24)
['of nutsandbolts.washcoll.edu] I have revisited this site numerous times now.' (25)
'My essay is finished a week before it needs to be handed in.'(27)
'I …. found the fact that the portfolio was worth so many marks quite strange, because this also means that you cannot leave it until the end, because it carries 40% of the marks. I think this is a little too much. '(37)
'The second website review did give occasion to re-reading last semesters English essay that was helpful and something I would not have done otherwise.' (38)
'Production of a portfolio means constantly writing, something I have found lacking in the English department where only one or two major essays are required each semester. This results in most English students only producing written work, or even thinking about their writing style a few times every year. What I like about the portfolio is that it encourages the regular review of self, as well as peer, of how and why we write as we do and what can be improved through this self-assessment. Saying this, however, I haven’t found this portfolio particularly encouraging in the growth of my own writing style. In the following paragraphs I hope to explain why I think this portfolio has failed for me personally, and the structural problems that I believe are in inherent in the system as peer reviews. [But conclusion says it has been useful, although not to the degree he had hoped]. '(41)
3.3 Focus Groups.
We asked our contract researchers to employ the Nominal Group Technique to ascertain from all of the tutorial groups involved in the project what they thought that the main strengths and weaknesses of WTTS had been. The results were as follows:
Regular writing very beneficial and an improvement on semester 1, where there is no writing [sic; in fact, there is] until the final essay.
WTTS made students more aware of the processes of writing.
Group work was a useful way of encouraging discussion and collaboration; and also encourages closer friendly relations.
Having to mark essays is useful because it makes students see essays from a tutor’s perspective.
Many students’ time management was vastly improved.
Internet sites gave useful direction to useful sources.
Smaller assignments on a weekly basis prevented work overload.
Smaller assignments forced students to think about how to write concisely.
Writing the essay was not done in a rush, and students had time to develop and think about ideas.
Final product was rewarding.
Made people work harder.
Having to produce plans and essay drafts made students realise how useful they are.
Weaknesses/ Suggestions for improvement.
Some assignments were ‘pointless’ (e.g. Internet tasks). Assignments should be more linked to the module’s material.
Students felt that they were not qualified to comment on their peers’ work; or that they were too embarrassed to make suggestions. Some suggested anonymous marking
Many found the workload a strain.
Instructions about the process need to be clearer, especially at the end of the course.
Peer groups could be replaced by pairs of students.
Make the assignments fortnightly and longer so that students can practice structuring essays.
More input from tutors.
Some students do not generally write a first draft and did not like having to do so.
Too much dependence on computer printouts.
3.4. Tutor Interviews
Tutors were asked by the interviewers to offer their general opinion of the project; to say whether they thought it should be abandoned, fine-tuned or radically changed. They were also asked whether they felt that they had spent more or less time in teaching-related duties (including marking) as a consequence of the project; and whether they had read through all of the portfolios (which was not required).
The responses of all three2 tutors teaching on the course were remarkably similar in mentioning:
That there is a clear need to address the problems students have with writing; and that it is a virtue to attempt to do this systematically in the first year.
That the workload for tutors is roughly the same as that generated by a conventional twenty per cent exercise.
That students were concentrating much more on their writing than they would have had they not had to take WTTS.
That students were organising their workloads better as a result of the course.
That peer groups are a good idea and are a desirable way of encouraging students to collaborate with one another, but that there are difficulties in making them work properly.
There were some anxieties on the part of tutors that students would read less because they were working on the portfolio; but also recognition that this is hard to judge, given that many students read minimally anyway.
Other things that were mentioned were:
The students think that their writing has improved, though it is difficult to judge from a small sample.
Some students appeared to have made up the draft of the essay (i.e. they had written their assessed essay out first and had then cobbled together something to make it look like a draft of the essay).
The assignments should be more tied in with the tutorial work.
The determining grade ought not perhaps to rest on the reflective essay.
It might be better to spread the course over the whole year.
Peer group work should not be anonymised.
Although the workload was comparable to a normal 20% exercise, WTTS did generate more emails than normal from students querying aspects of the course’s organisation.
Move the course to the first semester.
Increase the number of formal exercises the students are asked to do.
Increase the amount of involvement from tutors.
Conclusions of Pilot Year Evaluation and Amendments to the Project in its second year.
A number of comments and suggestions for improvement emanated from all the various forms of evaluation of the project that we carried out.
