Monday, August 27, 2012

How can students know what we don't tell them?

             The New York Times recently ran a series of articles on anosognosia and the troubling implications of the things we don’t even know enough to know we don’t know. The whole series was worth a read, but it seems to me to have a special relevance to the perennial question of how to get students to care more about their writing and to take more responsibility for improving their writing skills. 
             As faculty, we’re very much aware that the time and money students invest in a college education will do nothing for them if they leave college without the advanced literacy skills they need in order to put their degrees to work.  And we’ve done a  good job of communicating this to students.  If you ask students if writing will be important for their future success, most of them will say yes.  And often they’re able to back that up with pretty convincing reasons why.

             But in spite of the fact that we’ve succeeded in convincing students that writing matters, they still don’t write very well, and—even more frustratingly—many students still tend to approach writing assignments in a half-hearted way that suggests they don’t really care about improving their writing skills. 
             I’ve been thinking a lot about this bizarre and inexplicable slippage between what students believe (that being able to write well matters to their future success) and their apparent lack of interest in doing anything about it, and for a long time I’ve been completely at a loss to account for it.  If you know you need to be good at something in order to succeed, and if somebody offers to help you get better at it, wouldn’t you grab the opportunity?  And if not, why not?
             The answer, I think, is that you wouldn’t follow up on that opportunity if you didn’t know that you needed to improve.  You might believe very strongly in the importance of good writing, but if you think the writing skills you already have are good enough to get by with, then it wouldn’t be too unreasonable to let writing slide and save your energy for something else.  And that, I think, might be the key to unlocking student attitudes toward writing. 
             So here’s my question for you.  To what extent does your grading system allow students to misoverestimate (to paraphrase the education president) their writing competence?  Does an A on a writing assignment in your class mean that this student can congratulate himself or herself on being an outstanding writer?  Does a B mean that the student is genuinely performing at a level that you, in your heart of academic hearts, believe to represent better-than-merely-adequate academic work?  Does a C mean that you would be willing to put your seal of approval on that student’s ability to write?
             If you answered not always, not really, and not so much, then perhaps you would be willing to join me in my New Year’s resolution: being honest with students about their writing. 
             I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been the queen of grade inflation when it comes to student writing.  I like my students, and I like how hard they work in class, and—in the past—I’ve fallen over and over again into the trap of confusing good classroom citizenship with academic achievement.  However, I’ve spent this entire year owning up to my addiction to rewarding good citizenship with good grades, and I’m finally beginning to make some progress toward giving grades that represent the quality of the written product and not merely the goodwill the student brought to the task.
            I still like my students, and I still like how hard they work, and now that I’ve started to break this addiction to grade inflation, I have the satisfaction of seeing, every single day and with every single assignment, how much more students can do if we hold them accountable for doing it. 
            Breaking the cycle of addiction to grade inflation is not easy.  It requires changing a lot of comfortable old habits and learning new ways to talk to students about their writing.  But it doesn’t have to be painful—not for us and not for our students.  And although students might sometimes miss the bad old days of getting good grades for mediocre work and mediocre grades for work that really doesn’t meet our standards for college writing, they’re smart enough to know that you can only get something for nothing if you pay for it.  And the price they’ll pay for getting grades instead of an education just doesn’t bear thinking of.
(From First Thoughts on Writing, Pittsburg State University's WAC blog)

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