Friday, December 23, 2005

Message boards (part 3)

The philosophy underlying the use of informal writing is simple: students need to write in low-stakes environments to improve their writing (see Peter Elbow, Chris Anson, and Toby Fulwiler).

Makes sense.

Yet many well-meaning teachers, in the heat of the semester-long battle, inadvertently short-circuit this process by becoming the bottleneck in the system. Starting with good intentions, they slow the process by trying to read every word their students write. This might seem the responsible thing to do, but the ultimate effect for most of these teachers is a reluctance to assign any more writing.

As an old commercial (I think for car batteries) used to say: “Don’t let this happen to you.”

In online, 10-week classes with about 20 students, I ask for 30 Discussions (via WebCT). Some shake their head when they hear this, envisioning an impossible amount of grading. But it isn’t.

I grade the posts quickly, only being drawn into conversations when they’re irresistibly good—which, I will warn you, does happen often.

I use a 10-point scale. The baseline is 8. If a post looks decent, it gets an 8. If it’s clearly more deeply thought out, it’s a 9. Excellent posts get a 10, but “excellence” doesn’t mean perfection. Late posts, extremely short posts, posts with myriad errors or vacuous ideas—these get 7s or lower.

Your own grading conventions will emerge. For instance, I demand that posts be more than one paragraph (I want some movement among ideas, even in these short posts). If I see one paragraph, it’s automatically an 8.

I quickly jot down grades in a hard-copy gradebook. Sometimes I keep a grade column for different threads, writing the grade for the initial post in the center of the box and then grades for responses in the corners of the box. Or I use a simple code (this works well when you have multiple thread choices so not all students will contribute to every post): I record the grade and accompany it with a single letter that differentiates that thread from others that week. Again, I record response grades in the corner. I transfer the grades all in one shot to an electronic gradebook each week. (Obviously, I could use a spreadsheet to streamline this process a bit and probably will at some point.)

To be clear, I feel strongly that I am not abandoning my responsibilities by grading so, well, efficiently. I use message boards because they create many opportunities for low-stakes writing. I feel I am recognizing that I can’t be the bottleneck, especially because the boards easily allow other students to be an immediate and often responsive audience. In fact, the paradigm of feeling professionally obligated to watch every word (it’s really more watching than reading) that students write seems hopelessly ill-conceived. Mentors and coaches don’t hawkishly watch every move their charges make. They allow them to practice, to make mistakes, and thus to develop.

The message board environment creates an ideal place to allow such writing practice to happen. Help guide conversations. Read because what they are writing is enjoyable. Clip out (easily done in the electronic environment) pieces of posts to make specific points. But don’t short-circuit this marvelous writing opportunity because you feel you don’t have time to read every word. That’s not your job. Your job is to help them develop as writers, and you don’t have to micromanage their process to do so.