4.1 Tutor Involvement.
Quite understandably, students wanted more involvement from tutors, both in terms of the week to week organisation of the course (that is, in terms of the governing and oversight of the students’ exchange of material) and in terms of them reading more of the material that the students were producing. We were entirely in sympathy with the latter desire: clearly, in an ideal world, it would be greatly to the students’ benefit to have their tutor read and comment on their written work more frequently. Sympathetic as we were to that desire, however, it remained the case that one of the principles behind the construction of WTTS had been the proviso that tutors could not afford any more time on teaching –related duties, including marking and feedback. So it was impossible to give the students exactly what was requested here. In response to their desire for more tutor involvement, however, I changed the structure of the assignments slightly. I dropped the final reflective essay, asking the students instead to write some brief notes about what they found useful or not useful about the process of writing the portfolio (this was important for two reasons: to preserve a degree of embedded feedback, and to encourage the students to reflect consciously on what they had learnt or failed to learn from the project and why). And instead of the essay draft in week six, I asked the students to write a short version of the final assessed essay (of around 1,200 words; the final assessed essay is 2,000). At the bottom of this short version, the students had to include a brief list of 3 things which they thought they needed to improve or work upon further. This short draft was handed in to their tutors who marked it, commented on the three points for improvement, and assigned it a grade. The grade, however, was withheld from the students until the conclusion of the course, in an attempt to get away from the concentration on grades so prevalent in the current educational climate, and cultivate instead the perception that all writing can be improved, however good it is.
This amendment to the original assignment structure seemed to work very well when we ran the course for the second time in 2003. The students who took the course this year were fulsome in their appreciation of the usefulness of having detailed tutor’s comments on a draft of their essay (something which does not otherwise happen regularly in the English department here); and the inclusion of a tutor marked assignment in the middle of the course appeared to allay their anxieties regarding the lack of participation from the tutors, at least to some degree (there were fewer such pleas under this new assignment regime in 2003).
There was some evidence that this new assignment improved the writing of some of the students: comparisons between the draft essay grades of many of my tutees with their final grade for the finished assessed essay showed that a number of students had improved on their performance to the tune of 5-10 marks (in other words, a class difference, and in a couple of instances, two class differences). I suspect that the fact that the students were going to go on to write the essay proper shortly afterwards meant that the likelihood of them actually reading what I had written (rather than briefly skimming the end comment and looking at the grade) was substantially greater than it usually is . The other reason why this assignment appeared to generate better grades, was probably because it was so clearly connected to the final assessed essay. Most available evidence suggests that student motivation is intrinsically connected to the degree to which they perceive a given task to be related to the final substantial piece of assessed work. This relation is not always clear: I suspect, for instance, that many of our students at Keele would be hard-pressed to define the relation between, say a short exercise that counts for 20% and the final assessed essay for the module. The students' focus tends to be on the assessed essay which counts for the bulk of the marks ( a focus which is only likely to increase in the future, as education becomes increasingly mechanistic, and increasingly driven by the demands of market forces; and the students’ motivation for what they are doing increasingly driven not by ‘love of their subject,’ which we will have to work ever-harder to cultivate, but by other, less immediately intellectual desires and aspirations).
This assignment change brought other benefits too, beyond the question of improvement in student writing. Marked writing assignments have in many institutions become almost entirely summative, and marking summative assignments is rarely anything other than a chore for most academics, not least because it furthers a kind of hierarchical relationship between academic and student that many of us would wish to contest --most of us want to talk to our students in an ongoing dialogue, not correct their mistakes. This experience was very different: much more rewarding for both parties, I suspect, and for the right reasons, beyond the bettering of the students’ writing skills. So from at least one tutor’s point of view (mine), the marking of these short drafts was actually pleasurable (!) as tutor and student were engaged in a kind of dialogue which has become increasingly difficult to generate in the assessment regimes of contemporary British HEIs I found myself writing comments such as: ‘do you think you might want to change this?’; ‘this is really good, how might you take this further?’; ‘I agree you need to look at this aspect of the draft, but I disagree with you about this other thing, which I think has real potential’ – but for the first time in years with a real sense that the student might actively and immediately respond to such comments.
So a better approximation of a more dialogic model of education (however necessarily limited it is these days by the inevitable constraints of ever-increasing student numbers and ever decreasing academic staff time) was one unanticipated benefit of this new assignment structure. I thought the assignment worked very well, for a lot of different reasons.
