How often do you have your students write? This is one of the many paradoxes teachers struggle with when designing curriculum and instruction. Since writing is a skill, it’s necessary to practice often and provide frequent feedback in order for students to improve. Of course providing frequent formative feedback for each student takes time and finding the right balance between the development of content knowledge and the development of critical thinking and writing is difficult. However, this tension can be navigated when teachers are committed to this essential task and when they are willing to engage their students in the assessment process.
Recently my ninth grade students struggled with a writing assignment. This isn’t a new phenomenon; rather it is fairly common for the first in-class essay. We had completed our first unit of study which addressed citizenship and students were provided with three prompts in advance of the in-class essay. The topics within the prompts were familiar ideas which we had talked about throughout the unit and now students were tasked with formulating an argument and constructing an essay which addressed one of the prompts.
We talked through the expectations for this exercise, specifically discussing how the essay should be constructed while paying special attention to the task words of the prompts. For this exercise, the task words of each of the prompts were the same – to identify and analyze. One of the reasons that students tend to struggle with this exercise lies within the word, analyze.
You see, ninth graders can do a reasonable job of describing but they often struggle to analyze. For example, consider the following prompt:
Identify and analyze at least three roles of government in society. Students should identify the role and analyze the benefits citizens derive from their government within that role.
Students will often write about how government should keep order, provide public services, and protect citizens as these are the functions which we discussed in class, along with the idea of government serving as a guide for communities through budgeting and policy. However, in the process of writing about these ‘roles’, students generally describe what government does while failing to write about why government serves the public in these roles. The why is the essential task of analysis.
During the front-loading of this assignment we discuss the scoring rubric in detail. The students and I talk about what it means to analyze and we practice their rough ideas by asking them to analyze the making of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Not simply describing the ingredients needed, but discussing in detail why they have selected white bread instead of wheat bread, and talking about why they would select smooth and creamy peanut butter instead of the chunky variety. This exercise appears to help their understanding of the task word, analyze, however, the transfer of this learning into the essay prompt requires much more practice.
The day of the in-class essay we quickly revisit the idea of analysis before students begin writing their essay. The students are eager to get started and appear confident as they write during the 50 minute class period. At the end of the period, the students attach a peer feedback form to the back of their essay pages and leave their work on my desk on their way out of the room.
The next step in our writing process is for the students to examine the work of their peers and to provide constructive feedback to help them understand what they have done well and what they can do better. It is essential to involve students in assessing the work of their peers as it helps them begin to bridge the gap to become critical evaluators of their own work (self assessment). We try to accomplish this by having students read essays together in pairs. I should mention that the essays are identified by student ID number and not by name. For students this anonymity is important and helps them assess the work honestly. Students find it easier to be critical of the work of someone else and compare that anonymous student’s writing to a pre-discussed standard (scoring rubric) and then will provide constructive feedback using the form which was attached to the essay the previous day.
The skills necessary for students to evaluate the work of peers and provide constructive feedback are difficult to develop in practice. However, teachers can create a classroom culture which nurtures this type of practice where peers provide commentary to another’s work and identify what the student has done well and what they can do better using an established standard (scoring rubric).
Researchers[i] assert that this formative assessment practice (peer assessment) is an important complement and may even be a prior requirement for self assessment. Peer assessment is uniquely valuable for several reasons. One is that the prospect of this assessment practice has been found to improve the motivation of students to work more carefully.
A second reason is that the interchange in peer discussions is in language that students themselves would naturally use. Their communication with one another can use shared language forms and can provide usable models, so that the achievements of some can convey the meaning and value of the exercise to others still struggling.
A third advantage is that feedback from a group to a teacher can command more attention than that of an individual and so peer assessment helps strengthen the student voice and improves communication between students and their teacher about their learning. This practice also helps students recognize their own learning needs and informs teachers about these needs.
After the peer assessment process where students wrote constructive comments, the essays are spread out on desks and students search for their paper. Upon finding their paper they immediately flip the pages to the comments and begin reading and thinking about the feedback offered. The next part of the process is for students to consider the feedback as well as their own ideas for improvements to their paper and then begin making revisions. Before students leave for the day, I remind them that their revised essays along with the original draft and peer assessment comments will be turned in tomorrow to be scored.
After students turn in their revised essays (which I prefer they type), it’s important to work quickly to score their work using the rubric. I score the essays using the rubric, providing a few proof-readers marks and some commentary.
Before returning the essays to the students, I pull some samples which my student aide types up, and then I type commentary about each of the samples. The samples are concentrated on areas where the students struggled such as with the construction of a thesis statement, and where this essay is concerned, the analysis of the evidence they provide. I also like to include a sample of an ‘A’ essay so students have a better understanding of where their work sits in relation to the ‘A’ essay.
When the students receive their essays with my score and commentary the reactions are mixed. Some students are disappointed with their result, others are happy, but the majority of students examine their results with measured attitudes as they begin thinking about their work and how it sits when compared to the expectations we’ve been discussing throughout this process. The sample packet is handed out as well and we talk through the samples and associate commentary together. It’s during this part of the process where many of the students experience their largest learning gains to this point. They begin to see how their writing compares to the samples and they begin to think about how they can make further revisions to improve their work.
Our final part of this process is to afford the students one more chance to make revisions. Too often teachers are finished with the exercise by now, but in order for the learning gains and skills to be developed, students need another opportunity to think and write; indeed they need one more chance to revise their work and resubmit. Teachers need to think beyond the summative nature of the exercise (grading) and work harder to facilitate the formative assessment properties of the writing process (learning).
This process takes time, but working to involve students in the assessment process and helping them develop the associated skills will help them become better learners and more thoughtful citizens.
[i] Assessment for Learning: Putting it into practice. Black, et. al. 2003, Open University Press, London, UK