If I Could Make One Suggestion…?

August 8th, 2013

I’m new to this teaching thing, but I seem to be a hit with my students, so I have a tip for someone even newer than I. The anthropology course I am teaching online is writing intensive, as online courses tend to be. There are multiple weekly discussions and writing assignments that culminate in a final paper. All of this takes place in just a five week span, a “crash course” as I see it. Given so little time to help a student learn both human culture and academic culture, I devised a strategy to make the most of my comments on their writing.

My idea is based on the “80/20 rule,” or the Pareto principle. While the actual numbers are not relevant in my case, I take from this concept that a few strategic corrections can make a disproportionately large improvement in one’s essays. The challenge is for me to read a student’s paper, and find the one thing to recommend in my comment section that would benefit future papers the most. (To be clear, I note a variety of things such as misspellings and content problems in the text that could be fixed, but I choose just the biggest bad habit to address in my comments section).

For example, one student either ended a sentence with a question mark or ellipses… In every case, a simple period would have been the best choice? I remarked on this pattern by saying that he should make his statements with confidence and in the following assignment, there were no gratuitous ?’s or …’s, and as a result there was a great jump in how professional his paper looked. Success! Of course the recommendation varies among students, and also within one student’s body of work. Now that the punctuation problem was solved, I could find the next biggest issue (for example, too much quoted text relative to his own words) and work on that. It is a continuous process or tuning one’s writing habits until only minor issues remain. Over the span of each course, I get three or four shots to correct each student’s gaffes, which does not sound like much, but following the 80/20 rule, I find that in week five most student’s writing is noticeably improved. It is my hope that they then take their new skill to their next course, where it will be further polished.

I think this technique has several advantages. Students may feel discouraged when confronted with a litany of their writing mistakes. Giving them one issue to work on breaks up the overall task into manageable pieces. Introducing one suggestion at a time also probably helps the student remember the comment for longer since it’s not commingled with several other comments. Lastly, it helps me-as-grader track improvement more clearly as well when I see that he or she has or hasn’t taken my advice.

As I teach each session, I feel that I am also learning my chosen craft at a tremendous pace. I hope this little bit of personal insight is helpful for others faced with thirty papers to grade and no conceptual model for handling them all!


One Response to “If I Could Make One Suggestion…?”

  1. Melissa says:

    I bet you are a great teacher.

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