4.2 Peer group operation.
The students also wanted more week-to-week tutor involvement in the over-seeing of the peer groups. This request was much more difficult to accommodate, and points also to intrinsic difficulties with peer group models which I suspect were exacerbated by the pilot nature of this project. Many students, in both years, requested pair working rather than peer group working, but for a variety of reasons, this seemed inadvisable.3 There were, undoubtedly, some problems with many groups. On the other hand, almost all managed to submit a complete portfolio with at least some work from at least one peer in it. Clearly , then, in the majority of cases, people had managed to find ways of working together. A number remarked (again in both years) that they had constructed closer relations with people in their groups, as well as, sometimes, with people in other groups; rather disturbingly, some students in both years expressed the feeling that working in peer groups would leave them vulnerable to plagiarism by their friends (a depressing model of intellectual interaction, and one which I think we should actively dissuade).
So: there were problems with the working of peer groups; on the other hand there were also benefits. I think that in order for peer groups to work to their optimum potential, more effort needs to be expended on making collaborative working between students a norm of an expectation rather than an experiment. (The project, in both years, has been explicitly presented to students as experimental.)4
4.3 Peer Commentary.
A significant proportion of students had noted in the first pilot of WTTS that they felt embarrassed about commenting on each other’s work. This was patently obvious in the quality of feedback that they were giving to each other, which was extremely poor: laconic in the extreme and of very little practical use. Often, for example, it was confined to, ‘good point’, or, ‘you need more quotes’ in the margin of the essay plan (for instance) upon which they were commenting. On other (fewer) occasions there were worrying indications of gender-biased commentaries: male students sometimes wrote entirely inappropriate (and often rather patronising) comments on the work of their female peers. To preclude the sexism, and improve the quality of peer feedback in the second year of the pilot I drew up detailed pro-formas which all students had to complete for every assessment of another’s work (whether that was the sample essay of an anonymous student, the essay draft of their peer, or their own draft). This worked much better in the second pilot year, and the quality of the students’ responses to the work they were assessing was substantially improved. (The pro-forma is included as Appendix 3, as is a copy of a completed one.)
4.4. Scheduling of the WTTS course.
One (p/t) tutor, and many students, (including one of the two most hostile to the whole project) , had suggested that WTTS would be better if it were run in semester one. (A significant number, especially in the second year, had stated that all English students in Year One be required to do the course; several in the second pilot had suggested that students from all disciplines be required to complete something like the course). But there would be significant difficulties in importing the project to year one, semester one, in my department at any rate. Incoming students to an institution such as Keele have a great deal to cope with in accommodating themselves to the demands of university life. Many of the students appear to believe that the first semester, in our department, is much lighter in its expectations than the second , and that imbalance (or the belief that it exists) should be addressed – but not in the transposition of WTTS to the first semester. The second semester Year One is the place for this kind of project, partly because it has been designed for that purpose and place (most immediately, for instance, in the second assignment, which is to revisit the semester one essay and self-diagnose the student’s writing problems from that essay and from a writing-related website); but also for the reasons mentioned above.5 There may, however, be some limited assignments that we could move to semester one (see below).
4.5 Relation of Assignments to the Content of the Module.
Many students requested a clearer relation between the nature of the assignments and the content of the module. This last request is, again, one with which I feel entirely sympathetic. And once again, it is something which is supported by a mass of independent evidence: student writing improves if and almost only if the writing assignments that they are given are related intrinsically – emanate from—the work that they are doing for their main subject interests.6 So what they want here is absolutely right in the sense that it is what is most likely to generate real improvement in their writing (although they don’t know this: they just want it). We tried to accommodate this desire in the second pilot year in the dropping of the final essay and its replacement by a short draft of the assessed essay. Many of the other assignments are already intrinsically connected with coursework (in the case of the assessment of sample essays, for instance: all the sample essays are by former students, about set texts that remain on the module syllabus: WTTS, in short, was devised in the belief that writing assignments should be related to the students’ principle interests and almost all of the assignments follow this principle). The single exceptions are the first two assignments (which also, not coincidentally, I suspect, were the ones most commonly disliked by the students): the Internet Detective/ internet English sites assignments. There is no reason why these should appear in WTTS other than the fact that Keele students don’t get this in semester one. They should – all Year One students should have to do something like these assignments Almost at some point in semester one. In that case, two weeks could be freed for more content specific activities in semester 7or alternatively a ‘free’ week or two scheduled at some point in the course to give them space to work more intensively on a particular assignment, and/ or to catch up on assignments that they have not managed to complete.
4.6 Main Benefit of WTTS.
There was overwhelming student approval of being forced to start work on their assessed essay in week 6 (despite their sometimes conscious recognition of the damper this put on the alternative project of constructing skyscrapers out of beer cans). Time and time again, although not always so wittily, the students returned to this aspect of the project in the different ways they were asked to assess it: in the mid-term evaluations, in the reflective essays, in the focus groups. Comment after comment noted, in varying ways, that they will endeavour to work like this in the future. What the students are saying here is that WTTS taught them the virtues of time-management. Given that time-management is the ‘skill’ that almost all students of English Literature feel has not been taught them in their degree programmes8 the overwhelming student appreciation of this aspect of WTTS is very significant. Almost all students participating in WTTS felt that their time-management had been significantly improved; almost all seemed to feel that this was not a skill that they would otherwise have been taught; almost all remarked that they wanted to be encouraged too start thinking about their assessed essay sooner than they generally otherwise would have done and were grateful (this is the right word, I think) for that compulsion.
5. Final Comments.
There is, I think, overwhelming evidence to suggest that this project has been extremely successful. It has been well-received by students, by and large. The vast majority of the students who have participated in the project think that their writing has improved, and seem to conceive of what they are doing in different ways to the manner in which they did before taking the course.9 Ascertaining whether this is really the case is not at all easy. Nor is it easy to ascertain the importance of the fact that so many of the students felt that they would be more confident of their writing, and of their knowledge of what was expected of a university essay. Does confidence translate into a more assured voice? I don’t know. I suspect it does, but I cannot say for certain, although there is some evidence to suggest that this is the case.10 In some instances, the students remarked on benefits which I had not anticipated in constructing the assignments. A notable number of students in both pilot years, for example, remarked that the brevity of the assignments (often two or three hundred words) had made them conscious of both the difficulty and the importance of writing succinctly. That hadn't been the intention of the word limit (the reason for brevity was the consideration of the students' workload). It is worth noting that although this objective apparently backfired, all of the students who commented on the difficulty they had had confining themselves to the word limit did so approvingly.
I think that the evidence –impressionistic as it perforce is—from the kind of things that students are saying about the project (see further comments in Appendix 2) suggests that students are reflecting on what they do in a way they would not have done in the absence of WTTS; and that such reflection is a good in and of itself, and is likely to lead to further good. That said, improvement in writing as such is a long-term project, not something that can be achieved, immediately, in one semester. If the project manages to embed better work practices (such as time-management); or if it encourages the students to think about writing as process rather than as a task to be completed the night before the deadline; or to challenge their notion that discussing their work with their peers is likely to lead to plagiarism, then it will have served a purpose -- but it would probably be more effective if those lessons were more systematically reinforced in the later years or their programme of study.
There have, however, been some problems in instituting the project on a departmental level. From outside, the project garnered considerable interest and financial support : it was internally and externally funded; and many colleagues in other departments adopted aspects of the handbook to distribute to their own students. But instituting a project such as this in the current climate is difficult. I think that the most obvious and immediate reason for these difficulties in my own department stem from chronic understaffing; but that wider changes in English Higher Education over the past couple of decades act to exacerbate the problems generated in the first instance by scant staff resources. So I end this report by attempting very briefly to situate the practical challenge of trying to institute a project such as WTTS within the larger contradictions of the present state of English Higher Education insofar as it governs institutions such as Keele.
English HE has until very recently has been governed by two or three watchwords. One is ‘innovation’. So on the one hand, I was granted money – a considerable amount of money in Humanities terms—to institute something on the grounds that it was ‘innovative’ . But under-staffed and hard-pressed departments are justifiably suspicious of innovations of whatever kind, because innovations, they are right to fear, may bring with them an increased work load which they cannot afford either individually or as a team . Moreover, 'innovation' sits very uneasily with the other two principles which have increasingly come to govern the management and delivery of English HE over the past decade or two: ‘standardisation’ and ‘accountability’. Both of these terms--perhaps, indeed, all three-- emanate from the increasingly mechanistic and market driven model of HE. That model works on a conception of education as commodity, in which each module must be seen to ‘deliver’ the same educational ‘product’; to ‘require’ from its students the same ‘input’ of ‘labour’; to ‘standardise’ in its ‘learning outcomes’ identical educational acquisitions.11
‘Standardisation ‘ and ‘accountability’ are odd terms here, and in the ways they have become most commonly invoked in an educational context. Both share with each other the characteristic of owning two meanings; and in both cases, the relations between those two meanings reflect the relationship between the meanings of the other term. Moreover, in both cases, the two meanings appear to have become confused with each other in the thinking of those who manage our educational institutions and drive our educational policies. Thus a ‘standard’ is a measure of quality to which one arguably ought to aspire (depending on who is responsible for setting the standards, and on whether the standards are correctly set); but it may also denote the rendering of everything the same, as it does, for instance, in the sense of ‘standardisation’. So too with the word ‘accountability‘. Originally applied to public sector institutions in response to the sense that professionals within those institutions (the academics, doctors, teachers, social workers and so forth) were too autonomous, too free to set their own standards, too unfettered by management and government, demands for ‘accountability’ were intended to force professionals to defend their practices and take responsibility for them : to make us ‘accountable’ to some higher power, be that our management, our government, our students, or, increasingly, to all of them (on the very dubious assumptions that the interests of students are identical to the interests of management, or government; and that the latter bodies have the interests of the former at heart more than we do) . That insulting sense of the term persists still in the ways that the term is currently invoked in our workplaces, but it is confused and conflated with another meaning of ‘accountability’, which is that which denotes the capacity to ‘account’ for things: in the sense of counting them up, specifying them and measuring them. And of course one can only count up and measure things that are the same – which of course, in turn, dovetails neatly with the other confusion operative between ‘standards’ and ‘standardising’.
This is at any rate one way to explain the continuing confusion in our public sector institutions between issues of quality and issues of sameness; one way to try to account for the perception apparently ubiquitous in public sector institutions these days that if something is to be good, it must be identical with everything else that is good within a given institution or set of institutions, and must also be immediately and demonstrably measurable in the same terms in which everything else is immediately and demonstrably measurable. But whether or not I am right in this analysis or these two terms, and the deep confusion they appear to generate in allegedly intelligent people who should know better, it would seem indubitably to be the case that ‘standardisation’ is intrinsically at odds with that other (equally dubious) aspiration and touchstone which has characterised managerial discourse in education in recent years: ‘innovation’. In fact, it is no more logical to believe (or to imply) that something will be good because it is new than it is to believe or imply that something will be good because it is the same as everything else. But leaving this illogicality aside, it is certainly true that innovation and standardisation are hardly easy bedfellows, and the intrinsic contradictions between them inevitably lead to problems, perhaps even insuperable problems, in the long-term institution of a project like this.
I want to give my students the skills to write and express themselves; the skills that might enable them in a small way to change the world as well as to understand it. I don’t want to attempt to do that in the mechanistic , market-driven way that the current skills agenda wants me to; I don’t want to do it to fulfil the designs of the skills agenda; because those designs are deeply at odds with the furthering of real intellectual endeavour and the cultivation of independent thinking , enquiry and, conceivably, protest when protest is necessary and desirable. There is, perhaps, an uncomfortable irony here, in that one of the students who took WTTS in its first year (student number 26, whose impassioned diatribe against the project I quoted on the first page of this report) sees WTTS as part and parcel of the way in which ‘the Education system has constantly disappointed [him] by forcing [him] into restrictive ways of performing tasks [which have] destroyed [his] creativity and stifled any talent that may have been growing’. His was one of two responses from the 60 essays we analysed that unambiguously hated the project. I agree with him that in an ideal world, the skills of self-expression should be learnt and mastered before students enter HE (as they could be, with more funding for, and a better conception of, compulsory education) . I’m sorry he felt that he had ‘probably reduced the number of marks available to him by not supporting the course’ but glad that he ‘felt much better for venting his annoyance’. But I wonder if it occurred to him, then or later, that the inbuilt invitation to critique the project was not quite commensurate with the ‘shackles of an oppressive education’ against which he was reacting.
My reasons for trying to teach the students the skills of decent argumentation were and remain absolutely at odds with the reasons why the White Paper (for instance), itself only a small manifestation of a deeper post-modernist agenda, wants us to teach them . Our students need those skills. Most of them don’t have them when they arrive at our door. They should, but they don’t, and it is not their fault that they don’t. We need to teach them, as efficiently as we can. WTTS is a small way to attempt to increase my students’ power to express themselves and argue a case; it evolved in a couple of years to better approximate to the kind of dialogic, democratic educational model I want to teach within. It could be better. But it was one way to try to offer our students the skills they need within the context of the mechanistic and market-driven educational environment within which we all currently work, and in which we will be condemned to labour for the foreseeable future unless we find ways in which we, and our students, can begin to challenge its presumptions rather than --however reluctantly-- accept, and so endorse them.
Mid-Semester Evaluation: detailed results.
Q1. Confidence about writing skills on entering HE:
Didn’t think about it